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Zero-Sum Games


Most arguments are about sharing responsibility – the news this week is full of people finger pointing and trying to shift responsibility to someone else in what are difficult international problems.


Probably the most shameful for some of us to watch is the argument between the UK and France about responsibility for refugees. There has been a sharp rise in the numbers trying to make the hazardous crossing of the English Channel – up to 47,000 so far this year. Over 1,500 people smugglers have been arrested but still the desperate migrants come. The smugglers’ charges are high, the risk to life and limb great but these migrants seem desperate and undeterred.


And so followed the predictable response to the news that a small inflatable carrying refugees capsized in the English Channel killing 27 people including three children and a pregnant woman. The mandatory words about politicians’ ‘hearts being with the families of those who died’ soon flow too smoothly into politicised arguments about whose responsibility it is to deal with the burgeoning numbers of migrants trying to cross to England from the French coast.


The British Prime Minister who was elected on a promise to stop ‘the free movement of people’ argues with a French government wishing to prove that, despite Brexit, the British government is unable to prevent that movement. And so more migrants will die while politicians play their own Brexit-flavoured, high-stakes games. With net migration to the UK down this year and the aid budget cut, you might think that the UK had a little room to be more generous.


This story has pushed another similar one down the news agenda. The stand-off between Polish and Belarusian authorities on their joint border may have involved fewer deaths but the scenes are no less miserable. Families trapped in freezing conditions in no-man’s land. No-one wants to accept these migrants. They’re always someone else’s problem.

A good many of these migrants are people fleeing dangerous places which are, or recently were, scenes of terrible fighting, some started by western powers. It is a frantic game of pass the parcel. Who is to take the unenviable responsibility for making a humane separation between the opportunists and those with legitimate needs?


A similar dynamic plays out in millions of lives every day in ordinary family life. A problem arises. Responsibility for dealing with it has to be negotiated. We exchange our reasons for our own point of view without always asking ‘Are our reasons for passing the parcel genuine? Can we legitimately say, ‘Not me guv’?


As with all these examples from the political world, sharing responsibility is a complex business and there are always what a friend of ours used to call, ‘the good reasons’ and ‘the real reasons’! The politicians aren’t the only ones good at ‘politicising’. A few hours spent with a couple of siblings show that most of us learn very early to put a good spin on our own motives and actions and a pejorative spin on those of other family members. It takes a lot of effort to change things. Most of us have needed to learn some lessons about non-violent language. To share power and resolve disputes about responsibility takes honesty and thinking-time and listening and more honesty and time and listening. Balancing responsibilities and rights – especially in an age where human rights are rightly deemed so important – is a delicate business.


If any one thing is certain – it’s that playing zero-sum games is not a grown-up way to live.


Picture: Steve Finn, The Times

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