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by Professor James Mitchell
15 March 2018
Politics is in a state of disruption, so how can we make sense of it?

Image credit: PA

Politics is in a state of disruption, so how can we make sense of it?

In October 1987, Michael Fish, the BBC weatherman, dismissed a hurricane warning from a woman who had phoned the Corporation. He was, of course, wrong, but graciously accepted this most memorable moment from his long and distinguished career.

The worlds of economics and politics have had a few Michael Fish moments.  A decade ago another woman asked economists why they had failed to see the economic crisis coming. Political polling on both sides of the Atlantic too has had a bad press in recent times, with an enquiry after the 2015 UK general election concluding that ‘the 2015 polls were some of the most inaccurate since election polling first began in the UK in 1945’, caused primarily by unrepresentative samples.

Methodological problems apart, the degree of volatility in public opinion has created challenges. Sir David Butler, doyen of electoral studies, took to twitter aged 92, offering excellent historical analysis during last year’s general election. He noted that the ‘movement in the polls over this campaign is bigger than in any election I've covered since 1945.’ 

If the woman in No.10 had miscalculated, she had done so on the basis of overwhelming polling evidence that she would win a landslide before the campaign started. Polls may offer intimations of the future but we are far from being able to make firm predictions.

There are a number of explanations for political and economic turbulence and consequent difficulties in predicting future patterns of behavior. The link between the economic crisis with its consequences for fiscal policy and public opinion is far from straightforward.

The idea of disruption has been used to describe the rapid economic changes associated with the internet, new management practices, robotics. The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge’s 2015 book of that name already looks dated given the speed of change giving force to his argument. Paul Gilding’s text of the same name focuses on the economy and ecology but contains a similar set of messages. Frances Fukuyama, never one to miss a bandwagon, distils many arguments that have been brewing under the same title.

But as well as technological changes there have been political disruptions. Our understanding of political behaviour, as much as the weather, derives from our understanding of the past. But the past is marked by discontinuities when past trends and paths are disrupted. And we are in a period of disruption.

The Independence and Brexit referendums have disrupted old voting patterns.  Changes that we have witnessed normally come gradually. The SNP’s takeover of much of the Labour vote was a long time coming but when it happened, it did so with dramatic speed and effect. Brexit’s effect has been much less dramatic but no less speedy.

Much remains unclear. Will politics settle into a new equilibrium with small incremental changes or is more turbulence on the horizon? Is there any prospect of a return to the political status quo ante? And this presents real challenges for policy makers.

The apocalyptic tendency in some accounts creates fear and a sense of lost control. It is reasonable to assume, though needs careful testing, that the demand to ‘take back control’ and to identify scapegoats and easy ‘solutions’ is a reaction to these disruptions. The demand may have been to ‘take back control’ but the UK Government looks less in control of events now than ever.

Forty years ago, during an earlier period of European uncertainty, Ernst Haas compared the situation as like a ‘giant simultaneous chess match over which the judges have lost control’. Confusion and uncertainty reigned. He could have been writing about politics today rather than four decades ago. Finding agreement when there are incompatible aims make for very difficult negotiations in a highly interdependent world.  Forty years on and the situation is even more complex.

Aberdeen University’s late Professor Frank Bealey cautioned budding political scientists against making predictions. We had enough trouble understanding the past and making sense of the present. It might seem foolhardy to ignore this advice but if the study of politics has any claim to being scientific then it should at least aspire to three key characteristics: an ability to describe, explain and predict. Prediction follows from description and explanation. The problem is that the past is never completely replicated, thus making the future more unpredictable. 

Politics does not operate in laboratory conditions, lessons are learned and conditions are never exactly the same. And we are living in remarkably turbulent times requiring a doze of Humean skeptism and we need to spend more energy trying to make sense of where we are in order to understand where we are heading.

Professor James Mitchell is Director of the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh. @ProfJMitchell

​Professor Mitchell will speak on the subject of 'Turbulent Times: Politics Today in Scotland, The UK and Europe' at 'Politics Explained' on 22 March. For information on the event, or to book a place, visit the Scottish Politics Explained website

Read the most recent article written by Professor James Mitchell - Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

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