The Contingency of Political Life

Today feels like a day for taking a long view. As Scotland votes, so we sit about, waiting to see what happens. For me, the experience is a salutary one, since it makes me think about how contingent political life can be.


Not panicking

Of course, I should be used to thinking about contingency and conditionality: what is euroscepticism if not a challenge to a perceived status quo? Indeed, in one way or another, almost all my academic work has been concerned with those on the margins, trying to find a way to continue.

But the Scottish independence campaign has really brought home the extent to which all political structures lack fundamental stability. As various people have noted in the past couple of weeks, very few people would have predicted at the start of the year that the UK might be split up today. As I discussed last week, whatever the outcome today, the UK is going to change in a very fundamental way: all those things we told ourselves about this Union been very stable and evolutionary now look rather contrived.

In the very long run – at the level of human civilisation – that contingency looks even more marked: the entire history of modern representative democracy is dwarfed by the centuries of monarchical rule and the millennia of tribal living. In that sense, nothing lasts forever, and not much lasts a long time.

Of course, we can go all Marxian/elitist here and saw that there is a meta-stability of elite control and/or oppression of the masses, albeit in changing forms. However, that feels like a side-stepping of the form of political life, by focusing on the purpose thereof.

Where does this leave us?

What should our response to all this be? I would argue that it is two-fold, one academic and one practical.

Academically, we have to unpack the processes at work. Clearly, these operate at vastly different scales: hence long-run effects (climate change) brush against shorter cycles of economic development, all lubricated by the day-to-day of individual political actors and actions. The difficulty comes in the uncertainty of their interaction. Some people voting today will focus on grounds of historical identity, others on economic potential, yet others on like (or dislike) of particular politicians. And of course, most people will not conveniently differentiate between these things, which sometimes reinforce, sometimes counteract.

My own approach on this has been a historical institutionalist one. This grounds itself in the view that things largely look like they used, because the cost of change is high (both materially and attitudinally). This path dependency suggests that we tend to reproduce structures and actions. In this it shares a world-view somewhat akin to the Bayesian modelling of sites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight: certainly, this is what I thought of in recent weeks with Scottish opinion polling, which demonstrated once again that most politicians are neither statisticians nor electoral psephologists. There may be bumps in the road, but the general direction often looks much clearer.

This leads then to a more practical approach. The temptation for all political actors is to get stuck in, to ‘do something’. But that is neither sustainable nor unambiguously positive: consider the impact of most of Westminster hoofing it up to Scotland in the past week. Instead, it speaks to keeping a level head and not panicking.

Of course, this brings us up against the original point about contingency. It’s all very well not panicking, but what if things are much worse than we thought?

This matters because change tends to breed further change. Scottish independence will fuel pressures in Catalonia and elsewhere; Scottish devolution will create demand in other parts of the UK. This is because when people see that change is possible and they don’t have to accept how things are, they become more likely to ask for/demand change themselves. Path dependency puts limits on that, but even the most ardent historical institutionalist would recognise periods of rapid change exist – 1789, 1848 or 1989 to take some obvious examples.

Ultimately, the practical response has to be one that can also adapt to changing situations. One of the great strengths of democracies is their capacity to adapt – the UK is an excellent example, when we consider its development since the 1688 Glorious Revolution – but it is not without difficulties. When things have worked in the past, the temptation is to think they will work in the future. Like the Soviet Union pushing for more steel production while the US moved into services, we always risk fighting yesterday’s battles.

As we sit here, on the edge of a new chapter of British constitutional history, perhaps that lesson will be easier to learn.