UK Politics

The lost art of losing

BY Simon Targett   /  7 June 2019

It’s not often that I agree with Nigel Farage. In fact, make that almost never. But he did say something recently that registered with me. “For a civilised democracy to work,” he tweeted, “you need the loser’s consent.”

He was, of course, referring to the fact that large numbers of people who voted to Remain in the European Union are still refusing to accept the result of the Brexit referendum. As someone who voted to Remain, I won’t deny that I was bitterly disappointed by the result. I woke up on that fateful morning wondering what kind of country I was living in. Who was I sharing these small islands with? Who on earth would vote to throw away 45 years of collaboration with our neighbours?

But, ultimately, I’m a democrat, and the fact that it was a marginal victory for the people who voted to Leave is no reason to question the result of the election. If Americans can accept the results of far bigger and far closer elections—remember, George W. Bush and Donald Trump both lost the popular vote but walked into the White House because they won more states—then so can the British.

But this instinct to contest the result—to refuse to lose—seems to have become deeply rooted in our society. As David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, said this week: “We’ve not just lost the art of compromise, we’ve lost the art of losing—not just losing gracefully but being willing to lose at all.” Echoing Mr Farage, he noted that this is significant because “the ability to lose is the key part of democratic politics”.

How have we come to this sorry point? One reason is that we are being protected from the cold, uncomfortable realities of losing from an early age. These days, parents manage their children’s lives in a way that their own parents never did. Also, many of our schools and universities have cultivated an anti-competitive system that seems to draw inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland character Dodo Bird, who decided after a race that “all must have prizes”. This has led to the farcical situation where the number of pupils receiving unconditional offers to university has risen from 2,895 in 2013 to 65,930 in 2018—nearly a quarter of all 18-year-old applicants. And then, when they do get to university, nearly one in three are coming away with a First.

Of course, no-one likes losing. And certainly no-one likes to be called a “stone-cold loser”—the words used by Donald Trump this week to describe Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor. But losing—and how to bounce back from failure—is one of life’s great lessons. In sport, we understand this, although it is true that the introduction of VAR goal-line technology has been hastened by the growing habit of supporters to question every decision. Last night, England’s football team lost 3-1 to Holland. For the coach Gareth Southgate and his players, it means going back to the drawing board. For them, the question isn’t: that’s unfair, so can we play the game again? It is: Where did we go wrong? What can we do to put things right next time? Last year, Liverpool faced a similar situation, after also losing 3-1 against Real Madrid in the Champions League final. But under their brilliant coach, Jurgen Klopp, they didn’t look for others to blame. They took responsibility, accepted defeat, addressed the issues, and this year came back and won the competition.

Likewise, in the business world, it is a striking how many of the world’s great entrepreneurs say they have learned more from their failures than from their successes. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, says that “failure is an option” at SpaceX, his rocket company preparing to send the first people to Mars. How come? “If things are not failing,” he explains, “you are not innovating enough.” Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, takes a similar view. Although Amazon is the world’s most valuable company, he’s “also had billions of dollars’ worth of failures along the way”.

In other words, losing has forced these business leaders to be honest about their predicament, confront their own weaknesses, find solutions to apparently intractable problems, and come out stronger than they were before. This is because losing has consequences. And the real winners in life are those who face up to the consequences—and find a way forward. Can you imagine how the Second World War would have turned out if the men and women of what Queen Elizabeth this week called “the resilient generation” had believed that defeat did not really matter? They understood the implications of losing, and put their lives on the line. The sooner today’s generation understands this, the better.

Had Remainers really faced up to the consequences of losing, then perhaps more would have turned out to vote in the Brexit referendum. Perhaps too, more MPs would have taken greater care over their seemingly casual decision to make “No Deal” the default option if a deal with the European Union could not be struck.

But they didn’t, we are where we are, and it is now time for Remainers to face up to the consequences of losing the referendum, accept the result and get on with the task of delivering Brexit. Their focus should be on finding solutions rather than finding fault in the process.

Rightly, Brexit should now be sorted out by parliament, since we live in a representative democracy. Yes, as Rory Stewart and others have suggested, this could be informed by input from Citizens’ Assembly. But, frankly, time is running out for this to happen, and MPs cannot continue to shirk their ultimate responsibility. Every day they waste on sorting out Brexit is a day lost for sorting out the bigger problems for which they were elected.

If, however, MPs still refuse to agree a way forward, then there is no legitimate option other than to refer the decision back to the British people. But what should the question be? No, not Remain or Leave. That was decided three years ago, and the Remainers like me lost. The question should be a different one. New Deal (one arranged by a new prime minister) or No Deal—that is the question.


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