Monday, April 18, 2016

A short note on the perils of political predictions

When confronted with the prospect of an event that many would regard as both undesirable and unlikely, there is a tendency for some political journalists and academics to remind us of that old adage that everything must pass: human institutions are not necessarily eternal or even as enduring as people often assume.  The purpose of this is to either shake us from our complacency or to accept that the zeitgeist has dispensed with the services of the particular institution we may have affection for - depending on the political prejudices of the author.  

Most recently, this sort of reasoning has been applied to the fortunes of the Labour party in the UK, the continued existence of the UK, now Britain's membership of the EU and more generally the survival of the European project itself.  It is undoubtedly useful to be reminded of how few people saw epoch-making events coming before they arrived.  History is littered with these - but the biggest and most obvious in living memory is the collapse of the Soviet Union, something I often wonder if the left has really come to terms with.  More recently, of course, was the banking crisis.

However, hasn't there been a tendency to over-compensate for these prophetic failures (if that is what they are)?  Everyone agrees making political predictions is a mug's game but almost all of us persist in doing it any way so I've been wondering whether and to what extent there has been in British and European politics in recent times a tendency to underestimate the endurance and resilience of institutions?  For example, in my lifetime this has been most commonly - and most plausibly - applied to political parties.  Why shouldn't the fate of the Liberal party in the 20th century also befall either the Conservatives or Labour?  No reason, really - but they're both still here.  I'm pretty sure I've suggested this might be the case with the Conservatives, prior to 2015 that is.  They hadn't won a majority since 1992, after all.  But they've got one now.  

If this is often wrong, how much more likely is it to be so when applied to nation-states and the international arrangements to which they belong?  Most recently we've had the Scottish referendum during which we were told the whole rotten house was on the brink of collapse.  There are some who still think it's hanging by a thread but I thought then and still conclude that those who think that dismantling a state that is older than the American republic is an easy matter might want to reconsider their position.  It hasn't, after all, even been true of (and apologies in advance for any offence at the use of this term) those states that were 'made-up' after the Great War.  Czechoslovakia is gone and so is Yugoslavia but the genuinely fractured and war-torn constructions of Iraq and Syria are still with us, despite a variety of pundits talking about partition as if it were a 'no-brainer' and I'm wondering if the significance of this hasn't been rather overlooked?  

I'm not sure where the prospect of a 'Brexit' fits into this.  Historically the EU is a relatively recent project - but the European conflicts from which it was born are not.  On the other hand, surely among the reasons that the European project has run into problems recently is the unwillingness of Europeans to completely dispense with borders when it comes to the business of the movement of fiscal transfer and human beings?  I don't know but at the moment I'm inclined to think that there's rather a lot of people who are seriously underestimating the amount of historical political capital that is invested in a number of British and European institutions.  Following the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon we had the Vienna Settlement of 1815 and Europe still has enduring monarchies - so in the spirit of agreeing that making political predictions is unwise but we all make them anyway, I'll predict the following: Britain will say no to Brexit; the EU will survive and so will the Euro; the UK will endure, even if there's another referendum in Scotland; and the British Labour party will survive Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.  Strange eruptions can and do happen in European history but, at the moment anyway, I'm thinking they aren't as easy nor as common as many people seem to assume.


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