Political problems and solutions, and the problem of Theresa May

17th May 2019

(The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886,
by Liborio Prosper, National Portrait Gallery)

There was a Victorian conservative politician – probably Benjamin Disraeli or Lord Randolph Churchill – who sneered at a person mentioning a political problem.

The gist of the sneer was: dear chap, are you one of those who believe problems have solutions?


It is a human habit of mind to think problems have solutions.

It is enough for many just to frame a thing as a problem to assume it must thereby have a solution.

You are halfway there, as the saying goes.


But our Victorian politician is correct: not all problems have solutions.

One of the problems with Brexit at the moment is that our current Prime Minister is not capable of carrying out her – or any – Brexit policy.

No one can deny that this is a problem.

But is it a problem capable of any solution?

Replace May with somebody else and that new Prime Minister will not be capable of carrying out their – or any – Brexit policy.

The problems are structural not personal – though May’s deficiencies can be blamed for that now being the case.

You would think the modern heirs of the party of Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Randolph Churchill (and of Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan) would appreciate that political problems are not always open to (easy) solution – that politics is the art of the possible and events can throw one off-course.

But, no.

The modern Conservative party appears to have been infected by the wild radicalism of those who think there are easy solutions, or even that there are not really problems at all.

And that too is a problem which is not easily solved.


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24 thoughts on “Political problems and solutions, and the problem of Theresa May”

  1. There’s even a word for it, “solutionism”. Brexit is little more than a tissue of logical fallacies and tricks of language on a background of almost abysmal ignorance – but with real world consequences.

  2. The sheer paucity of talent among those who think they can lead this once-great party and thus lead the country is the most terrifying spectacle I have ever witnessed in British politics.

    There is this belief out there that you can achieve whatever you want to if you just put your mind to it and believe. And if you fail, it’s because you didn’t believe enough; didn’t try hard enough. Didn’t want it enough. That is palpable, dangerous, nonsense. The leadership race in today’s Tory Party amply demonstrates that every day.

  3. Most in the UK did not consider being in the EU of any consequence, it was not a problem in polls. Cameron’s solution to control his party problem has delivered a problem to which there is no solution by MPs within a party system. The promises made in support of Brexit will lead to further problems when they cannot be delivered after Brexit. Did the first World War solve any problems? There must have been a problem to solve to entertain all that cost.

  4. “The modern Conservative party appears to have been infected by the wild radicalism of those who think there are easy solutions, or even that there are not really problems at all”

    I’m enjoying these short-form snippets (although they seem to have an emerging common theme), and the comments, thank you. The paragraph above is however a little too limited in scope for my taste.

    It is surely the country as a whole that has been infected by this wild radicalism of easy ‘solutionists’, which has been propagated by those who should know better (some of whom are to be found in the Conservative Party but also in the Labour Party), and those who don’t know better, who don’t care or have a hidden (or at least disingenuous) agenda.

    The role of the internet in its propagation should also be mentioned – i.e. it’s not a Conservative Party problem per se, although that is of course the manifestation that confronts us in power. This ‘solutionism’ also rings unfortunate historical bells with Weimar Germany, to these ears. But perhaps I’m being overly sensitive.

    Having said all that, I’m not looking forward to Mrs May’s (unelected) successor as PM, whoever it may be.

  5. The very worst thing that could have happened to the Brexit lunatics was that happened. They won and had to deliver the undeliverable.
    Johnson, Gove and the rest didn’t actually want to win, they wanted to establish themselves as the leaders-in-waiting. What they would do when they became the leaders, that was a question they could address if and when they were in office.
    We have now had three wasted years.
    There is a simple solution (revoke) to the simple question about how to go forward on Brexit .
    The more difficult question that logically follows from revocation is how to try to heal the divisions created in the last three years, wounds that are being made larger and deeper the longer this fiasco goes on. There is a price for Mrs May’s time-wasting

  6. The referendum was not fit for purpose. Only when this fundamental flaw is corrected will a ‘solution’ be possible.

    The purpose of the referendum was, or should have been, to decide the UK’s future political, economic and social relationship with the EU.
    There are basically five options, with a few tweaks here and there.

    1. Membership of the EU.
    2. Membership of the EEC/EFTA (the ‘Norway’ option)
    3. A Customs union (the ‘Turkey’ option)
    4. A free trade agreement (the ‘Canada’ option).
    5. No agreement and WTO rules – which would almost certainly be a bridge to one of the other options ultimately.

    The referendum should have decided which of these options was preferable.
    It didn’t. Instead it only asked about (1).
    This tells us nothing. Whoever devised it as the question should be certified.
    And now every day is Groundhog Day.

  7. There are currently two more serious problems layered on top of this:

    1) The only possible path to even some minimal degree of “redemption” for May —who must be held largely (almost entirely, in my opinion, in that she could have taken steps to avoid it) responsible for the unfolding catastrophe which is now unavoidable— is to stubbornly force through “her deal:” it will be a disaster, of course, but she would be able to claim to have “delivered Brexit” in some sense, and would hope to dodge some degree of the responsibility in the orgy of blame-pointing which awaits us on our glide-path to Fascism.
    She may have little effective power to force through any particular outcome, but the UK’s “elective dictatorship” equips the executive with massive leverage to prevent outcomes it wishes to block.

    2) The FTPA (and the the Tory Party’s rules and procedures) make it highly difficult —perhaps effectively impossible in political terms— to unseat her, still more so to do so in a way which offers even minimal hope of her successor being an improvement.
    (This is why the EU did not dump her flat on her @r$£ in December 2017.)

    3) (I know!) May has already wilfully squandered all the time (time which was absolutely vital to any remotely viable outcome) and goodwill that the UK, and much more, had in pursuing what she perceived as her own political advantage; (1) & (2) mean that we are destined to continue wasting every (slight) opportunity to mitigate this national disaster in exactly the same way.

  8. Actually, there is a solution which has been staring May in the face for a couple of months now. The solution is to endorse the Kyle/Wilson proposal which would see May’s withdrawal deal endorsed by parliament on the proviso that it garners enough support in the land in a confirmatory, binary, referendum against the status quo ante: remain.

    May has resolutely, even stubbornly, claimed that hers is the only and best deal, yet she refuses to do the one thing that could “get it over the line”. If you are not prepared to change course, once you have painted yourself into a corner then there is no solution that won’t cover you in (presumably red) paint!

    1. ” … which would see May’s withdrawal deal endorsed by parliament on the proviso that it garners enough support in the land in a confirmatory, binary, referendum against the status quo ante: remain”

      Following up a vote to Leave with a choice of Remain or Not Leaving would have no validity amongst the millions who voted to Leave. It completely avoids the issues raised in the referendum and is just a device to overturn the result.

      Seriously, if the vote comes in at, say, 12 million to Remain and 10 million for the deal, is anyone of the 17 million who voted to Leave going to accept that this vote somehow replaces their vote?

      1. Since the 2016 referendum was marked by criminality, false promises (knowingly undeliverable ones), lies and pipe dreams, my personal preference is for an annulment. However, giving the electorate the choice, now, to either reaffirm their decision or to decide not to proceed seems eminently reasonable. Given that polls have shown that the majority of the electorate do not wish to pursue Brexit (that has proved to be undeliverable in any case) and that younger people who have joined the electorate are predominantly remainers, what justification can there be for acting in a way (today) that the nation no longer wants?
        If you think that 17 million people would still vote for this travesty today, I fear you are deluding yourself. Why would the car makers of Sunderland want to be made redundant, now that they understand what the vote means for their lives?

        1. well that’s just your opinion. Funnily enough, every Leaver I’ve met believes they made up their minds on the basis of their experience and what was on offer, not because of what was on a bus. All those pensioners just lapping up whatever was on Facebook …

          And those car makers in Sunderland … the FTA the EU has signed with Japan means there is now no need for Japan to have manufacturing bases in Europe so they are consolidating back to Japan. If the UK is part of a larger Free Trade area all the manufacturing will go back towards countries where the government effectively ring-fences its manufacturing industries. Only by negotiating from outside the Free Trade Areas can we preserve manufacturing in the UK.

          Brexit has simply proved undeliverable when delivered by Remainers who can only think in terms of taking orders from the EU. This is why we now need No Deal – after the UK political establishment has clearly indicated to the EU that they can impose terms on us without fear of any backlash, we need to walk away to get to a point where we can negotiate properly. All this was clear from 24th June 2016.

  9. When you are faced with a question that does not have an answer you need to ask a different question, and the different question here is “What is the best way for the UK to pursue its national strategic interest with regard to our relations with our European neighbours?”

    What Brexit has revealed is the complete lack of a sense of national interest as distinct from an EU interest in the UK’s relationship with the EU. All the examples of UK influence in EU provided by Remain were ways in which the UK had made the EU better – single market, elimination of roving charges etc. They weren’t ways in which the UK had got a better deal from the EU.

    What we have subsequently found is the UK never asked for anything in its own interest. Fishing quotas, which the UK fishing fleet believe are heavily weighted against the UKs interest, were never challenged. During negotiations, we never asked for a FTA Canada +++ agreement.

    The UK side are making a major mistake in negotiating tactics. Issues such as security and defence have been ignored as the notion is that we have a mutual interest. But everyone who has ever negotiated in a business or elsewhere knows you cannot just let your interlocutors take lumps out of you without consequence, even if the consequence is mutual harm, because if they get away with it then step by step you will be destroyed and you will never see any supposed benefits. They have to learn that tangling with you will hurt them.

    So the solution has to start with a recognition by anyone hoping to run the country that there needs to be a new settlement between the powers in Westminster and the people as to how the UK government is going to engage with the EU. That could even be a future in the EU. But I haven’t seen a single person apart from Boris Johnson with the requisite political chops and who recognises that we need to front up to the EU and be prepared to play hard ball to get a result.

    1. In political philosophical circles, this type of strategy used to be called cutting off your nose to spite your face. Fronting up to someone or in this case something that is much more powerful than you are – economically and politically – will usually lead to the person or entity fronting up getting a very bloody nose.

      Even DT won’t tangle with the EU – he’s paused his tariff threat again – because he knows the EU will retaliate, not only will they, but they can hurt the US as much as the US can hurt the EU, that is a battle between equals. The UK is not equal in this contest, it is a distant second.

      We already have the best deal of any of the 28 member states, the so-called ”Germany +” option. Obviously, you think Johnson rattling his sabre all over the place will bring major benefits to the UK. All that will do is harden resolve in the EU to make sure we get as little as possible. And they can make sure we get as little as possible.

      Brexit does have a solution – no deal. But the brokers of No deal will have to live with the political consequences of what happens next – that’s the funny thing about politics, something always happens next!

  10. Without delving into the possible analogies between Brexit and World War I (the mind boggles!), I think what you are lamenting is that neither Mrs May, Mr Corbyn, Mr Farage nor any of the current protagonists seems to have the authority and competence to come up with a workable solution to what appears to be an insoluble problem.

    In the world of work, rather than politics, managers in general and CEO’s in particular often find solutions to insoluble problems. The technique, often discussed in management articles and seminars, involves re-framing a particular problem in such a way as to facilitate a negotiated solution acceptable to the antagonistic parties (acceptable because they don’t have to “back down” from entrenched positions, and because the CEO, and not their rival, “wins”).

    It requires authority and creativity, among other leadership skills, but possessing such skills is why many CEO’s are paid a lot of money.
    The UK may have to wait a bit for a political figure with the required skills to emerge, but sooner or later, that figure will appear and will be acknowledged to have the authority and skills for the task.

    Change is the only constant, they say, and we have to be aware of the dynamics of the situation. Most of the main players have changed from the time of the referendum; the people in general, the electorate, and young people in particular, have changed; the economic, political and cultural environments have changed. Regrettably we are stuck with more or less the same old press and media, but the role of the internet and social media is changing; and last but not least, the international situation and the EU have changed. Each and all of these changes offer opportunities to re-frame the problem.

    There are no grounds for supposing that no solution can or will be found to the UK’s Brexit problem.

  11. Problems without (easy) solutions?

    Two thoughts:

    1 Gödel’s incompleteness theorem shows us that in mathematics there are somethings which are true but which cannot be proved; Euclid’s parallel postulate is a good example. So, perhaps, there are problems without solutions. But…

    2. The Gordian knot problem. Rather than trying to unravel the knot, take a sword to it. That is, lateral thinking rather than a direct approach.

    Restate the problem, reframe it, use different parameters; then it will be solvable.

  12. I believe it was Conor Cruise O’Brien who observed that, in principle, problems have solutions, but conflicts simply have outcomes.

    Brexit is a conflict, and we await the outcome….

  13. Dear David,
    This would seem to be the easiest method of contacting you. I was sent the following link by a friend and it includes a video of a presentation by an American historian at Judenplatz, Vienna, to mark Europe day (we were unable to attend the event ourselves).

    After the initial presentation of the speaker, the speech by Prof. Timothy Snyder is in English (well, American!). He makes an interesting and compelling case for Europe from an historical perspective that I thought might interest you. The video is a shade under 40 minutes long, but very interesting.


    The link is horrendously long, but worked now when I checked it.

    If more people understood the backdrop to the EU, Brexit would never have happened (equally, if Cameron had enfranchised the expat community, it would have been avoided!).

    Very best wishes,

    Dr Mike Campbell

  14. A well written piece again David. I see, or more accurately hear on R4 this morning that young Mr Cleverly, believes he has solutions to intractable problems. There are many rocks, proudly marked by massive lighthouses, waiting to dash these ships. But still they do it. The captain’s post never seems to dim it attractiveness for those, except for the most able who seem to resist the lure.

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