Britain’s forty year political crises

Posted in long waves, politics by thenextwavefutures on 13 September, 2015
Photo by DonkeyHotey on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the striking things about much of the commentary on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership election campaign and victory was the short-term nature of the historical thinking. Mostly, it seems, political memories stop in the early 1980s, when current 60-somethings started work. And some of the political prognosis has bordered on hysteria.

There’s a longer view that might help people understand what is happening.

The political scientist David Runciman has observed that Britain has had political crises every 40 years, for more than a century now. There was one in the 1890s, one in the 1930s, one in the 1970s, and we’re certainly living through one now.

Broken systems

Since “crisis” is an over-used word in politics, it’s probably worth observing that in each of these political crisis periods, the system looked as if it was broken, to significant numers of participants.

Signs of the present crisis run quite deep: the depth of support for Scottish independence (shades of Irish Home Rule campaign in the 1890s); the gap between votes and seats for the Greens and UKIP, and inversely, for the SNP in Scotland; the long run trend of decline in voting participation; the gap between the “political class” and their views and those of many of the electorate; the difficulty in winning an electoral majority (a 12-seat majority would have been regarded as wafer thing in the ’60s and ’70s); the lack of credibility of the House of Lords as a second chamber. And so on.

The baffled political class

To which we can add Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, and the level of public engagement in his 99 campaign meetings, which may or may not be Britain’s “Oxi moment“, as Richard Seymour argued yesterday, but has clearly baffled the political class. Which in turn says something about the nature of the crisis: Chris Bambery has a good article that outlines the differences between Corbyn’s political style and the dominant version that we’ve become used to.

So how do these political crises resolve themselves? Slowly, certainly, but there’s also a forty-year story that also links each of the decades that follow the crisis. In the 1900s, we saw huge social reform, largely around protecting individuals from the market, and in the 1940s the state created institutions that locked in social democratic ideas. In the 1980s, public institutions were re-shaped around ideas of the market, or sold off. Each of these represented a deep and fundamental shift in social values around the relationship of government to people and institutions. In a sense they involved our institutions catching up with social change that had already happened. Will this happen in the 2020s? I don’t know, but it is at least possible. Given other pressures (such as long-run slow economic growth) it may even be likely.

Disruptive change

While there’s not a completely convincing theory that sits behind this pattern, it seems that it might be generational[*]: the first generation does well out of changes, and knows why they were introduced, but in the second generation, contradictions and problems emerge but the institutions have become “locked in”, structurally and behaviourally. So when they start to crack – when the gap between these two becomes too great – change can happen quickly and disruptively.

Futurists don’t deal with predictions, but they do look at patterns. And much of our richest work is about outlining possible futures that represent blindspots to those at the heart of a system. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is ever Prime Minister is less important than the sign of social change that his overwhelming leadership victory represents. It might be good for the political class and the commentariat to step towards the future with a lighter tread.

* Update: On Twitter, @BrianSJ suggests that Strauss and Howe’s “Fourth Turning” model of generational change might be relevant. They suggest – largely on US evidence – that over 80 years, societies go through a “crisis-to-crisis” cyles, as follows:

  • Crisis
  • High (“First turning:” in which new institutions are built)
  • Awakening (“Second turning”: in which society is energised by the institutions)
  • Unravelling (“Third Turning”: in which the conflicts and contradictions become apparent)
  • And back to Crisis (“Fourth Turning”) again.

To explain a 40-year model on the basis of their work, you would say that there are large crises every 80 years (say, 1930s and 2010s) and smaller but still significant crises in between, where the “Awakening” phase shifts into “Unravelling”. The implication is that this shift from Awakening to Unravelling, which involves a shift in values, also needs institutional innovation.

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2 Responses

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  1. Ian Christie said, on 13 September, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks Andrew. Very interesting and compelling. I think the generational theory makes some sense; ditto the idea that democratic institutions generate their own form of ‘lock-in’ – if arrangements work well over a whole generation or more, it becomes hard for those involved to see deep problems with them, or to make change a priority even when problems are obvious (see eg the case of the House of Lords – always a problem, rarely a crisis, never a priority). This is linked to Runciman’s idea that democracies get into ‘confidence traps’, complacent mindsets that mean elite stakeholders can’t believe that their familiar institutions and approaches won’t get them out of trouble every time, or that time-tested systems won’t adapt. (NB the US constitution has not been amended for 40 years – yet everyone admits the system is now dysfunctional.)

    One difference from 40 years ago is that then the aftershocks of the 1973-4 oil crisis and great inflation disoriented both left and right, eventually leaving the way open for the waves of neoliberalism since 1980; whereas now the left is clearly a lot more disoriented than the right – the crisis of neoliberal finance in 2008 did little to destabilise the right in most of the West, except in the USA where the Republicans have been having a psychotic episode ever since. Even there, though, the GOP’s deep divisions and instability haven’t led it to lose power in states and congressional districts.

    The other difference from 40 years ago is that then the neoliberal insurgents had a fully worked-out ideology and programme that was a clear alternative to everything that had gone before. That is not true of Corbyn’s Labour, which is a very uneasy blend of backwards-looking trade unionism and would-be Podemos-style new leftism. Corbyn also has no story to tell about institutional lock-in. Would he campaign for a constitutional convention? I doubt it.

    The other story that is emerging is that Corbyn’s win marks another step towards the break-up of the UK. He might well help UK leave the EU – in which case Scotland will vote for secession. And even if he doesn’t, if he proves to be a no-hoper in England, the SNP can claim union is pointless as it means permanent rule by the Tories.

  2. Oligarchs and executives | thenextwave said, on 31 October, 2016 at 8:25 am

    […] you don’t buy the psycho-social generational analysis that goes with it. It also pops up in David Runciman’s heuristic about 40-crises in modern British history (financial crisis leads to political crisis leads to […]

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