This isn't the Great Recession, it's the Great Uncertainty

There's power in a name. But we have to get the right one.

Labels matter in orienting our thinking about, characterising and constructing different eras in the global political economy. They are also invaluable shorthand and these days we all increasingly write, and possibly think, in shorthand.

It’s also striking that many such labels have come to acquire the declaratory claim of being the ‘great’ variant of whatever it is they announce. Some of these are now so widely used that we hardly recall their origins.

Think of the "Great War" or the "Great Depression" (although the latter is usually attributed to the book of that name by the economist Lionel Robbins first published in 1934). Keynes, by the way, preferred to talk of the ‘Great Slump, but for some reason that did not catch on in the same way.

Other eras lack an agreed label; and some even lack the epithet ‘great’. John Ruggie generated many citations by proposing the notion of "embedded liberalism" to capture the essence of the post-1945 era, but the phrase never spread beyond the academy. The French, of course, talked of "les trente glorieuses" to describe the period of steady growth up to the mid 1970s, but that too never infiltrated the global English vernacular. Nobody, however, tried out the "Great Growth", or the "Great Expansion", or the "Great Social Democracy"!

Coming closer to the present we have now lived through what some describe, in a rather odd way perhaps, as the "Great Moderation". This phrase was coined by two American economists, James Stock and Mark Watson, in a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research publication and was then popularised by Ben Bernanke, then a member, now the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, in a speech he made in 2004.

The term is grounded in the claim that, starting in the mid-1980s, a series of institutional and structural changes in the economies of leading developed countries caused a reduction in the volatility of normal business cycle fluctuations, thereby diminishing the influence of traditional macroeconomic policy. Now wrecked by events, it was always a complacent take on reality and our colleagues in CRESC at the University of Manchester have fought back by dubbing this whole period of boom the "Great Complacence"!

So where do we sit now? At one level the answer is simple: we live – at least those of us in the West – amidst the "Great Recession". The New York Times journalist, Catherine Rampell, has recently provided a nice etymology of the use of this term. It’s spot on, of course, but it doesn’t catch the deeper elements of our current conjuncture.

For the honest answer is that we don’t really know – yet – where we are, not least because where we think we are will determine how we get out of this mess and we still seem a long way from that. Many suggest, or maybe just hope, that neoliberalism is over. But the neoliberals don’t think so and in any case new eras always take longer to emerge than people think. Thus far, neoliberal dispositions seem to have been reinforced by the crisis – for in a sense that is exactly what austerity is all about.

It is important, though, to remind ourselves that getting from the Wall Street crash of 1929 to the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 took fifteen years. The other great recent period of shift – the "long 1970s" – is even harder to date with precision. But, again, it took a lot of pounding by the neoliberal right to move us from the first signs of the crisis of "embedded liberalism" in the late 1960s to the hey-day of Reaganism and Thatcherism in the early 1980s. So perhaps fifteen years is about standard for these sorts of transitions …

In these circumstances many analysts fall back on Gramsci, reaching for The Prison Notebooks and quoting that bit where he writes that "the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born", adding that "in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear". However, we have opted to take up the challenge implicitly laid down here by Gramsci by trying to think through the key elements of the confusion and contradiction that dominate so many attempts to chart our position.

We label the current era the Great Uncertainty and suggest, by deliberate use of this term, that the present conjuncture is being shaped by a remarkable, and hugely challenging, coalescence of three major processes of structural change occurring simultaneously and interacting in all manner of complicated ways. They can be distinguished analytically as follows:

  • Financial crisis: a largely Western crisis brought about by neoliberal excess and now rendering the resumption of economic growth a severe conundrum for the US, Japan and nearly all major European economies and a problem at least for the rest of the global economy;
  • Shifting economic power: the recent intensification of longstanding movements in the locus of economic power in the world characterised by the rise of countries like China, India, Brazil and several others too;
  • Environmental threat: the eventual realisation that climate change is both real and accelerating and is now asking the most serious questions about the ongoing viability of traditional notions of economic growth and indeed the good society itself.

The key point, though – and the reason that this all adds up to the Great Uncertainty – is that these processes of change are all taking place now and arguably will come to a head at broadly the same time. They also feed off each other in extraordinary and unexpected ways, with the politics flowing both through and between them in highly complex fashion.

This web of change is what SPERI was set up to research and help us understand. In subsequent blogs we will analyse further each of these three interlocking features of our uncertain times.

This is the first in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".

Photograph: Getty Images

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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