Brexit Games in Hindsight

Brexit has seldom been far from my thoughts this year, both as a news junkie an informed citizen, and as a corporate executive exploring the immediate impacts and strategic implications for my employer. This week, it crossed over with my interest in business wargaming.

Reading around the issues, I came across a report from the Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe on a series of wargames that it organised in 2016 on Britain’s relationship with Europe1. The stakeholders were played by senior, largely centre-right, policy makers from European countries: the UK players were former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lamont (an earlier, 2013 game featured a serving Leave-supporting minister, Andrea Leadsom, as the UK player).

I found this interesting on several levels. Most experts are agreed on the importance of after-action reviews and circulating conclusions from games (e.g. Chussil, 2007 and Elgersma, 2017)2, and the Open Europe report gives a very clear sense of how the games were organised, the interaction between the players, and the issues that were thrown up. It is something of a rarity to see something this specific: most business wargames are confidential exercises, to the extent that many of the case studies referenced in the literature are either generic or obscure details of participants (e.g. Oriesek & Schwarz, 2008 and Herman et al., 2009)3. (In his 2015 book on red teams, Micah Zenko cites commercial confidentiality as one of the factors holding back the wider use of wargaming in business)4. Public sector games are sometimes more transparent: for example, the British Army’s Wargaming Guide provides a number of informative case studies5. But there is nothing like the level of detail presented in the Open Europe report, which extends to media coverage of the sessions for anyone interested in reviewing it. Indeed, the conduct and conclusions of wargames are seldom publicised unless something has gone wrong to a newsworthy extent (the most prominent example being Millennium Challenge).

The report concludes that the wargames “gave a pretty good approximation of how events might unfold”6. With the benefit of hindsight, that understates the case. Time and again the document highlights issues that have gone on to dominate the headlines: that immigration would be a big-ticket issue in the Brexit debate but that other topics would prove more intractable; that the EU would act collectively and resist British attempts to cherry pick; the Canada and Norway options; and the critical importance of the Irish Border, and in recognising the potential need for special arrangements, the principle if not the specifics of the current Backstop debate.

All of this makes a compelling case for the validity of wargaming as a tool for exploring future strategies. But with the benefit of hindsight, it also presents two challenges in terms of design and outcomes.

Most authorities are clear that a game should include all elements that could frustrate a plan7, whether represented by a player or via injects from a moderator. It was not clear to me whether friction in the UK political process was sufficiently considered: for example, how would the conclusions have changed if, instead of an individual UK player, the game had represented opposition parties, business and trade unions, and public opinion.

In terms of outcomes, Open Europe conclude that “the UK’s preferred post-Brexit deal with the EU is not a given and requires the approval of others. Therefore, it is clear that the UK needs to have a plan A, but also a B and C”8. Scarcely two weeks from the March 29th deadline, this reads like advice that could have been better heeded. In a context where a participant in this series of wargames said last week that she was “beginning to wonder what game the European Union was playing”, it does seem that if the wargames were well-documented, had highly influential players, and were successful at predicting the issues, they were less so at building mutual understanding and influencing the outcome of negotiations.

  1. Raoul Ruparel, Stephen Booth and Nina Schick, EU Wargames: The Challenges Facing UK negotiators Inside and Outside the EU, London: Open Europe, 2016 

  2. Mark Chussil, Learning Faster Than the Competition: War Games Give the Advantage, Journal of Business Strategy, 28(1), pp.37-44, 2007; Erik Elgersma, The Strategic Analysis Cycle Tool Book: How Advanced Data Collection and Analysis Underpins Winning Strategies, London: Lid Publishing, 2017 

  3. Daniel F. Oriesek & Jan Oliver Schwarz, Business Wargaming: Securing Corporate Value, Farnham: Gower, 2008; Mark Herman, Mark Frost & Robert Kurtz, Wargaming for Leaders: Strategic Decision Making from the Battlefield to the Boardroom, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 

  4. Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, New York: Basic Books, 2015, p.156 

  5. Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Wargaming Handbook, Shrivenham: Ministry of Defence, 2017. 

  6. EU Wargames, p.44 

  7. Wargaming Handbook, p.5 

  8. EU Wargames, p.43 

Written on March 13, 2019