Liberals always assume that the future is bleak

Politics: The only intelligible lesson from 2016 is that ‘nobody knows anything’

Imagine that Britain's Labour Party had replaced Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband before they contested a general election. In all likelihood, there would have been no Tory government, and therefore no referendum on the EU and therefore no exit from it.

Imagine that Hillary Clinton had swung 100,000 votes across three US states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania – that elected and re-elected Barack Obama. The world would now be stifling a yawn at the resilience of mainstream politics against reactionary stresses.

Those of us who follow politics are suckers for the epic: when electorates do strange things, we want to believe we are living through a kink in history. When the world’s two most stable democracies vote for change, it must be the end of liberalism or the hollowing out of the middle class or something comparably grandiose at work. To blame it on particularities, such as the left’s saintly patience with mediocre leaders in recent years, is somehow unsatisfying.

Maybe this year will turn out to be a lasting twist in the world story from liberalism to non-liberalism. But the grounds for believing so amount to one close referendum and one even closer election. The first is yet to be implemented, or even defined, and the second, whose implications are as ambiguous as the views of Donald Trump, that big-government free-marketeer, that Keynesian Reaganite, is reversible in four years' time.


Americans have just elected a man who wants to cut taxes and repeal financial regulations. From this, Miliband has inferred that the “old economic settlement”, by which he means liberalism, is dead.

The only intelligible lesson of 2016 is that William Goldman’s verdict on Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything”, said the screenwriter – applies to matters of state. Forecasting political events is as inexact a science as picking a commercial hit out of a dozen submitted screenplays, and less fun. Having failed to predict these events, we should leave it a while before extrapolating from them the end of the postwar order of trading nations secured by American military guarantees, or even the post-1979 move to globalisation.

Plausible futures

This confident account, aired as though it had already happened in the days after Trump's election, has western nations tumbling like dominoes to autarky and a suspicion of all foreigners bar certain favoured strongmen. It holds out hope for high-minded Germany as the point of fixity in the storm, like one of its classy midfielders decorating a mindless game of football with some cultured passes.

This assumes rather a lot: that Trump, who has already softened his line on various subjects, meant what he said over the past 18 months; that what he said had a consistent anti-liberal theme; that EU exit will leave Britain less not more open as an economy; that European populism, from France to Italy, will break through over the coming year; that statist change in the west will not be offset by market reforms elsewhere.

It is even presumptuous on the upside. It counts on Germany, which was upset by revelations of American espionage two years ago, volunteering for the ugly burdens that are the lot of a hegemon.

These hunches might be vindicated by events but what justifies the certainty in which they are couched? Who in 2008, as banks fell and governments acted, knew that right-of-centre parties would dominate the rich world eight years later? Why be sure of the shape of the rich world eight years from now?

Perhaps the worst will happen. Or perhaps mainstream politicians will crib enough from the populists to neuter their electoral appeal without changing the fundamentals of our societies. This implies less low-skilled migration and a further gumming-up of the already glacial work of agreeing trade deals. Or maybe America, which gave Clinton more votes than her opponent and gives Obama lavish approval ratings, will revert to the mean in 2020 even without these accommodations.

There are many plausible futures and liberals seem to reach for the bleakest one as self-punishment for their hubris after the cold war, when Francis Fukuyama sensed the "endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution". In jeering his account of history as something that stopped in 1989, we have exchanged one teleology for another: the triumph of liberalism for its impending extinction.

Yes, he erred. But the lesson was the importance of predictive humility. It was the cue to accept human affairs as more of a dog’s breakfast than a knowable epic, not to sell our shares in the distressed asset called market democracy. There is no end of history and there is no end to our hysteria.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016