Leading article: The year we learned to dance lightly

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The Independent Online

Everything that we thought we knew was turned upside down in 2008. Gordon Brown was finished. Inflation was a bit of a worry. Unfunded tax cuts were the kind of nonsense that lost votes. America would never elect a black president. Simon Cowell had had his day.

Untrue, all untrue.

The reversal of the normal rules of economics has been the most astonishing. Since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on 15 September, up has been down, left has been right and, in the ringing words of Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, "prudence is folly". One moment we thought 4.5 per cent inflation was a bit steep and might require interest rates to go higher. The next we were worried about deflation, a phenomenon unknown outside Japan since the 1930s, and interest rates around the world were cut more or less to zero. One moment we thought Alistair Darling had been on the single malt in his Hebridean croft when he spoke of the worst economic times in 60 years. The next he was announcing a £20bn tax cut, paid for with money he did not have, and he and his boss were being hailed as economic geniuses leading the world out of the valley of despair.

The Independent on Sunday does not claim special powers of clairvoyance. But we did sound a warning note in the summer, when the speculation that Mr Brown would be replaced reached a crescendo. In May, when a ComRes poll had Labour 17 points behind, we said in this space that "we have not given up on Mr Brown. He has hardly been a perfect prime minister but in the decisions he has taken as opposed to the presentational mistakes he has made, he has been a competent guardian of the national interest". We thought he was being oversold in the political market, just as we suspect that he may have been overbought in recent weeks. The truth is that he has given himself a fighting chance at the next election, although it may be that he will still lose.

If there is a lesson in this it is that the Westminster narrative tends to overshoot. The "Brown's Toast" story overlooked three fundamentals: the unreadiness of the alternative candidate, David Miliband; the Prime Minister's own resilience and cunning; and "events".

The conventional wisdom was wrong about the London mayoralty too. Boris Johnson was, it was said, a buffoon – a judgement that relied too heavily on the bread rather than the circuses model of democratic politics.

American politics proved just as unpredictable. At the start of this year, Barack Obama was given a 15 per cent chance of winning the presidency by the betting markets. Within days he won the Iowa caucuses by a greater margin than expected. Yet, even over the months that it took for the certainty of his election to harden, we cannot have imagined that his administration would be as environmentally friendly as it is now shaping up to be (as we commented here last week, and as Geoffrey Lean reports today). Of course, some of the hopes that we have been audacious enough to invest in one man are bound to be disappointed, but if even a fraction of his promise is fulfilled, it would be an outcome that could not have been expected a year ago.

Indeed, 2008 has been a year of surprises. Who would have thought that someone who couldn't dance would pull out of a dance competition on the grounds that he was going to win? Who would have expected Leonard Cohen to be given reasons to look on the bright side of life? Above all, who would have thought that Peter Mandelson would return to the Cabinet from what he archly referred to last week as "my recent Continental secondment"? It was Mr Brown's friend Michael Wills, the Justice minister, who described him and Mr Mandelson as "like scorpions in a bottle" – only one of them would crawl out alive. Well, the scorpions are back in the bottle again.

There is a lesson in all this for the future, to do with unknown unknowns, thinking outside the box and being open to the unexpected. The kind of flexibility and adaptability that enabled mammals to prevail over reptiles, homo sapiens sapiens to prevail over homo sapiens neanderthalis and liberal democracy over totalitarianism. It may be a tactless moment to mention it, but it is in its very ability to respond to the unexpected that capitalism has such a remarkable capacity to renew itself.

There will definitely be a recession next year – possibly. There will certainly be a general election (despite the current Westminster consensus) – or maybe not. If you want to be right about anything, be sure to dance lightly around the rock-solid certainties of 2009.