You will, by now, have heard the reasons why Marine Le Pen can never be elected president of France. She may be the most popular candidate, but the electoral rules are designed to stop people like her from winning. The first round of voting is about whom the French like: A beauty parade of a dozen or so candidates. But the next round is a choice between the final two, and it’s about whom voters most dislike. So the system is rigged, to stop anyone from the Front National from reaching the Elysee.
History teaches that this system never fails. But history, recently, has been playing up. The Scottish parliament’s election rules were designed to stop the nationalists winning a majority and calling a referendum. That is not going terribly well. Labour’s leadership rules, demanding that dozens of MPs are needed to nominate a candidate, were designed to stop the far-Left capturing the party. So much for that. The idea of a blogging comedian such as Beppe Grillo becoming a serious force in Italian politics once sounded like a punchline in itself.
Surprises do happen in politics — but when they happen all the time, it’s time to ask if the assumptions are a little out of date. A striking feature of the new age of uncertainty is how each shock is preceded by data assuring us that it couldn’t possibly happen. On polling day, Princeton University experts put Donald Trump’s chances at 1 per cent, which was generous compared with the 0.5 per cent that former British prime minister David Cameron was given of winning a majority at the last election. Bookmakers put the chances of Brexit at 20 per cent.
Never have elections been so intensively polled, never have these polls been extrapolated with such sophisticated techniques. And never have the predictions been so spectacularly wrong. When scribblers like me are confounded by events, we blame the pollsters. But the polls — always a blunt instrument — have not been so far off. The United States polls had Hillary Clinton three percentage points ahead of eventual President Trump. She finished two points ahead and it was experts, not pollsters, who had translated all this into Trump having no chance. During the European Union (EU) referendum campaign, the polls showed a close race, with Leave ahead several times. It was experts, not pollsters, who predicted that voters would stick with the devil they knew. Data are compiled and arranged by humans, who have a weakness for dressing up their gut instinct as objective evidence.
The last few years have proved Karl Popper’s rule of prediction: That history cannot follow any laws because there is no algorithm for human nature. “The fact that we can predict eclipses,” he wrote, “does not provide a valid reason for expecting that we can predict revolutions.” Astronomers can tell exactly where the Sun will be, relative to the Moon, in a generation’s time because both follow established laws of physics. But politics is a cauldron of human emotion, and there’s no telling what will boil over. Or when. The CIA’s declaration in August 1978 that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation” was not proof that the agency was imbecilic. It was just a reminder that the idea of an Islamic theocracy taking hold of a supposedly modernising country was about as plausible as, well, someone like Trump taking the White House.
Trends like the Arab Spring and populism are hard to spot in advance. Which is why most of the great changes in recent years — the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring or the rise of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) — took so many by surprise. When my mother-in-law was studying Biology at Soviet-run Prague University, she was obliged to study Marxist doctrine: The belief that capitalism would end in exploitation, leading to a revolution and then Communism. This was taught not as theory but science: That Marx’s laws of history were as immutable as Newton’s laws. This is the “historicism” that Popper held up to ridicule and it sounds daft now. But it has been making a comeback: The growing faith in the notion of “political science” and the power of data to predict election results and the destiny of nations.
From the mid-1990s, a few rules did seem to serve as a rough guide. Elections, they suggested, are won from the centre of a Left-Right spectrum and that globalisation was an unmitigated good. But then countries changed — as they tend to do. The uneven recovery from the crash meant the word “modernisation” did not leave everyone with a warm glow, especially those who saw things developing in a way that disadvantaged them and their children. Mass immigration brought demographic change and new concerns.
Where will the newcomers live? Isn’t housing scarce enough already? Will they lower wages, or make it harder for school leavers to find a job? Politicians who rejected these as ugly, fringe concerns created a vacancy for new parties who were less squeamish. This is what has scrambled the whole system: Politics has moved, but parties haven’t followed. Many still cling to the mid-1990s consensus, not realising the views they dismiss as fringe have become mainstream. Three-in-five Americans agree with Trump over bringing back waterboarding; two-in-five want his wall with Mexico.
Even on the other side of the pond, in Europe, a recent Chatham House poll found that stopping immigration from Muslim countries was supported by most voters in eight European countries (including France and Italy, but not Britain). Somehow, a gap has emerged between popular opinion and the conventional political menu — and these are the conditions for upheaval. Or not.
The last general election in Britain returned a more stable government, as voters recoiled from the prospect of another coalition. The recent rerun of Austria’s presidential election saw the far-Right Norbert Hofer rejected by a larger margin. Brexit seems to have discombobulated United Kingdom Independence Party, which is struggling in what should be a very winnable Stoke-on-Trent by-election.
As Britain has shown, populism tends to go away if the government responds to people’s concerns. The only spectre haunting Europe is the panic of established political parties who have taken too long to work out that things have changed. All of this shows democracy working as intended, rather than being in crisis. It certainly makes things unpredictable — but democracy, if it’s done right, usually is.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Fraser Nelson is the editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.