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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