It would appear that we are living in dramatically changing times, perhaps even entering a political era in which nothing will be the same again.
Just look at the past few days: Ukip wins a second by-election. The SNP soars in Scotland. The Greens make headway. As the political map is rearranged a former cabinet minister, Owen Paterson, calls on David Cameron to talk about the possibility of leaving the EU. Meanwhile, Cameron prepares a major speech on immigration aimed partly at appeasing supporters switching to Ukip. For his part, Ed Miliband claims he feels “respect” when he passes a house draped in flags of St George, but can only look on impotently as Scottish Labour holds a leadership contest months before the general election.
Everywhere there is mayhem. Or is there? I am sorry to spoil the sense of heightened political drama, but here is a prediction. What seems astonishing now will appear much less significant in years to come, and the landscape is not changing anywhere near as much as we assume it is.
That is partly because politics always seems more dramatic than it really is. We have lived many times before through apparently changing political landscapes. In the early 1980s the rise of the SDP marked a period of political drama as gripping as the current era, a schism on the left, former cabinet ministers with weight and charisma establishing a new party. Reading columns from that era serves as a warning against over-excitement now. Even the most insightful columnists were gripped by a sense that politics would never be the same again. At one point, some Conservative-supporting writers worried their party would come third in terms of the popular vote at the following general election. Left-of-centre columnists wondered whether Labour would ever rule again. When the SDP’s Roy Jenkins claimed to have broken the mould of British politics, he sounded credible. But at the following election the Conservatives were more than safely returned to power.
After the SDP’s collapse several years later, the Conservatives won their fourth successive general election, in 1992. I was at the BBC at the time and there was much talk again about how we were living through a changing political landscape in which, like Japan at the time, one party would rule continuously. Labour won a landslide five years later. En route to that victory there was again much feverish speculation about a dramatic realignment on the centre left, a coming together of Labour and the Liberal Democrats with Paddy Ashdown and Co in the cabinet. It never happened.
Fast forward to the seemingly apocalyptic present and take one more look at last week’s Rochester by-election. The most significant statistic was the support for the Liberal Democrats. The party that used to win by-elections with their eyes closed, secured just 349 votes and came fifth. Their latest humiliation partly explains Ukip’s rise.
Uniquely, the three older UK parties are all contaminated by power or recent power. Labour still suffers from perceptions of how it ruled only a few years ago. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats govern now. Ukip has become the main party of protest. If the Liberal Democrats had remained the party of innocent opposition, Ukip and the Greens would have nowhere near as much political space. Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership the Lib Dems might have won Rochester, and during Cleggmania they would have romped home. Now they are nowhere. The broader political dynamic is the same, only now there are different parties of protest.
In terms of the strength of the protest parties, Ukip is more fragile than the SDP, but so far has escaped much scrutiny. In our presidential culture the commanding, mesmeric leaders are required to take on Nigel Farage’s band. Instead the three orthodox parties are led by leaders who were elevated to the top early in their careers, without fully developed public voices.
Currently the UK’s presidential culture has no presidents. Cameron was briefly shadow Education Secretary before becoming his party’s leader. Miliband was a cabinet minister, but had rarely been exposed to the harsh light at the centre of the political stage. Clegg had been an MP for a single parliament when he became Deputy Prime Minister. All have struggled in very different ways to develop a consistent, coherent and compelling public voice.
The great post-war election winners – Wilson, Thatcher and Blair – had all been tested in different ways on the public stage for many years before securing the leadership of their party. It is highly unusual for all the parties to be led by figures who were largely untested before being elected to their preposterously demanding jobs. Farage has claimed more of the stage than he would have been allowed if a Titan led one of the other parties.
At some point these unusual factors will no longer apply. One of the older parties will elect a formidable leader, or one of the existing leaders will become more formidable. In the far-off future, Labour will get its act together in Scotland and the SNP will not get such an easy ride. The Liberal Democrats will return to their old role of being a party of protest, or will form a coalition that is more in tune with those who had voted for them.
Ukip will become contaminated by the constraints of politics, constraints that are unavoidable and yet despised by some voters. Already I detect normal political behaviour within their party, disputes over economic policy, differences over whom precisely they seek to deport from the UK, and over the autocratic role of Farage, who seems able to dump policies during a live BBC interview. These internal tensions will grow and soon we will hear complaints from voters that Ukip is like all the other parties.
None of these changes will take place before the general election but they are somewhere off in the middle distance. Although I hope and sense that, in a belated response to the financial crash of 2008, there will be radical fluctuations in the way the UK is governed, I do not believe the UK will leave the EU, and I doubt that Scotland will vote for formal independence in the next few decades.
Perhaps we are on the edge of a revolution but it is more likely that Ukip will implode within the next 10 years, after many ups and downs. The UK will still be in the EU, Scotland will remain part of the UK and one party will rule again at Westminster, albeit precariously.
We are on an anti-politics helter-skelter ride, but after the trip is over, the broad political landscape might look more or less the same as it did when we began.