To have knowledge is to recognise its limits. From Socrates onwards, the greatest philosophers have taught us this lesson. We cannot predict the future and we often struggle to recall or are ignorant of the past. Yet, as pattern-seeking creatures, human beings seek certainty and suppose the presence of order and regularity where none exists.
In the past year, politics has reminded us of this. For most of the general election campaign, the near-universal assumption was that the contest would result in another hung parliament. As an incumbent party, the Conservatives, it was said, were incapable of increasing their share of the vote by the margin required to win an overall majority. This belief was seemingly confirmed by opinion polls, the value of which was elevated to new heights. The result was a campaign that was defined by scrutiny of prospective coalition deals – between Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP), or the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – rather than of policy.
Yet the electorate, it transpired, had made its own deal with the Conservatives and, in Scotland, with the SNP. The much-derided assertion by government ministers that there was “only one poll that counts” (often made in spite of their own forecasts) proved entirely correct. David Cameron became the first prime minister since Lord Palmerston in 1857 to increase his party’s share of the vote and seats, a reminder that what is described as “unprecedented” is often merely rare.
The Labour leadership election similarly defied assumptions. When Jeremy Corbyn made it on to the ballot, few, including himself, believed that he had a meaningful chance of victory. As a long-time rebel backbencher and an unashamed left-winger, he was considered incapable of achieving the support required. Yet not only did Mr Corbyn win, he won by a landslide. Rather than hindering him, his lack of ministerial experience and Bennite politics allowed him to define himself successfully against his three opponents and, in the process, inspire a new generation of activists.
The lesson of both contests was that politics, an arena defined by human choices, is immune to foolproof prediction. Too often, a single event or decision is regarded as having irrevocably transformed policymaking. When George Osborne, for instance, delivered his Budget in July and pledged deep cuts to tax credits, many claimed that he had permanently unravelled the system introduced by Gordon Brown.
Yet, less than five months later, in his Autumn Statement, after a concerted campaign against the cuts, the Chancellor abandoned almost all of his planned reductions to in-work benefits. Those who argued that to do so would be “impossible” if the Chancellor was to meet his target of a Budget surplus failed to anticipate the £27bn windfall that he reaped as a result of improved forecasts. The desire for definitive judgements led to the discounting of the variables involved.
After the parliamentary vote against military action in Syria in 2013, the first time a British government had been defeated over a matter of peace and war since 1782, it was claimed that the UK had entered a new era of isolationism. But just two years later, UK forces are conducting air strikes in the same country. The terrifying speed with which Isis has advanced is another corrective to those who make confident assertions about even the near future. Having at one point been in retreat, the Islamist terror threat is at its highest ever level. The insistence by many that British ground troops will never again be deployed in the Middle East may not survive events.
The best position from which to judge all forecasts, doctrines and institutions is that of scepticism. If an excess of doubt can inhibit progress, its absence frequently has far worse consequences. We are still living with the damage inflicted by utopian projects such as the euro and the Iraq War. Too much of current economic discourse ignores the possibility – and even probability – of another crash. As Voltaire observed: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”
Scepticism will never be the most fashionable or glamorous cause. It has no party, it has no anthem, it has no flag. But it is the best response to a febrile and inconstant world, as well as to the machinations of party politicians and ideologues everywhere. When the need for scepticism is matched by its supply, the failures of the past will have been learned from.
We wish all our readers the very best for Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year.
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special