The Blog

Why 2016?

What has triggered the "interesting times"?

Some children want to become engine drivers. Others want to become political pollsters. But those inclining to the latter career have traditionally been put off it by their parents. You need to be good at maths, for one thing. You need capital, too. All those people who ring the punters up on the telephone have to be paid. Then there are marketing people, statisticians who look for bias, PR experts who explain where it all went wrong and that you were within the margin of error, maybe even lawyers to defend you against those who have lost large sums of money by relying on your predictions. Who would want all that? Much better to be an engine driver and enjoy driving a train.

That was yesterday's view, but today it is much easier. You no longer need the phone calls. No statisticians are required. You need never be wrong. All you have to do is to attend a couple of cocktail parties in fashionable north London, listen to what they are predicting and forecast the opposite. You are bound to be right. After all, look at the history. At the last election no one in North London thought Cameron could possibly win. The talk was all about coalitions and the price which the Liberal Democrats might exact for their participation. Then "zing" went the magic fairy and the world was different. The night before the Brexit vote we all knew it would be Remain. After the tragic death of Joe Cox, who would have the heart to vote Leave? The British people, that's who, and once again everything was changed. On Tuesday of last week we all went to bed thinking that Mrs Clinton had it in the bag. After all, the polls were pretty clear and there was talk of the Democrats capturing the Senate.... Well, I don't have to tell you the rest, do I?

Everywhere except Scotland, the orthodox predictions have been contradicted by the voters. Only the Scots, dour and practical, have done what they said they would do. Perhaps it is that very consistency which made them such a force in the Empire.

Scots aside though, at the moment everything is for turning over; not just the predictions but also the assumptions of the political classes. It is a movement which put Cameron back in number 10, is taking Britain out of the EU and has now pushed Trump into the presidency. Who are the next casualties? Will the Dutch call a referendum and throw out the trade treaty with Canada? Will Italy discard Renzi's reforms? Is Marine Le Pen to be president of France after all? What will happen in the German elections after that? For those who, like the markets, dislike uncertainty, it is all rather worrying.

Popular revolutions of this sort are like buses. They do not come singly. Go back to the Reformation, the religious struggles between the Catholics and Protestants replicated themselves across Europe. In France there were the wars between the Huguenots and the Holy League. In England, Henry's dissolution of the monasteries was followed by repression and counter repression as Catholic and Protestant monarchs took their turn. In Scotland, John Knox vented his fury on the hapless Mary Queen of Scots.

Move on a bit to the American Revolution. The French, who had abetted the colonists, were soon to find that the principles that they had established came home with them to produce something many times more terrible than what they had promoted abroad. The countries of Europe saw their danger and immediately took action to isolate themselves from the infection, largely successfully until Napoleon came along, although Britain had a nervous moment with mutinies on the Nore and at Spithead.

Why was it that in these cases the unrest, or at least the threat of unrest, was so universal? Why did it happen everywhere at once? You don't have to look far for the answer to that. The causes were international in nature: a new way of thinking that challenged every intellectual in Europe on the one hand, and the decay of absolutism by Monarch or ministers on the other. These were big changes in thinking and brought widespread social upheaval in their wake.

Well, what are the changes this time round? Everybody talks about the liberal elite having become detached from the public. Probably they have, but there's nothing new in that. Elites always serve themselves, but that does not normally lose them their position. Anyway, why is the same movement to be found in so many countries and systems? Did we all ignored the public at exactly the same time? It doesn't sound very likely, does it?

The real reason why political elites are losing their grip lies deeper. The last few years have produced an enormous social change in that unrefined information has become freely available on the web. That has two important effects. It gives the demagogues a far wider audience. The established political parties can no longer stand between their lies and the public. More importantly, however, it gives people the opportunity to check things for themselves and to access raw data in a way which would previously have been difficult. It was inevitable that a change of this magnitude would alter the relationship between the elites and those who they purport to represent. After all, it was free access to the Word of God which sparked the Reformation. Little wonder that another large change in information flows should start a new upheaval.

Yes, it's the computers what done it. So says that excellent book "Why aren't they shouting?" which should be on the Christmas list of all those who have not read it. The reference there, of course, is to the way in which more sophisticated computer modelling made the 2008 crash inevitable. The same principle applies in politics. Just take a story from last week - the ludicrous suggestion in the press that the judges, who heard the case on whether parliamentary authority was needed to give notice under the Article 50, were politically motivated. It was a lie and an obvious lie, but, more importantly, anyone who spent three minutes looking at the judgement on their computer could see it was a lie. That is why the story was exploded so quickly.

No one should think that all politicians are liars. Still, governments bend the truth about their record to improve it, and it is the art of the opposition to suggest that things have gone wrong, even when those who say it know that they went as well as they could have gone in the circumstances. In the past, which version of the truth you accepted depended upon your party's story. You used the party as a filter and, a little scepticism aside, tended to accept its verdict. Now, however, it is different. You can check out what your party has told you on the Internet and see if it seems true. If you find that it isn't, your confidence is eroded. If it turns out to be untrue several times over, your confidence may be eroded completely. Free information flows are as deadly to traditional party politics as was computer modelling to the bond market.

So what does that mean for the future? Those governments which have become detached from their public are clearly doomed (bye bye, EU, I am afraid). So is the old system under which everyone accepted what their party told them. There will be increasing fact-checking, and politicians will have to become more frank. But we will have to change our attitude too. Since Governments inevitably make errors and those errors will be increasingly exposed, the public will have to learn to be more understanding. That is the future and we had better start on the tolerance bit now.

First published in the Shaw Sheet