The Black Swans of 2014: John Rentoul foretells the most sensational stories of the year
This year's big events are likely to be completely unpredictable – but that's not about to stop John Rentoul giving it a go. From the well-known Tory caught with his pants down to England winning the World Cup, here's what might take us all by surprise over the coming 12 months
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 05 January 2014
'I never make predictions. I never have and I never will.' A rather subtle joke attributed to Tony Blair around the time he became Prime Minister. It seems wise to avoid predicting the unpredictable, but the urge is too strong and the advice is always ignored. We are only human, and trying to work out what will happen next is part of what makes us so.
Such is our interest in the future that, when people such as Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of 'The Black Swan', say clever things about our inability to make accurate forecasts, we try to assimilate their wise words into our machinery of guesswork. When Rumsfeld made his comment about 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns', and when Taleb wrote his book about 'black swan' events, which are a bit like 'should-have-known unknowns', we think that all we have to do is to programme even more unpredictability into our models.
What, then, is going to happen in 2014? It ought to be possible to guess some of the sorts of things that might happen, even if we know that the most important will probably be things we haven't thought of. Those adverts for investment funds have to say, by law, that the past is no guide to the future, but of course it is, and anyway, the past is all we have if we want to guess at the type of black swans that might darken the sky this year.
Let us start with the things that we know we don't know…
The economic recovery surges ahead
We know we don't know what will happen to the economy, but we do know the range of likely probabilities. Almost all economists have consistently over-estimated growth over the past five years, but in 2013 George Osborne stood up in the House of Commons and said, for the first time, that the economy was growing faster than the forecasts. There might be a moment soon when a switch flips in the media brain, and we go from gloom to boom. A black swan needn't be a bad thing – although this might be for Ed Miliband and the anti-growth greenies. It could just mean a period of shockingly good economic news.
We have been here before, when after years of "austerity" (and it was proper austerity then, with rationing and everything), Harold Macmillan was able to say, truthfully, that "Most of our people have never had it so good." And the Conservatives won three elections in a row.
England wins the World Cup!
We know the date of the final, 13 July; we don't know the result. So there remains a possibility that England could win. People who know about the game, which as far as I can see is an entertainment staged for the benefit of betting rings in Singapore, seem to think this is unlikely. Which is probably as well, because it means we professional debunkers won't be called upon to debunk the myth that England's win in 1966 (July) won the election for Harold Wilson (March).
Scotland votes for independence
We know the date, 18 September, and the excitement level has been low so far because most opinion polls put support for staying in the UK at more than 60 per cent. But that could change, especially if other polls suggest the Conservatives are heading for victory in the General Election. Hostility to rule by English Tories in London is a big inciter of Scottish nationalism.
The referendum on the voting system in 2011 offers a precedent. Until two months before the vote, opinion polls tended to find majorities in favour of change. But a cunning campaign by small-c conservatives persuaded people that they were too stupid to be capable of ranking candidates in order of preference. (Still, the Conservatives ought to be sorry now: if the voting system had changed, Ukip would be much less of a threat to them, because they could hope to pick up Ukip second preferences.)
If the Scots do vote for independence, it won't happen straight away: it would be in March 2016 that we find ourselves in two new countries.
Someone launches a nuclear missile
At the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1963 and that of the decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles to western Europe in 1979, many people spent some part of each day worrying about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Now, when the risk of someone, somewhere pressing the wrong button is surely greater, it barely registers as a popular concern. Let's carry on pretending, shall we?
A big asteroid hits Earth
It has been 65 million years since the last big one, and there was a scare the other day about one that came within a million kilometres of us, or something. But there is probably one out there called Black Swan. And then there are the invading aliens that our pathetic technology hasn't detected yet, which are probably already here.
Yet another financial scandal is revealed in Westminster
Now for the unknown unknowns. The MPs' expenses story in 2009 knocked the stuffing out of the political class. It didn't make a huge difference to life, the universe and everything, but it ate away at some of the vitality of democracy. Normally, you would expect a corruption scandal to damage one party rather than the others – as the allegation that Tony Blair sold peerages would have done had it been true – but the expenses farrago was a cross-party, equal-opportunity mud bath. Next time, one of the parties in government is likely to suffer. David Cameron even predicted that the next big scandal would concern lobbying, so you might think ministers would be on their guard. In other words, trouble is almost guaranteed.
A terrorist 'gets lucky'
Ever since 9/11, and especially since 7/7, the spies have shivered our spines with claims to have averted "hundreds" of plots on a similar scale. Similarly, it is suggested that Northern Ireland has been saved from sliding back into sectarian terrorism only by the luck and diligence of the security services. A terrorist has to get lucky only once, as the intelligence mantra has it. If that happens, the minor tilt that has happened under the Coalition Government towards a more liberal regime of detention powers for terrorist suspects would be reversed, and the general tenor of public indulgence towards Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower, might change.
The Help to Buy scheme forecloses on itself
The Poll Tax was promised in the 1987 Conservative manifesto, and the few people who read that bit could have worked out it was a problem. But there is a powerful tendency to assume such things will be debugged before going live. NHS reform and Universal Credit were this Government's attempts to make a really big, vote-repelling mess, but in both cases the wisdom of serial U-turns has postponed meltdown. Meanwhile, we just have to sit back and watch Help to Buy, the Government's plan to underwrite people's mortgages, blow up.
A nasty foreign crisis requires British 'boots on the ground'
The Tehran Embassy siege did for Jimmy Carter in the presidential election of 1980, but Tony Blair was re-elected in 2005 despite the Iraq War. Well, stick a pin in the map of the world. Who would have thought, last year, that we would be sending military advisers to Timbuktu? Who really knows where the Central African Republic is? Meanwhile, there is something ominous going on in Ukraine.
The press catches a 'hypocritical' Tory 'in flagrante'
The ones that affect high politics are surprisingly rare. The Profumo Affair in 1963 – war minister shared a mistress with Russian naval attaché and lied about it to the House of Commons – added to the impression of decay after 12 years of Conservative government; but even so, Harold Wilson only won the 1964 election by four seats. There was Cecil Parkinson's affair with Sara Keays, which in 1983 cost him his place in the Cabinet for four years, but made little difference to the course of the Thatcher government. John Major and Edwina Currie happened before he became Prime Minister, and became known after he had left office, but it is doubtful if it would have made much difference if it had become known earlier, or even if he had had an affair in office.
A revelation about a politician's private life would have to be pretty unusual to cause more than a brief ripple of interest on the surface of public life. That said, David Cameron may have been unwise to insist on the tax break for marriage, because it means the Conservatives favour marriage as a matter of policy, so any Tory committing adultery is fair game for the press. That applies in an equal-rights way to unfaithful gay spouses, too. But I think there would have to be recent class-A drug use on the scale of Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto as well as multiple adultery to break the equanimity of the British voter.
I hope that's all clear, then. A lot might happen, or nothing much. I've learnt my lesson. I thought that knowing something about politics meant I could guess what is going to happen. Early in 1994 I bet that John Major would not last the year as Prime Minister. It seemed obvious that the Conservatives would try to avoid certain defeat by getting in the charismatic centrist Michael Heseltine or the affable buffer Kenneth Clarke to replace him. Then John Smith died. Illogically, this made Heseltine, who had had a heart attack the previous year, the wrong choice, while Clarke refused to modify his pro-European views. Major still faced a challenge from John Redwood the following year, but it may simply have been that Tony Blair's elevation as Labour leader made a change seem pointless. Since then I have never made predictions. And I never will.
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