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Will culture eat Britain’s Brexit strategy for breakfast in 2020?

How has culture affected Britain's relationship with the EU and how it is now leaving the union?
Culture and Brexit

Table of Contents

The die is finally cast. The UK is out of the European Union. And now that the tragicomic feuilleton of Brexit is over, the time has come to reflect on the fact that, to some extent, what happened was always meant to happen. And the reason is cultural. If 47 years ago the then European Economic Community had engaged in a serious cultural due diligence before accepting the new member from across the Channel, things might have gone a different way.

If management guru Peter Drucker was right about culture eating strategy for breakfast, culture’s appetite is even stronger when it comes to politics. As practitioners of international management and global business know too well, cultural differences can be a minefield if they are not tackled with a proactive and sophisticated strategic approach. The history of international M&A’s abounds in examples of mergers failed due to the huge cultural distance between the different national cultures involved.

If we look at Brexit through this cultural prism, we can see that the relationship between the UK and the EU was always meant to be turbulent, and the fact that, for decades, the Brits have been a torn in the side of the European project reflects a distinct set of cultural values that is at odds with that of the big European powers such as Germany and France.

Geert Hofstede is a familiar name for international management students and managers who lead global operations, who have learned to analyze the impact of cultural differences on global business through the famous framework developed by the Dutch scholar. The “6D Model” allows to compare different cultures across a set of dimensions (i.e. hierarchy, individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance or time orientation) and to measure the distance between them. Based on the combination of the scores on the single dimensions, international management consultant and scholar Huib Wursten has developed a new framework that groups cultures into seven clusters (or “Mental Images”) allowing for an easier understanding of cultural differences in practical terms.

If we look at the EU through these clusters, we can easily understand why the European Union looks sometimes like a dysfunctional family (British understatement oblige), given that five of them, each with different ideas on how a society should be organized, are represented within the “ever closer Union”. As for the UK, it clearly is a case of its own.

Because of a combination of assertive individualism, low deference to hierarchy, strong spirit of competition, short-term orientation, and a very high tolerance for ambiguous and uncertain situations, the UK is part of the so-called “Contest Cluster”, along with the United States, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Basically, the UK is part of an English-speaking club that sets it apart from continental Europe.

A clear reflection of this specific “mental software” is the Westminster model characterized by a strong culture of confrontation and the “winner-takes-all” electoral model that has no equivalent in the EU. This model is about competing for a total victory with a zero-sum game mentality that views compromise as a sign of weakness. I win, you lose. The opposite is true in most Western European countries, where coalition governments, and therefore the constant search for compromise, are the rule. This adversarial culture combined with a strongly individualistic and short-time oriented pragmatism (“let’s get what we need for our interests”) was meant to be problematic in a political and economic union built around consensus; and it always was, from Thatcher to Johnson.

Another critical cultural dimension that sets the UK apart from its main partners in the EU is the one related to the relationship with uncertainty. According to the Hofstede framework, in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance people feel a strong need for structures, rules, predictability and stability, while in cultures with low uncertainty avoidance people have a higher acceptance of change and are comfortable with ambiguous and uncertain situations. If in international corporations building global teams with people coming from both “relaxed” and “anxious” cultures is one of the most delicate challenges for project management, the same is true for global politics.

From this perspective, Brexit is a striking case in point, with the UK scoring very low on the uncertainty avoidance scale and Germany and France very high. The decision to leave the EU by itself was a sign of a culture that is not afraid of dramatic change and total uncertainty; but the clear cultural divide between the two sides was even more evident during the negotiating process, with France and Germany becoming increasingly impatient because of the never-ending uncertainty due to the continuous delays and the UK not being too bothered by it (“No deal? No problem”).

If we go deeper, we can see that this great cultural divide stems from two very different philosophical approaches about life and the world: rationalism and empiricism. To put it in a nutshell, in order to analyse reality continental rationalism (embodied in France by Descartes and in Germany by Leibniz) starts from big metaphysical ideas and theories by using a deductive approach with structured processes, highly specialised expertise, and order, while British empiricism (embodied by Locke and Hume) starts from practical experience through an inductive approach. While French and Germans focus on the Why, the British focus on the How.

This different approach is reflected, for example, in the difference between the British Common Law and the continental codified civil law systems. But rugby could be a good example as well. A French rugby trainer once told me that while French teams spend hours discussing why they have lost, British teams focus on how to do better next time and move on. The conclusion of the process might turn out to be the same, but the approach is completely different.

Given these contrasting mental frames, it is clear that the Brexit negotiations between the UK team and the EU team (led by a Frenchman) were destined to be painful. From a British perspective, this is because, while the empiricist Brits are reluctant to define a priori aims because for them negotiation is an experimental process, the rationalist French adopt a set of principles and then defend them “rigidly”.

It is obviously a matter of different perspectives and perceptions shaped by a distinct set of underlying values and assumptions: what the Brits, as low uncertainty avoidance people with small appetite for big ideas and big rules, see as “rigidity”, the French and the Germans, as high uncertainty avoidance people with an emotional need for structures and norms, see as rigour and accuracy. A good example is the issue of food standards and the choice that the post-Brexit UK will have to make between the US model and the European one. As recently explained by The Economist, while a high uncertainty avoidance EU bans its import on the basis of the precautionary principle, which says that there must be scientific evidence proving something is safe for it to be allowed, the low uncertainty avoidance US flips that burden of proof: in order for a product to be banned there must be scientific evidence proving it is unsafe.

More generally and historically speaking, we have to consider that, because France and Germany have always been at the core of the European project, the current institutional structure of the EU is partly the reflection of the cultural values of the two biggest powers, with both asking for a more structured organization and France (which has the most hierarchical culture in Western Europe) pushing for more centralized decisions. Therefore, if we look at Brexit through the cultural prism, it is clear why the UK has never felt at home in the European Union.

Now, for the UK it is time to open a new chapter. And if a cultural analysis can be helpful in understanding what happened, it could be even more helpful in preparing for the future. In an increasingly multipolar world, where the West is not the global linchpin any longer, where the Anglo-saxon club represents about 6 percent of the global population, and where cultural differences are more important than ever, political leaders with global ambitions (read: “Global Britain”) need to invest in what has become a competitive hack for global businesses who have understood that the world is far for being flat: cultural intelligence.

Benjamin Disraeli, one of the greatest statesmen in British history, once said that, as well as individuals, nations have characters. The UK certainly has its own character, and we have seen how this character could never really fit with the other characters represented within the European family. But if the cultural distance between the UK and the EU turned out to be wide enough to be problematic (British understatement oblige again), it is nothing compared to the distance between the UK and the non-Western world, which is dominated by very hierarchical, collectivist, and long-term oriented cultures. To be successful in this context, as any global company can attests, one needs to learn how to navigate this complexity with cultural subtlety and sophistication, flexibility and the ability to adapt to different contexts.

Cultural intelligence has never really played a central part in the last chapter of UK history, or in EU history for that matter. But for the next chapter to be a successful one, it needs to become the core of any grand strategy aiming a making Britain a small yet global player.

Contributed by:

Diego Gilardoni
Leadership Advisor, Futurist & International Speaker. Helping leaders to navigate global complexity