Welcome to the Future: The Age of Uncertainty

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, February 28th 2016

Politics and public life are meant to follow neat, tidy, predictable patterns.

Experts and forecasters are supposed to be able to give informed analysis on future change. This doesn’t always work out. Even experts have a continuity bias, while sudden events or factors can emerge, seemingly from nowhere that no one foresaw.

We are living in a time where the art of prediction is becoming more difficult. Think of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the insurgency of Bernie Sanders in the US Democrat race, or the emergence of Donald Trump as frontrunner in the Republican contest. Before that there was the indyref which was meant to, first not happen, and then be a walkover for the union. Now this pattern is repeating itself with the EU referendum, which the establishment is telling everyone will be a foregone conclusion.

What is going on? How many people said Corbyn couldn’t be elected Labour leader? Myself included. It is rumoured that Corbyn himself had similar views, and then came to the shocking realisation that he was going to win.

Donald Trump wasn’t meant to be a serious candidate. He was firstly seen as all show business, and then argued that his support was soft, disorganised and wouldn’t turn out. Next it was that, as the field narrowed, he would wilt. Now as we await next week’s Super Tuesday, he has become the front-runner, and could become unstoppable for the Republican nomination.

The new consensus is that he cannot win the Presidency because he has a negative 70% rating with Democrats, and 46% of voters say they would never vote for him. But he will in all likelihood face Hillary Clinton in the November race, and while her negative ratings aren’t near his, she carries a lot of heavy baggage, isn’t trusted by voters, and would face Trump in a race as favourite, but in a tight contest.

The past was never as predictable as we remember. Many experts thought the long period of economic prosperity in the last decade of the 20th century and first years of this century would go on forever. Gordon Brown as Chancellor trumpeted ‘an end to boom and bust’ and ‘a new golden era for the City’ with ‘light touch regulation’. Sadly, for him and the country, Prime Minister Brown inherited the build-up of economic problems that had grown under his own Chancellorship, to his ultimate cost.

There is a crisis of many assumptions of public life. Politics is defined by the terms left and right which first emerged in 1789 in the French Revolution, and found organised expression in the 19th and 20th centuries. These have become increasingly hollowed out, whereas many contemporary issues about the environment and science cannot be reduced to a left/right divide.

The economic and social assumptions we have grown up with in the West are now questionable. The idea of economic growth and prosperity has been increasingly questioned by green politics, but more painfully, the experience of economic growth in the last 35 years has seen the fruits of prosperity bitterly and starkly unevenly shared.

Mainstream politics has little plausible answer to the above: hence Corbyn, Sanders and Trump. People feel constrained by a culture of conformity, orthodoxy and groupthink. This week Dame Janet Smith’s report into the BBC and Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall’s abuse found that ‘a deferential culture’ allowed them to get away with their actions, and that it existed to this day.

This is an age of contradiction and paradox: one of constant change and rigid dogma, fluidity and economic and social gridlock. Post-Cold War, people were promised a future transformed by the power of markets, yet those who have gained the most are a tiny, out of touch elite who have spawned a culture of unprecedented unelected power and privilege which distorts and destabilises huge swathes of society.

Prime Minister Corbyn probably won’t happen. The electoral landscape and Labour divisions point against it. But who knows the future in such unprecedented times? What happens if the future economic crisis is even more severe and deep than the last one? Then everything could be up for grabs.

The odds are against President Trump but he is a talisman for something: the bankruptcy of US mainstream politics, and that in a time of anger and rage, people will sometimes turn to the most unlikely sources for supposed salvation.

Next week the prospect of Donald Trump becoming Republican Presidential candidate will become clearer. The EU referendum will not be decided for another four months, but in that period, we will be inflicted with a lot of assertion, contentious facts, and noise.

This is an unprecedented era of flux and uncertainty: a set of multiple crises of the economy, society and politics, government and public life. The old explanations of left and right are worn out, and a new toxic mix of populism, identity politics and xenophobia have come to the fore. One thing we can be sure about the future is that it will be even more messy and unpredictable than today. Welcome to the future!