Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Trident: how to vote *properly*

There is a frisky and entertaining answer to the question of how the Trident vote should be conducted over at Stumbling and Mumbling. But it lacks one important appendix. If you think that international affairs should be decided by demand-revealing referenda, then you should also advise everyone to learn Chinese. Or Russian. Or ... er .... whatever language that they speak in North Korea.

The correct way to make a decision on important strategic issues such as this one, is to get people who will have to take responsibility for their decisions to weigh up a range of complicated arguments. I'm not sure I could even list all of the issues that relate to this decision, but here are one or two that occur to me immediately.

1. If Adam Curtis's television programme is to be believed, 'game theory' plays an important part in decisions about defence policy. The right combination of battlefield, medium range, first strike etc missiles, and the right megatonnage is fixed by the behaviour it will provoke in our enemies as much as it is based upon the particular grade of mincemeat that you want to convert their civilians into, in the regrettable event of an 'exchange'. So a crude calculation of utility is not likely to work. You might want to come up with some demand-revealing process that will allow everyone to contribute to the strategy that you will use in a complex game, but there is every chance that you may disappear up your own jacksy some months before you complete the exercise.

2. Remember poisonous umbrellas? They're on the way back apparently (video link). And the huge network of spooks and counterspooks collude towards one important aim. To make these decisions as opaque and confusing as possible. Where markets rely upon a degree of transparency and consistency, the nation states spend millions cultivating a network of insider-trading. And, as every securocrat will tell you, advice on these matters has to be given in confidence so as not to compromise sources. Making this information available to the general public is fine - as long as the Russians and the Chinese and the Americans and the Koreans and the Iranians and the Pakistanis and the French are all making their decisions with the same level of disclosure that we are.

3. Such an exercise would give a huge amount of power to the reptiles of Grub Street. Every pissed old hack exercise an exaggerated and distorting influence. More worryingly, newspaper owners with shares in munitions factories will be able to swing the votes one way. Those with shares in Chinese / Russian language schools may swing it another.

4. Britain's nuclear policy is part of a wider negotiation. Negotiations require negotiators who have a degree of flexibility, and an ability to make decisions based upon their own judgments. Those judgments may not even be as good as those thrown up by 'the wisdom of crowds' in whatever form you chose to listen to them, but quality of individual judgments is no more important than the exact cards poker-players have in deciding the winner of a game. I can promise you one way of losing at poker. Have your game strategy publicly mandated at the start of each game.

Give me a few more minutes, and I suppose I can come up with another four to add to that lot. But I know one thing about Parliament: Those rebel Labour MPs will have spent the day having Chinese Burns applied by their whips. They will have to come up with credible arguments on the related issues. And with the obvious exceptions of the Jeremy Corbyns of this world, they will have felt some compulsion to offer a coherent defence of their decision to rebel. They will have to offer a view of Britain's place in the world, it's strategy in dealing with the next non-proliferation round, it's tenure of a seat on The Security Council, the role of NATO and the EU, the relationship with the United States and with France.

They will also have been offered meetings at which their political superiors will have looked them in the eye, and would have said (words to the effect) ... "if only I could tell you what I know." And those MPs will have been able to decide whether they're being sold a pup based upon their assessment of their colleagues character.

I don't want to labour this point too much here. But representative democracy works where other systems cannot.

There is one important point that I do agree with Chris about though: that of overconfidence among various protagonists ("windbags") in this argument. I don't know how I'd vote if I were an MP. As it happens, my reading of the newspapers tells me that I should vote with the rebels, so my head should tell me the opposite. But public debate offers plenty of examples of people who have a cock-sure judgment on this issue, without feeling any need to articulate a coherent position on those bigger global strategic issues.

But then, at times like this, when huge forces move, and grave statespersonship is required among The Fourth Estate, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Only kidding (for the avoidance of doubt).

Oh yes, one other thing. I don't understand why those rebel MPs aren't calling for a vote of confidence in the PM now? The logic of defying one's leader on a fundamental matter of policy that has so many knock-ons is that you have to reject their wider claim to lead on policy.

I don't know about Trident, but Tony's resignation is one thing I'm looking forward to.


Anonymous said...

whatever language that they speak in North Korea

Er - Korean?

Gregg said...

I don't understand why those rebel MPs aren't calling for a vote of confidence in the PM now?

1) I'm fairly sure you can't have a vote of confidence in the PM, only in the government. This is why there hasn't been such a motion on umpteen occassions when it would have been appropriate over the past few years - a sizeable chunk of those who want the PM gone also want him to be replaced by Gordon Brown, the current No. 2 in the government (who they, bizarrely, believe is genuinely progressive, or at least somehow different to Blair), and a confidence vote would also be damaging to him.

2) The PM has promised to go within the next few months. Like his earlier promise to go sometime within this term, his promise last September, to go within a year, successfully headed-off a challenge to his leadership (whether through a confidence motion or through party political mechanisms).

corneilius said...

The Trident Submarine replacement / enhancement is Blairs leaving present to his corporate sponsors, nothing more, nothing less.

Tony Blair is obviously leader of both the Conservative and the Labour parties.

Trident is as much use as a fart in a lift. To anyone concerned that some rogue state or terrorist might attack us with a nuclear weapon - the only time nukes have ever been used, they were used on civilian populations, as a message to the rest of the world - mess with us and this is what you will get!

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq..... nukes used, depleted uranium used.

wakey wakey.