Gavin Barwell, as Tory MP for Croydon Central, wrote a book called “How To Win A Marginal Seat” based on his experiences, an irony that didn’t get past more or less everyone who reported on him losing that marginal seat in the general election on Thursday. In the spirit of this fine example of guidance given by the unsuccessful, I have decided to give the world my own guide on successfully predicting major world events (whether the world wants it or not).
My qualifications for this are, I would humbly submit, impressive ones. I have failed to predict a range of major events in my lifetime. Leaving aside stuff like the 9/11 attacks, which (literally) came out of a clear blue sky and were expected by nobody:-
- I never expected Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe to end. I just sort of assumed it would go on indefinitely.
- Similarly, I thought apartheid in South Africa would just keep on rolling, since there was no obvious military or economic reason compelling it to end, and people who benefit from political systems would never just give up on them without a fight.
- Although it was pretty obvious the Labour Party were going to win the 1997 general election, I was convinced Tony Blair and Co. were just pretending to be pro-business and Third Way and all that stuff, and would reveal themselves to be red-blooded lefties once they’d done what was necessary to win.
- I couldn’t see what the fuss was about e-commerce in the late 90s, because “those websites don’t do anything you can’t do with a catalogue.” (More or less my actual words).
- I strongly remember studying 19th century history in the early 90s, reading about Victorian banks collapsing after “a run on the bank” and thinking what a weird concept that was, and how glad I was that such events were now definitely a thing of the past. Even though I did have a general sense in the early 2000s that we were going through an economic boom that was clearly going to go bust sooner or later, seeing people queueing up outside the local branch of Northern Rock to get out all their savings in August 2007 still felt like watching something from fiction.
- I thought the best result of the 2010 election would be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. The Labour government had clearly run out of ideas, and a coalition would force them to introduce proportional representation, ensuring a thousand year reign for progressive values. I therefore voted Lib Dem. I lived in a safe Labour seat and in practice my vote made no difference either way, but I’m still annoyed with how completely wrong I turned out to be.
- I thought that the 2015 election would probably end up with another hung Parliament and another Lib Dem-someone else coalition.
- I never expected the Brexit referendum to go the way it did (see previous post on this).
- I was sure Trump would not win the US Presidency (see previous post on this).
- Last Thursday, I calmly informed my colleagues that I would definitely not be sitting up to watch the election results. This was mostly because I expected them to be some kind of triumph for the Conservative Party, and I didn’t want to spend another miserable night watching one of those unfold (see previous post on the 2015 general election – detecting a pattern here?).
You could call it a comedy of errors, if only it were more funny (not that Shakespeare let that put him off). In my defence, some of the early misjudgements were made when I was very young and quite a lot of them were shared by lots of other people, many of whom were supposed to be experts on whatever the subject was. But, other than, “James is an idiot and if you must bet on anything, bet on whoever or whatever he thinks will lose,” is there anything to be learned from my lifetime of prophetic failure?
1. Everyone knows much less than they think they do.
It’s easy to persuade yourself otherwise. Humans seem almost hard-wired to want certainty about the future, which we can’t have without an omnipotent level of knowledge. If we can’t have that certainty, we’ll try and get as close as we can to it by jumping to conclusions based on, often, very limited knowledge and responding to facts that don’t fit these by sticking our fingers in our ears and going, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!” I was making predictions how the leaders of South Africa or Tony Blair and his advisers would act. I had never met them and knew nothing about what truly motivated them. I had never even been to some of the countries involved.
2. Big events often have really complicated causes.
Take the result of an election – that depends on the decisions of millions of people. Why do they decide to vote a particular way? Millions of different reasons, some of which they might not even be aware of at a conscious level or be prepared to admit to.
3. Our predictions are as driven by our emotions as by anything rational
Even a fairly inattentive reader (do I ever get any others?) will have noticed the large amount of wishful thinking in a lot of my predictions, alternating with excessive pessimism where the wishful thinking has become so obvious, even I’ve noticed it. That’s usually after a run of failed predictions. Both have more to do with how I feel about the situation than any kind of rational thinking.
4. Beware of relying on conventional wisdom
A lot of my mistakes derived from believing exactly the sort of things that “experts” in the media were telling me, in spite of being generally fairly cynical about what the mass media tends to say about things. This is the hardest part of it all for me to explain logically. I can only say that, whilst in theory, everyone wants to be the lone contrarian who turned out to be right, that’s a big risk to take and a lonely position to be in. Everyone tends to look around for people who agree with them (and ignore those who don’t). I guess I’m no different.
5. I should get out more
Well, I write a blog, so QED. More seriously, the wider the range of people you know, the better you are likely to be able to predict events that a wide range of people have some influence over. If my contacts with Americans had involved more coal miners and steelworkers, and fewer internet nerds, die-hard liberals and die-hard liberal nerds, I’d probably have seen him coming a lot better.
And armed with this knowledge, I expect…that I will probably go on misjudging the world around me. If you could easily get rid of your flaws by knowing about them, life would be so much simpler than it actually is. Fortunately for me, it seems failure in this field needn’t be career limiting. Within a couple of days of losing his seat in Parliament, Gavin Barwell was appointed chief of staff to the Prime Minister. Anyone who’s made it this far will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t expect that to happen, either.