In the Science-Fiction movies of Star Trek, those training to become Starfleet officers often undertake a stressful test called the ‘Kobayashi Maru’. This test is a simulation of a rescue mission, in which the participants try to rescue the crew of the eponymous spaceship Kobayashi Maru.
“Doctor McCoy: Jim, it’s the Kobayashi Maru. No one passes the test.”
What is notable about this test is that it is designed to be unwinnable. The participants are not graded based on their ability to win or not, but their reaction to the simulated events.
In the movies, only one man has ever beaten the test – Cadet (later Captain and Admiral) James T. Kirk.
How did he achieve this? There are two different versions of events (one described in Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, the other in Star Trek 2009).
In The Wrath of Khan (ST: TWOK), the movie starts with Kirk himself overseeing a cadet’s Kobayashi Maru test, which goes badly for her. She is upset:
CADET SAAVIK: Permission to speak candidly, sir?
SAAVIK: I don’t believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.
KIRK: And why not?
SAAVIK: Because …there was no way to win.
KIRK: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that never occurred to you?
SAAVIK: No sir. It has not.
KIRK: How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?
SAAVIK: As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me.
KIRK: Well, now you have something new to think about. Carry on.
Later on, Kirk and his colleagues discuss Kirk’s legendary success at the test:
SPOCK: The Kobayashi Maru scenario frequently wreaks havoc with students and equipment. As I recall you took the test three times yourself. Your final solution was, shall we say, unique?
KIRK: It had the virtue of never having been tried.
Later on, Kirk explains how he beat the test:
SAAVIK: Sir, may I ask you a question?
KIRK: What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?
SAAVIK: The Kobayashi Maru, sir.
KIRK: Are you asking me if we are playing out that scenario now?
SAAVIK: On the test, sir, will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know.
McCOY: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
KIRK: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
DAVID: He cheated!
KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. …I don’t like to lose. I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.
In the 2009 version of Star Trek, an alternate version of Kirk beats the test again, but instead of a commendation, his instructors call an inquiry into his behaviour.
KIRK: Begin rescue of the stranded crew. So, we’ve managed to eliminate all enemy ships, no one onboard was injured, and the successful rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew is underway.
INSTRUCTOR 3: How the hell did that kid beat your test?
SPOCK: I do not know.
[Starfleet Academy Hearing]
BARNETT: This session has been called to resolve a troubling matter. James T. Kirk, step forward. Cadet Kirk, evidence has been submitted to this council, suggesting that you violated the ethical code of conduct pursuant to Regulation One-Seven point three of the Starfleet Code. Is there anything you care to say before we begin, sir?
KIRK: Yes, I believe I have the right to face my accuser directly.
(Spock rises from the audience)
BARNETT: Step forward, please. This is Commander Spock. He’s one of our most distinguished graduates. He’s programmed the Kobayashi Maru exam for the last four years. Commander?
SPOCK: Cadet Kirk, you somehow managed to install and activate a subroutine to the programming code, thereby changing the conditions of the test.
KIRK: Your point being?
BARNETT: In academic vernacular, you cheated.
KIRK: Let me ask you something, I think we all know the answer to. The test itself is a cheat, isn’t it? You programmed it to be unwinnable.
SPOCK: Your argument precludes the possibility of a no-win scenario.
KIRK: I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.
In the real world of 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May faces her own Kobayashi Maru test – Brexit. Too soft a Brexit would mean her own backbenchers would seek to depose her, too hard a Brexit would be damaging for the economy and ruin the Conservative Party’s image as ‘the party of business’.
Even if she could find a brexit that she could sell to soft and hard brexiters, the EU would also have to agree to it. On the surface of it, this is a no-win scenario.
So, Mrs May should, like Kirk; change the conditions of the test.
An EFTA based Brexit (which would have been approved by the late Mrs Thatcher) would be acceptable to the EU and acceptable to the majority of the public – both leavers and remainers.
While some people would initially be wary, Mrs May could explain that the UK would no longer be bound by the Common Agricultural Policy, would no longer be subject to the EU Common Fisheries Policy. We would no longer be part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) so we would speak for ourselves and reclaim our seats on global bodies like the World Trade Organisation.
We would no longer be subject to ‘Ever closer Union’ or the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – instead we would resolve disputes amicably at the EFTA Court.
We would no longer be subject to EU rules around Justice and Home Affairs or Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).
We would no longer be part of the EU’s Customs Union or Common Commercial Commercial Policy. We would no longer have to apply their Common External Tariff.
These factors mean we could have an independent trade policy and strike new trade deals all around the globe.
We would mirror many EU standards and specifications so we could continue to trade freely on the continent and enjoy the benefits of the Single Market – but we would be no passive rule taker – we would actively help shape those rules in various joint committees and meetings as fellow EEA members.
Even if there wasn’t a majority in the House of Commons to stay in the EEA, Mrs May could still be successful in beating her personal Kobayashi Maru . There could be a suitable Plan B for her – we have written this report on how she could maintain frictionless trade with the EU and still enjoy new trade deals all around the world.
In summary, Brexit is only a Kobayashi Maru test (i.e. unwinnable) if Mrs May views a condition of success that all sides are completely happy with her deal. If she changes the condition of the test to ‘a deal all can live with’, she can, like Captain Kirk, beat the no-win scenario.