I’ve been involved in politics for over 40 years but can never recall a time where the political situation was so fluid or the potential outcomes so unclear. I used to believe that I had a fair idea of what the result of an election would be. Throughout the latter part of the 20st century, into the new millennium, I would have a reasonable idea of what was going to happen. Sometimes I was out, but not by much. That applied in local council and Scottish parliamentary elections, in the UK more widely and even in other countries where I had an interest and some knowledge.
I placed a bet on the 1988 Govan by-election – though I have never gambled before or since – as I was so certain of victory. Likewise, I’ve been conscious of looming defeat in many of the early elections I contested. However, the mood swing to the SNP in 2007 was noticeable and though I never predicted a majority in 2011, I could sense an excellent result was coming. At the time, I believed the independence referendum could be won but also knew defeat was possible, the final close result testifying to that.
But now I find it hard to predict possible outcomes; the received wisdom has failed.
It’s not just me or in just this country. It’s happening around the globe, not just with Brexit and the election of Trump but the decline in Angela Merkel’s prestige in Germany and the collapse of many of the once-powerful social democratic parties. The whole world and certainly the West is seeing political convulsions. Old orders are not just challenged but turned on their head. The parties of the left that dominated in western Europe when I was young have not just been supplanted by the right but, in some parts, have been almost obliterated. France is the classic example and yet the victor in the Presidential election came not from the old Gaullist or Republican opposition but was Emmanuel Macron, who established his own party setting himself up as the saviour of the nation. Far-right parties have been elected in former Communist bloc nations and an extreme-right party is in government in Austria. Once its capital was dubbed Red Vienna.
Even the psephologists are challenged. In March, I was over in the United States and was staying at a hotel on Ambassador Row in Washinton DC. A fellow resident noted my accent and engaged my partner and I in conversation. He explained he was a pollster, as Americans call them. Though he lived in Florida he commuted up to Washington when the Senate and Congress were in session, as that’s where his business lay. He ran a large and influential company and they carried out not just in-depth polls but focus groups along with all the other formats now used to gauge attitudes and opinions.
Discussing the presidential election, he said he had tracked the late victory for Trump but then went on to express complete uncertainty as to what would follow in his wake. What he was absolutely certain about though was that the mould was broken. There would be no return to the soft centres of Clinton, Bush or any other of the examples. The country was polarising and it would be followed either by a Trump-plus type candidate on one side or a Bernie Sanders-plus sort on the other. Of that he was certain. Given the hardening attitudes I saw when over there and have followed in the press since, it appears he’s right.
Meanwhile, in the UK and Scotland there are just so many variables that despite all my years of experience, I’m unable to predict the political future with any certainty. It’s possible that the Tories could split apart over Brexit and be crushed in an election by a further Corbyn surge. Equally, Theresa May could cling to power long enough for an agreement to be reached, even if it’s just a fig leaf of a deal, that would see her replacement romp triumphantly home, as Corbyn ages and his support recedes.
Likewise in Scotland, the SNP could once again galvanise Scottish opposition to the Tories, over their enforced austerity and increasingly perceived incompetence, sweeping all before them.
Or alternatively, a Corbyn surge and a return to the ‘one last push to remove the Tories’ mantra, could see them once again almost eliminated entirely from Westminster.
We also know the centrists are faltering here, whether on the constitution or the political perspective of left and right. A Macron-type situation was possible following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader but didn’t materialise. It still remains a possibility as the public are contemptuous of the body politic, which is a dangerous thing in a democracy. But, who would it be and what policies would they promote? There’s so many permutations it’s almost impossible to speculate. As Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, once said “there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns, that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
We know about Brexit but not the final outcome. We know the economy is damaged but not how badly. We know there are other threats whether terrorist, environmental or industrial but just not how or where; and there’s others we just don’t even know about. Welcome to the Age of Uncertainty.