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Consider This..."Brexit: 'leaving the scene of an accident'"

Posted by Chris Simms on September 10, 2018 in News

The NHS and British pharmaceuticals are preparing to stockpile medicines and essential blood supplies for what is repeatedly described as a slow motion car crash. As a “no deal by accident” threatens and the British Medical Association warns of “catastrophic consequences” for patients, the health workforce, services and the nation’s health  and multiple other reports forecast a crisis of historic proportions, leadership’s failure to express any sort regret or remorse or acknowledge errors has become an enduring feature of the Brexit tragedy. Their hubris evokes a 40-day public health and safety drama that began in New York City and ended 40 years ago this week.

In mid-summer 1978 in midtown Manhattan an emergency response team was set in place in the event the 59 storey Citicorp Center crashed to the ground. It was hurricane season and if quartering winds reached 70 mph, the tower had a 1 in 16 probability of toppling over and, devastating a 156 block area, potentially killing as many as 200,000 people. The team consisted of medics, fire, police, engineers with 2500 Red Cross volunteers on standby. While the rest of the team stood at the ready, engineers and welders worked surreptitiously throughout the summer nights to strengthen the swaying tower.

The architecturally unique building (essentially built on 154 foot stilts) had been extolled as a masterpiece, yet in late June a student architect had contacted the building’s structural engineer, the nationally renowned William LeMessurier, with evidence that the building’s design was critically flawed.  It turned out that he had not taken into account quartering winds and, unknown to him, his New York office had allowed the contractor to use bolted instead of welded joints, a cost saving of US$250,000.

LeMessurier acknowledged his errors and under his leadership, repairs began in July and were mostly completed by the end of August without the public ever being aware of the crisis. Only in 1995, with the publication of a New Yorker magazine article was an account of events made public. Immediately, LeMessurier was lauded as a hero for having set aside reputational and financial concerns, acknowledging errors and swiftly rectifying them. His behaviour was described as exemplary “encompassing honesty, courage, adherence to ethics and social responsibility”.

Like LeMessurier, Cameron and May set out on an enterprise based on incomplete information and false premises. Unlike the engineer, the Prime Ministers failed to set aside personal and (in their case) political concerns; they did not acknowledge mistakes even as they accumulated. Instead, at every turn they escalated their commitment to Brexit, foregoing opportunities to alter course, and offering instead words of reassurance while the implications became increasingly apparent. Unlike LeMessurier, they eschewed hard data, choosing instead an anti-science, anti-intellectualism course – supporting the notion for example, “the people of the United Kingdom have had enough of the experts”.

After the publication of the New Yorker article, LeMessurier made several public appearances which shed light on the human side of acknowledging mistakes. At a videotaped MIT colloquium, for example, he revealed the soul searching he went through – first of admitting to himself his mistakes and then to colleagues. Although he briefly considered saying nothing or driving his car into a cement wall, within days he set aside pride and made a decision to act in favour of the greater good.

In contrast, David Cameron having agreed to a referendum he never wanted claimed in its aftermath, he had no regrets. He said “there was no dark night of the soul”. Theresa May, herself once ambivalent about Brexit, claimed that she had “no regrets” about calling an election meant to strengthen her position to negotiate, which in fact did the opposite. Throughout the Brexit process she paired denial of facts with deployment of stock phrases such as “we are on course to deliver” or “we are on track” (a phrase she used as Home Secretary to describe her immigration policies) even as a steady flow of reports from across economic sectors confirmed a crisis of historic proportions – a nation at the precipice.

Brexit, unlike the Citicorp  crisis, consists of a string of interconnected decisions (or non-decisions) made by a beleaguered and weakened leadership over a span of years (not weeks) leading to a possible “no-deal by accident” or what has been termed “crashing out of the European Union”. Citicorp has lessons to offer on the dangers of not acknowledging mistakes, doubling down, saving face – or indeed, “leaving the scene of an accident”.  

The Brexit timeline did not begin with David Cameron agreeing to a referendum (January 13th, 2013) or the vote itself (June 23rd, 2016) but rather in 2010 when the Prime Minster introduced new immigration policies, implemented by May that sought to satisfy anti-immigration sentiments; these they nurtured and promoted into a wave of nativist, populist, racist sentiments – piggybacking on profound economic anxiety in many communities. When the carapace of these policies was momentarily peeled back earlier this year to reveal the details of the Windrush scandal, the country felt shame.  

LeMessurier used the term “return period to failure” to refer to the probable amount of time it takes design failure to manifest itself as structural failure (in his case, the collapse of Citicorp Center). The Brexit saga is broaching this point in the timeline - leadership has a clear opportunity to help rectify past mistakes and demonstrate its moral courage and “adherence to ethics and social responsibility”.

Consider This… features submitted commentary and perspectives from faculty members, tied to news events of the day. If you want to contribute an article to Consider This, email with your story pitch.