A Recipe for a Better Brexit?

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Authority: 53%; Economy 48%; Goodwill: 66% and Popularity 48%. With final scores like these, it seems as though I negotiated a middle-of-the-road success of my withdrawal from the European Union, although I did have stick my finger in the page when tossing an imaginary coin to decide a nasty last-minute leadership contest. My rival, the utterly unlikeable and deeply eurosceptic Colin Fungale, decided to rejoin the Conservative Party, you see, and my hands-off disregard almost backfired. That was when all my hard work in negotiating looked like it was going to become unstuck… but I figured that I owed it to the authors to see what would have happened if I survived the election.

And that’s pretty much the way this book works. In a playthrough lasting around four hours, my decisions were chiefly about which aspects of the negotiation I would personally oversee and which I could delegate to an unreliable cabinet. In the relationships between Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, press secretary and you as Prime Minister, Thomson and Morris are at their most satiric, maintaining a consistent distaste for the political class, touched with ridicule, pitched somewhere between Private Eye and Yes Minister! Trying to survive their bungling and backstabbing is the lightly comedic and fairly cynical part of the book, while the actual negotiations are heavily factual and purposefully realistic. This means that there are several rounds of briefings available to bring the reader up to speed, more or less useful depending on their political knowledge, but all rather a slog. Reading these tended to push me towards taking a compromised position on most issues, as I think was intended, but I had decreasingly less patience for these rather passive infodumps after the first round and made most of my later decisions by instinct.

And in this process of briefing and decision-making, the authors’ own position becomes clear. This means that the book, while allowing the reader to make choices, does have some recommendations about Brexit. For example, at the end of the whole drawn-out process, you open up your Brexit Deal to a vote in the Commons – a vote which is by no means certain in our own trouserleg of time. Choices presented to the reader are all realistic options, with few flights-of-fancy permitted, meaning that this is a very different type of gamebook to any adventure story. The book closes with brief predictions of the country’s future, tied to your ending scores, but personally I would have been very interested to see the effects of the hard-won policies illustrated in more detail – just as I would have loved to read of more of the national background. The media play a small part, but in general the entire book takes place entirely within the corridors of power, intentionally isolated from everyday experience.

Some readers have noted the cynical tone of the book, particularly in the descriptions and treatment of the electorate, but dismissive attitudes that describe your average voter as wearing ‘George from Asda’ and voting from ignorance are plainly a perspective of the character you are given to inhabit. Thomson and Morris are asking their reader to work with what we have all been given – an entrenched political class, years of international compromise and even the individual character of our current Prime Minister – to represent the odds that are stacked against the Brexit process, and that in itself is their commentary.

The structure of the book depends on periods of intense conversation, interspersed by rather ‘bare-bones’ mechanic passages that check for previous experiences or resolve loops. This complexity means that the reader can pass through three consecutive ‘checker’ passages at points, which breaks up the story significantly. There is little sense of time for most of the book, and suddenly you are told that six months have passed – or only six months remain. Certainly time is a well-marshalled enemy in this book: being forced to choose to engage in only some of the negotiations also intrigues the reader and invites a replay.

That said, this isn’t really a book that demands an adventurer immediately restart and begin again. If anything, I feel the need to breathe after reading this, and to engage with the current political debate to see how accurately I think Morris and Thomson have drawn some of the crucial issues. Can You Brexit is plainly written to engage and educate and, given the right sort of reader, I think it could be quite successful. However, you’ll need one old-school skill at least – a high stamina score – and probably be throwing your five-fingered bookmark into the book constantly. And will you be satisfied with the result? I’ve calculated the ‘best’ scores possible and traced an ‘optimum path’ and it’s bad news – the best outcome still includes massive compromise, the chance of everything tumbling down at the last minute and a disappointing lack of recognition. Who’d go in to politics, then?

Don’t expect this to read like an episode of The West Wing; don’t expect the chance to assassinate frustrating UKIP leaders. Perhaps in another political gamebook… This is all about doing your best with a poor hand – an attitude explored in too few gamebooks, regardless of their setting or story. It may make you smile, grimace or gasp in frustration – powerfully posing the question ‘Is this the best we can expect?’ See if you can beat my scores and, if the results satisfy you, please tell me. But better yet, take your recipe for a better Brexit and tell Mrs May…

Terrorist Sympathies

I rather doubt he’s had the time to watch Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, but if David Cameron were to find an hour or ten to stream the digital flagship, he would have real cause to eat his words. Rather than simply needing to apologise for a little exaggerated rhetoric, he might find himself with sincere terrorist sympathies.

In fact, I don’t think he’d really need more than three or four hours. That’s how long it took for me to watch the transformation of an apolitical, apathetic pragmatist into a fanatic with an improvised weapon, a plan and the desire to assassinate a head of state. Frank Frink, a man with no previous indication of a violent nature, is working a skilled and secure job. However, abuse at the hands of the occupying forces, interrogations, imprisonment without charge and the murder of his family eat away at his principle of self-preservation until he decides that terror and violence are his only ways to react.

The series is fantastically conceived and executed with the highest production values. Individual actors do incredible work in making us sympathise and understand characters with deep, disgusting contradictions. But this is really one of the piece’s greatest successes – because of its timing. Terrorists aren’t born. They’re made. Or perhaps, they’re ruined from a man or woman who once lived for another reason until that reason was taken away. However despicable someone’s views or actions might be, what right have I to rob them of sympathy?  Feeling for them never has to mean agreeing with what they’ve done – I come up against this daily, constantly.

As a primary school teacher I daily engage in conflict resolution. This is at another level to the High Castle and to Isis – or ‘Daesh’ as the Prime Minister would rather we now refer to them. To change his term at this late stage smacks of cynical marketing. I’m very sure that he’d rather not be associated with a war on a religious group. But back to my playground. When Tom has plainly hit Murad on the face in a jealous fit, he may need to cool down. The school policy may require sanction or punishment. But for Tom to be able to participate back in the class, he needs sympathy. He needs someone to listen to his as well, however childish, inaccurate or self-serving his version of events is, he must be heard.

Perhaps too many of us never learnt this lesson at school. Thankfully we have art and drama and stories to refresh our thinking, challenge us. In the High Castle, Frank Frink does not carry out his plan to murder – although he associates with terrorists and ‘freedom fighters’. It isn’t fear of reprisals that stops him – he is a man who has ‘lost everything’. It’s the look in the face of a child.

The story has been rather actioned-up as it has been adapted from Philip K Dick’s original. Just as the lead actresses’ hairstyles reflect the current re-imagining of forties/fifties glamour with our own time’s sense of taste, so the role of the ‘resistance’, almost absent in the book, has been given a greater role. You can hear the show’s cast and creators talk about their need to sell the story to a modern American public – who might otherwise be rather challenged to watch a story in which they are so thoroughly colonised and controlled. I read that several advertisements have been pulled for their ‘provocative’ Nazi imagery already – although it was actually one of these large re-imaginings of the Statue of Liberty underground on the Victoria line that alerted me to the adaption in the first place.

I like allohistory – counterfactual history. I think that science fiction has a scientific method inside it – the testing of a hypothesis. To say, ‘What if…’ and to follow through is a creative and an enlightening way to write. The ‘What if the Nazis won the war’ hypothesis is so widely explored that it has become a cliche in its own right, as well as the basis for several excellent novels.
But doing this demands the writer create sympathy. Sympathy with terrorists, spies, liars, deceivers and, wait for it, Nazis. Up to and including the big H himself.

The journey of hope and idealism into pragmatism that we follow in the High Castle leaves the audience in truly strange place. By the end of the final episode, we’ve been tricked into following one of the few likeable characters, Wegener, into another assassination attempt. Hitler stands there in front of him, a pistol is in his hand, and if he shoots… If he shoots, he will become responsible for a nuclear war as Hitler is replaced by the warmongering Heydrich. Both Empires dominating the world, the Japanese and the Nazi, are founded on abuses, genocide, slavery and murder. But war between them cannot be the answer. That way, the strange newsreels warn, is devastation.

What of justice, then? The series touches on the holocaust, whispers worse and more recent atrocities – the ‘enslavement of Africa’. Shouldn’t Hitler die for these?

Until something better is on the ground and until someone who will not push the button on Japan, the Fuhrer lives. So justice must be delayed… Or given over to someone more qualified to judge.
Now I realise that the High Castle is a fiction, both as a novel and as a Amazon Prime series. But in it’s half-real setting it engages much more directly with the state of affairs in Syria and in my playground far better than most of the hyperbole around terrorism.

That doesn’t mean I entirely agree with it. I have a personal conviction that there is a better option, that we don’t have to settle for the best of bad leaders. I follow Jesus – and I know how well that resolves personally, although I am ready to say that I don’t yet now how that resolves politically or nationally or internationally. I get called an idealist quite frequently. My schemes only ever work if everyone joins in – the same in the classroom, actually.

But he had terrorist sympathies. He had terrorist friends. And it didn’t make him a terrorist. I wonder how he trod that line – informing on Simon the Zealot? I don’t believe he took the initiative to go to the occupying Romans and offer them the addresses of all the freedom fighters he knew.  But scripture does tell the story of his personal sympathy for everyone he met, occupier, opponent, beggar and lord.  And that was his answer for the politics of the world too – to meet everybody, one by one, and change their minds through sympathy.

Sorry about all the spoilers.