Most commentators understandably view the Brexit negotiations from political, economic or social standpoints. The consequences appear potentially catastrophic. How could this happen?

Viewed from the perspective of the art of negotiation, arriving at the present position is hardly surprising. The negotiation strategy adopted by the UK Government appears remarkably unsophisticated. As played out in public, the strategy has often seemed old-fashioned, one-dimensional and unnecessarily antagonistic.

Possibly, in earlier historic times, force could be used to achieve your national goals. Nowadays, however, unless one has the power to insist on a particular outcome, the often adversarial tactics adopted by UK government ministers have inevitably been counter-productive – unless, of course, the goal is actually to achieve a no-deal outcome.

But that is neither the UK Government’s stated objective, nor in the interests of the vast majority of people in this country, even Brexit supporters. Therefore, all negotiation strategy ought, from day one, to have sought a mutually acceptable result.

To persuade your negotiating counterparts that they should agree with you, there are a number of prerequisites. One is to establish a good working relationship with them. Nothing is lost and there is everything to gain by treating others with respect and dignity. You don’t need to like them or agree with them, but people tend to respond better when accorded courtesy and their viewpoints acknowledged. A presumption that people will fall into line with what you tell them tends to produce an opposite reaction. The seeds of this were probably sown well before the Referendum in 2016.

It is usually prudent to accept that your opposite numbers have different perspectives and constituencies, and to understand these. Specifically recognising the many considerations affecting EU nations, for example, would increase the likelihood of compromise or concessions in your favour. But telling them that you will prevail and that it is in their interests to do as you say tends not to play well for them back home. Think how it feels when the boot is on the other foot.

Therefore, accusations of “intransigence” could seem ironic. Claiming that something will be “easy” without following sound negotiation principles may reveal arrogance and ignorance in equal measure. Indeed, this probably gets to the heart of the matter. This may be a competence issue. Had our negotiators (or rather, their political masters) been really skilled in the subtleties of mature negotiation, the whole approach could have been different from day one. This may be the most troubling discovery: that whatever outcome is reached, we will struggle to do any better in future.

Originally published in The Times on 10 August 2018.

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