Referendums, Real Talk & Agility

Everyone likes a good referendum!  Maybe. Nicola Sturgeon evidently can’t get enough of them. However, Richard Dawkins, isn’t so keen. In his Viewsnight video he tells it like it is. 

The points Richard makes are sensible: issues of this type are complex; we are largely ignorant of the issues involved; people’s views do change; a 2:1 majority in favour would provide a more compelling reason to make changes of this magnitude.

Given it is not long since the last Scottish referendum, it begs the question how often could we hold such referendums?  If this next one goes ahead and Scotland votes 51% for independence and 49% against should Scotland then be independent for ever?  What if Brexit turns out pretty well and the EU heads into crisis?  Could there then be separate referendums in Scotland and Britain in 2021 to reunite?

Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to be independent of Britain so that it can interact more directly with the EU.  The Leave campaign wanted Britain to be independent of the EU so it could better interact directly with the wider world.  Both wanted to ‘take back control’ so we could gain the freedom to represent ourselves directly on a wider stage.  Even Nigel Farage stated this was UKIP’s aim.  Only some aspects of UKIP’s backstory and their ‘river of brown faces’ poster suggested they were also happy appealing to reactionary racists and isolationists.

There is no dichotomy between ‘taking back control’ and being ‘better together’.  All the innovations that have revolutionised our understanding of the universe or eased our ability to tackle disease, improve food production, communicate or lighten our collective load have been built on the twin foundations of independence and cooperation.  They are also the reasons why language evolves.

Einstein was famously independent, yet the fruits of his genius grew from seeds given freely to him by others: Newton and Maxwell to name just two.  His work was freely shared with the rest of the global community, and in turn sowed the seeds for quantum mechanics, nuclear power, lasers and a host of other innovations. 

Agile thinking is assisted by independence of thought, just as agile movement is assisted by independence of body.  Like starlings in murmurations, independence affords us the ability to change direction in an instant, yet move as one with others if we so choose. 

If we are tied together we lose both agility and freedom.  Like participants in a three/twenty-eight legged race we may all too easily fall out of step, trip and fall.  This is what happens if we attempt to enforce cooperation between independent entities. 

As Richard Dawkins would tell you, natural selection favours cooperation because cooperative systems are more efficient; outcompeting those that waste resources in unnecessary conflict.  Cooperation occurs when individual organisms (or components thereof) have shared aims.  In nature this arises in three ways: (1) individual organisms collaborate when it suits them, but remain individual – like monkeys and starlings; (2) individuals are programmed to operate as if they are more like cells of a larger organism – like bees and ants; and (3) individual cells sharing an identical programme are bound together in a single organism – like all multicellular organisms: including us.

The key to organisational agility is effective cooperation.  Whether for a group of nations, a commercial company or a local community group, this arises when the following values come together to dominate all others:

  • Self-direction – independent thought and action
  • Universalism – wisdom: an understanding of and association with the system of which one is a part – the opposite of ignorance
  • Benevolence – altruism: the desire to help others.

As recent research has shown, not only are these the personal values that promote transformational leadership, they are among the values least likely to be represented at senior levels of large, established organisations; of which the EU, national governments and multi-nationals are all examples.  Leaders in these organisations tend to have value systems predisposed to the competitive pursuit of self-interest and transactional leadership.  This means they are inclined toward the view that what is in their best personal interests is probably also in the best interests of everyone else that matters.  As for challenges: they are best tackled in a common sense fashion one by one.

I found myself unable to vote in the referendum.  On the basis of the information made available to me, I decided I was too ignorant to properly assess how the costs and benefits of ‘in’ and ‘out’ would stack up.  There are costs involved in most changes.  Leaving the EU will give rise to significant financial costs in reorganisation, but also emotional costs.  People fear change generally and some clearly think they/we will lose out in this change.  What is less clear is what the costs of remaining would have been. The EU is no flock of starlings, hive of bees or organism with a single mind.  It is a large bureaucratic organisation seeking to maximise its influence with governments likely headed up by transactional leaders keen to advance their own personal interests, who in turn represent culturally diverse nations.  Research has shown the EU includes nations at opposite ends of the cooperative/self-enhancing cultural spectrum: namely Sweden and Greece

The benefits of membership we have seen, but perhaps we are not able to evaluate them objectively.  We are certainly not able to compare them with reliable data on the benefits of independence.  This will emerge once we see how the decisions of those inside and outside of the government play out.  

In ignorance we march forward, but not necessarily toward catastrophe.  In the evolution of complex adaptive systems, such as the world we live in, it has been established that occasional random shocks are necessary if higher peaks in a fitness landscape (equivalent to a measure of productivity and well-being) are to be reached.  That said, wisdom provides better guidance than ignorance, and we really do need to develop our values if we want to avoid playing Russian Roulette one too many times.    

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