Lies, ‘Damned Lies and EU Referendum campaign statistics* – cutting through the rhetoric to the reality


June 20th, 2016

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ukeuThe murder of the British MP, Jo Cox last Thursday has put the whole nation in sombre mood in the run-up to the EU referendum this week. From the tributes paid from both sides of the debate, it is clear we have lost someone of real calibre. Appropriately, Jo’s death sparked a few days’ moratorium on campaigning, agreed by both camps. I must confess I found it something of a relief to have a break from the hyperbole and the inflated statistics from both sides – stats that many have found increasingly difficult to believe. Now that campaigning is back in full swing, we are once more faced with the challenge of cutting through the rhetoric as we contemplate this historic decision.

The Truth is…

The truth is – nobody really knows what will happen if we leave or if we remain. Either way – the world is an uncertain place. Anyone pretending to predict the future consequences of either choice with any degree of accuracy is deceiving themselves and us. Leaving creates uncertainty – so does staying. Let’s get used to it – there is no certainty any more. The world is a more interconnected and therefore a more complex place than it has ever been in human history. It seems to me that the human race is facing more existential threats to its existence today than ever before. The future is inherently unpredictable.

As a ‘complex adaptive system’, our global village has such an intricate web of interdependencies that no one knows with any accuracy what the ramifications of either choice will be. There may have been a time when the UK could have operated in isolation, in charge of its own destiny, but those days are long gone.

‘We want more control!’

Leaving – it is claimed – will give us more control over our destiny. Brexit voices assure us: we will still trade with the EU if we leave – we are far too important a customer. But leaving will impact the wider system with which we trade in unpredictable ways. Some, including the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, fear that Britain leaving the EU will spark the disintegration of the whole system (11/06/16 Independent online). Who knows if they’re right? But we do know that shifting one agent in a complex adaptive system does not leave the other agents unaffected. Will our competitors take our place in the EU marketplace while individual trade deals are forged? Will confidence in the EU reach such an at time low on a Brexit that a European-wide recession is sparked that will reduce Europe’s buying power of British goods and services?

Critical, Tame and Wicked Problems

Professor Keith Grint, (one of our Visiting Professors at Roffey Park), building on the earlier work of Rittell & Webber (1973), writes of how we get the kind of leadership we deserve when we harbour unrealistic expectations of our leaders (Grint 2005& 2010). We demand certainty and immediate action, as if there were an obvious or ‘right’ answer to major social, economic and political problems. We act as if they are ‘Critical’ problems – that have a high degree of certainty as to their solutions and we expect our leaders to exercise ‘hard’ power to put them right. Or we may concede that some of our problems are complicated and will take a little longer, but are ‘Tame’ – eminently fixable with the right process and with good management, because we must have seen something like them before. Tame problems have a right answer. But, in reality, most of the challenges we face as a global village are problems we have never experienced before. They are ‘Wicked’ problems, that may have a ‘best possible’ but no ‘right’ answer. They are problems that require the most collaborative form of leadership we can muster – problems such as climate change, immigration, corruption and the kind of extremism illustrated in the recent Orlando massacre and, it seems, in Jo Cox’s murder.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee…

Which brings me back to the Brexit debate. Forget the apocalyptic predictions from either side: nobody can predict the future with any accuracy. It is time to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. The problems we face require more collaboration not less and leaving the EU is bound to affect our ability to collaborate with our geographical neighbours. Brexit will mean there are some debates and discussions we will no longer be a part of – or we’ll only contribute from a distance. And that worries me. Does being a member of the EU curb our freedoms in some way? Does it require a degree of compromise? Does it involve a degree of movement of cash from the richer to the poorer parts of Europe? You bet it does. But that’s what living in an interconnected world is all about. To deny the need for these is to deny the present reality of human existence.  I believe the sentiment that we are better off on our own, that we’d be more in control of our destiny if we left, that Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe, denies the reality of the challenges we face.

On Referendum Day…

On referendum day, rather fittingly, I will be running a Mastering Strategic Leadership Programme for one of Roffey Park’s pan-European banking clients in a European capital with a group drawn from across the continent of Europe. My (postal) vote is already cast.

Watching the news over the last few days, the sad but appropriate shift in focus from Brexit to the unified public outpouring of grief in response to the terrorist atrocities in Orlando and Jo’s death in the UK, has been telling. What stark contrast to the bickering of Brexit. How often does it take tragedy to bring people together, to reveal the best in humanity?

On Thursday, I hope that Britain will not vote on the basis of economic or migration-based fear-mongering or on inflated statistics, but will vote for the most collaborative option. We need to tackle shared Wicked problems such as terrorism and extremism together and not apart.

The views expressed in this post are the personal views of the author alone and are not an official view of Roffey Park as a whole.

*The original phrase: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”:  is attributed to Benjamin Disraeli – British Prime Minister 1874-80.


Grint, K, (2005 ) ‘Problems,  Problems,   Problems: The  Social Construction of Leadership’, Human Relations, 58,11, 146 7-1 494

Keith Grint (2010) “Wicked problems and clumsy solutions : the role of leadership“, in The New Public Leadership Challenge; pub: Palgrave Macmillan: New York 169-186

Rittell, H. & Webber (1973), M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–69.