Conventional wisdom is no guide to the future in an age of turmoil and surprise

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 13th 2019

UK general elections are never about one single subject even when politicians try to define them as such. Ted Heath’s ‘Who governs Britain?’ election of February 1974 became about the state of the country, and Winston Churchill’s belief after the war in Europe ended in 1945 that he would be elected by a grateful electorate turned out to be illusive as voters instead looked to the future.

Similarly this election will not be about just one issue – Brexit. In Scotland there are three big competing issues; and of course much more besides. There is Brexit, who speaks for anti-Tory Scotland, and the independence question.

No one party speaks for majority Scotland across all three. The SNP are the leading party in the first two – positioning themselves as the biggest force in significant sized majorities. But they do not, as of yet, speak for a majority of Scotland on the third issue – independence – which matters most to them.

It is increasingly evident that the ghosts of past elections and limits of what passes for conventional wisdom run through how this election is seen. Thus, 2019 is continually interpreted through the experience of 2017 and the memory of the Corbyn surge – both by Labour Corbyn supporters and many media watchers.

In this age of turbulence it is shocking that conventional wisdom isn’t questioned more often when it has proven time and again such a poor guide. There is now a distinct trend of miscalling recent UK elections.

The 2010 election – Brown v Cameron – was meant to produce (after thirteen years of Labour in office) the certainty of a Conservative overall majority; instead it produced a hung Parliament and coalition. The 2015 contest was, we were told, going to produce a hung Parliament as the days of majority governments were over. What did it produce? An unexpected Conservative overall majority under Cameron and, because of that, the EU referendum he had promised but never expected to deliver.

Come the 2017 election we were confidently told at its onset that Theresa May was going to win an emphatic victory, but instead the opposite happened as she lost her majority and clung onto office for two years, producing the Brexit paralysis which led to her undoing – and the arrival of Boris Johnson as UK PM.

This is a pronounced pattern over the past three UK elections and should give us warning about how the political class, media and their hangers-on assess the mood of elections. Increasingly in an age of uncertainty, too many pundits look to interpret the current battle from the past, often ignoring new factors, and giving overdue importance to older, fading trends.

This should give all of us due caution about making brash predictions concerning the future, but here are two germane facts. First, the UK doesn’t tend to elect consecutive hung Parliaments. Instead, when it has previously elected a hung Parliament – in 2010, February 1974, 1929, 1923 – it has in the subsequent election given one party a majority.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious. In a Westminster political system not familiar with coalition and multi-party compromise, voters tend to react against the uncertainty and instability of hung Parliaments, with enough swinging behind one party at the next election. The last and only time the UK Parliament had two successive hung Parliaments was January and December 1910: a time of intense constitutional and political crisis.

Second, the Conservatives have not won an overall working majority which has sustained them through a whole Parliament since Thatcher’s third term victory of 1987: thirty-two years ago. John Major won a slender majority in 1992 which vanished over the course of the Parliament, and David Cameron won an even narrower majority in 2015 which was blown away by May going to the polls two years later.

This fact isn’t commented upon as much as it should be in reading the electoral fortunes of the Tories, and in assessing whether Boris Johnson can put together a winning coalition. For one, large parts of the UK have become inhospitable territory to the Tories – Scotland, London, most of England’s big cities. Then there is the derisory Tory vote among black and ethnic minority voters that is unlikely to change at the coming election with Boris Johnson’s track record of racist and insensitive remarks.

Something deeper is going on in this picture of repeated Conservative failure. One dimension is the shortcomings of the new world that the Thatcherites and their successors attempted to create – one where inequality, widespread job insecurity, deregulation and a diminished public sphere have not exactly created a United Kingdom at ease with itself. Add to that the demise of Tory unionism that was meant to tell a tale of four nations united under the banner of ‘a precious union’.

Senior Tory politicians now, as in 2015, regularly pathologise the role of Scottish MPs. In 2015 it was the posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket; in 2019 we have Michael Gove calling a Labour Government supported by the SNP ‘a UK-hating government’. That comment might be many things but it isn’t a politics of Tory unionism; and is instead giving voice to an increasingly harsh, intolerant English nationalism.

The Tories could still win an overall majority – particularly in the face of a Corbyn Labour Party riven with its own internal fissures that has chosen to believe it can repeat its relative success in 2017. But even a Tory majority isn’t likely to reverse these longer term trends – of the retreat of the Tories from large parts of the country, the failure of the much trumpeted Thatcherite revolution, or the hollowing out of Tory unionism.

While all this is going on it is obvious to anyone outside the political bubble that too little of British politics connects to everyday concerns. Too much mainstream political discussions are about insider class obsessions such as whether respective political party messages are cutting through, if they have a convincing narrative or vision, and the state of opinion polls – the cumulative effect of which is to present politics as something done by others to us. It takes politics away from being the collective actions and deliberations of all of us, and instead reduces it to insider class arguments with impenetrable language, loaded assumptions and no link to the lives and concerns of most people.

We have had at least 40 years of this kind of politics having a stranglehold over what passes for public debate and engagement. It began in earnest under Thatcherism, went into over-drive with New Labour and continued under Cameron and Osborne. But like everything the seeds of this decline predate Thatcherism, and can be seen in the politics of Harold Wilson even when he was in his ‘New Britain’ phase of 1963-4, itself modelled on US President John F. Kennedy – emphasising a new generation, energy and vigour, combined with a vague idealism and contrast between the old and new.

The big challenges that developed capitalist countries face are fundamental questions: the consequences of ageing societies, the limits and purposes of taxation, how to deal with the mega-rich, the breaking down of corporate governance, climate change and environmental pressures, the march of automation and AI. Increasingly, mainstream politics and elections seem to be scared of openly discussing them and facing up to difficult future choices.

Scotland is different but not that different

Scottish politics is not that different from this general picture. Our political dispensation may not be in as deep a malaise as part of England for which many saw Brexit as the solution or, at the minimum, a severe shock to the system. But we do have here a politics in Andrew Tickell’s words that focuses too much on ‘being and not enough on doing’ and which for all the big talk of independence is unwilling to confront big strategic policy choices about society.

Our politics over the devolved era has avoided being one which knowingly goes down the route of creating noisy winners and losers in any policy area – this propensity becoming even more pronounced in the period of SNP rule.

Big questions about local government and democracy, land reform, community empowerment, education, inequality, the meaning of social justice and how to advance it have, for all the warm words and rhetoric, not seen much substantial progress over the past two decades of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, beyond the claims of good intent and self-congratulation there is a deafening silence and evasion where there should be vibrant debate about who has power and influence, and who is gaining and losing from the present state of Scotland.

Sure there are some technocratic tinkering proposals and some sweeping radical suggestions, but very little detailed proposals for far-reaching and deliverable change which take on vested interests, and in so doing creating constituencies who win and lose from the changes.

Why this is so is a long story. One is the experience of the poll tax thirty years ago. It created a host of very aggrieved losers from its introduction, but was itself born of a rates revaluation which created vocal, influential middle class losers. But this situation has a longer set of roots going back to Scottish politics being done pre-devolution as a corporate interest lobby whose primary aim was to get more money and leverage out of Westminster. Despite twenty years of the Scottish Parliament we still have not left this debilitating mindset.

All of this raises uncomfortable questions about what politics and politicians should be about. In the past twenty years 306 individuals have been elected to the Scottish Parliament, 21 of them ‘lifers’ since 1999 (Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Johann Lamont being the obvious examples) and despite all those elections, politicians, debates and speeches, as well as numerous laws, we have yet to really begin a serious conversation about the above.

Scottish politics has in spite of, and in many respects because of, the independence issue been about the avoidance of difficult debates and hard choices. This is an unhealthy situation which stymies democracy and making any real changes, and which instead strengthens the current status quo and those who know how to work the system.

It could continue into the near future, but if it does the gap between official rhetoric and reality will grow, any progressive credentials will wilt, and those who have gained the least or been marginalised will begin to question the basis of our politics. In an age of change, turmoil and surprises, Scotland will be no exception, with our current political class – unless they want to, or are forced to change – eventually being challenged and replaced by people with new ideas who will talk openly about the big questions.