The Nested Games of Brexit
It’s typical to talk about a political calculus, but less common to think about politics like calculus. A common misconception about politicians is they care about public opinion. This is a half-truth. They do care about what voters think, but they don’t care about the totality of voters. Rather they focus on those voters who might consider voting for them. But even then the group is too large, because some voters will support them regardless of their decision on any single policy decision or vote. It really comes down to just a small sliver of voters who determine the policy positions for most politicians.
The political calculus of public opinion is just one kind of nested game. But nested games can explain why politicians or even voters approach issues in unconventional ways. According to Agnès Alexandre-Collier, Pauline Schnapper and Simon Usherwood, “Political actors sit within a set of nested games where actions in any one arena are conditioned and rationalised by incentives and objectives in another.” Brexit offered multiple types of nested games. Theresa May’s failed Brexit negotiations was the most obvious. Pauline Schnapper refers to her effort as a “classical two-level game.” May found herself torn between an agreement acceptable to the EU and the British parliament.
But The Nested Games of Brexit shows how common they become in any high-stakes, complex political moment. The contributors focus on many different types of games from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour to issues of sovereignty surrounding Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, nested games should not justify political miscalculations. Rather they simply explain why miscalculations happen. They show how politicians might overthink a political scenario and pursue a suboptimal outcome inadvertently. Still, it’s a harsh reminder that the priorities of leaders are not always the same as ours.