In What is History?, E H Carr quotes Leopold von Ranke: history is "what actually happened". When I first read that, long years ago, it struck me as a banal statement of the commonplace, infinitely less enticing than the teleological grandeurs of Hegel and Marx. Over the decades, I hope that I have learned better. Von Ranke was not offering a glimpse of the obvious, but a Methuselah's-lifetime labour of hard thinking.
Another historian cited by Carr, E A Freeman, declared that: "History is past politics and politics is present history". The first half of that sentence seems insufficiently synoptic, but the second is surely right, especially with Von Ranke's dictum in mind. In political analysis, too, it is often necessary to sidestep the temptation of overarching theories and eloquent moral judgements in order to establish what is actually happening. In Britain today, that is more than usually problematic. Yet at least we know whom to blame. It is not the commentators' fault; the guilt lies with the voters.
Their recent behaviour has been impossible. Consider this: one very senior Tory is convinced that if Gordon Brown had held the election on 4 October, "the Tories would now be toast", condemned to internal strife and an endless elongation of electoral despair. Yet my informant also believes that if Mr Brown had gone to the country on 1 November, David Cameron would now be Prime Minister, albeit with a minority government. There has been a 10 per cent swing from Labour to Tory in about two months. The state of the nation does not appear to account for this volatility. So what is happening?
In answering that basic question, the commentators have a recurrent difficulty which is shared by the whole of the political class. It is hard for those who are compulsively interested in politics to empathise with the average voter who thinks that he has better ways of spending his life. Confronted with this, the professionals might be tempted to envy the ancient Greeks, who coined the word "idiot" to describe a man uninterested in politics. But the envy had better remain covert. You might get away with that in Periclean Athens not in modern Britain. Moreover, even if many voters' attitudes or non-attitudes are elusive, that is no reason for giving up the struggle to understand them. The more "idiotic" the voter, the greater the intellectual challenge.
It is impossible to make sense of events without generalisations, hypotheses and concepts. But there is a constant danger that the intellectuals' ideas will connect with reality as a piledriver would with blancmange. This risk has increased greatly in recent years, because the formerly sovereign concepts have lost their potency. In the first couple of decades after the war, matters were easier. It looked as if Britain had a largely tribal electorate which was good at voting. Forty per cent of the voters were Labour tribalists; another 40, Tory ones. The rest divided between the Liberals, apparently condemned to perpetual marginality, and the swing voters, whose moods decided elections.
Socioeconomic factors were the most important variable. Rising living-standards re-elected governments; threats to prosperity ejected them. As a result, constituencies tended to move in a uniform direction. A four per cent swing in Bradford would often be followed by a similar outcome in Bournemouth.
Then tribalism began to disintegrate. Twenty five years ago, Ivor Crewe and Bo Sarlvik wrote Decade Of Dealignment. In a sometimes dauntingly mathematical fashion, it was not only analytic it was prophetic. Since then, dealignment has gained momentum, and this is not only true of tribalism. Much of the electorate has become dealigned with voting. In 1992, turnout was almost 80 per cent; in 2001, under 60 per cent. Last time, it crept back into the 60s, but only because of a lot of dubious postal voting. There appears to be only one way to ensure that three-in-five British voters will cast their ballot: fraud.
We do not know what is actually happening, except that we need new concepts to understand it. This might, therefore, seem to be a foolish moment to extrapolate from two extraordinary months to an election two and a half years away. So here goes.
Gordon Brown cannot recover. He has lost the battle for the new. "Time for a change" is the most effective slogan in British politics. If the voters start to believe it, the Government is in mortal peril. But Mr Brown thought he had his answer: "Yes, and I am the change." That has not worked.
Nor have his attempts to project a new Gordon: values-based, big-tented, listening to the public. That has gone beyond recall. The old Gordon has returned: domineering, paranoiac, only heeding advice from about six people, all of whom are state-registered echo chambers. This is a man who wants to control everything and listen to no one. Gordon Brown's approach to government comes from The Lord of the Rings: one ring to bind them all, in the land of Gordor.
Most voters have not yet realised what a bizarre regime he is running in Downing Street. As time passes, more will be revealed. His style of government guarantees demoralisation and incompetence. A Prime Minister who is simultaneously authoritarian and inefficient will not win admirers. At least in Stalin's Kremlin, the firing squads ran on time.
There is a further difficulty. It was fortunate for David Cameron that there was no election in early November, for it looks almost certain that there will be economic difficulties next year. If the Labour Party had held together and held its nerve, it might have been possible to pin the blame on the new government, and waited for an opportunity to exploit its lack of a parliamentary majority. As it is, and though there seems no justification for major economic turbulence, there will be enough bad news to encourage anti-government sentiment. Gordon Brown has never learnt to talk to the voters in a way that reassures them, and he will certainly get no help from Alistair Darling. So the Government's standing will suffer.
The PM still has one advantage which was denied to John Major. Although there is a lot of despair on the Labour benches, there is little disloyalty. There are rumours that the Blairites are in "we told you so" mode, but their leaders are keeping such thoughts to themselves. Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn want to be major power brokers after the next election, if not, indeed, rivals for the leadership. Neither man wants to be a second Michael Heseltine. They both know that he who holds the dagger rarely wears the crown.
So there seems to be no immediate threat to Mr Brown's position. Yet two and a half months after most Labour MPs thought they would be in office for ever, they are in shock they are watching their government decline towards defeat. Shock breeds passivity. Even so, it is hard to believe that this passive mood could continue for another two and a half years.Reuse content