It is so frustrating. Whatever the political merits and demerits of saying you will not observe an agreement already reached with another party if it no longer suits you, such a tactic is arguably a really poor negotiation strategy. It is almost bound to produce a sub-optimal outcome for your side.
Such a move appears to come from a school of negotiation that believes that bluster and assertion will cause your counterpart to change its mind. That might work if you have such a powerful position that the other party has no choice but to agree. But if that is not the case, it could be a fatal choice. The danger is that your assumptions are wrong and that you are blinded by your own hyperbole — or weakened by a lack of competence.
Really effective negotiators are skilful and nuanced. They build effective relationships with their counterparts. They know that trust and credibility matter, whatever their differences. The Brexit crisis over the Internal Market Bill suggests that we may need to educate ourselves, or at least some of our political leaders, in effective negotiation strategies.
It is more than a generation ago that Roger Fisher and William Ury published Getting to Yes, probably the most influential work on negotiating, yet so many still follow an approach that is less successful. It was Nelson Mandela who said of the National Party leader in South Africa: “I never sought to undermine Mr De Klerk for the practical reason that the weaker he was, the weaker the negotiations process.”
To reach an agreement with your enemy you need, as Abraham Lincoln taught, to work with them, make them your partner. You don’t have to like them, agree with their values or be soft. In fact, the more credibly you behave and respectful you are towards the individuals, the more robust you can be on the issues. This is really all pretty basic stuff. Mandela and Lincoln achieved great things in trying circumstances. My goodness, we need their kind of wisdom today.
Perhaps the remedy lies in longer-term thinking. Should we introduce the basics of good negotiation into the school curriculum? It is after all a life skill. We negotiate every day. Let’s do it well. More than ever, we need to learn to make the best of limited resources. The best way to do that is to work together to optimise outcomes.
This goes further, of course. It is also about integrity. It is about teaching the next generation that, contrary to what they may observe, it is a good thing to stick by what you promise, to find ways to work with people who may be different and to have principles which you can apply under pressure. If you can do that, history is likely to be on your side.
John Sturrock, QC, is a mediator