Monday, 3 August 2009

Political betting - a Rumsfeldian perspective

Chess is a trivial game. I do not make this statement to annoy chess players: it is a mathematical statement. All information is available to both players throughout, the rules are predetermined and in theory at least all possible outcomes are known.

Unlike chess, bridge is a non-trivial game. The different players have different information at different times. Each player must make his decisions not on the basis of perfect information but on the basis of what he knows at the time. It is possible to make objectively the right play but for it to fail where other plays would have succeeded. Good players will win in the long run, but they can and often will lose in the short run.

Politics is non-trivial and it is not a game. Not only do different players have different information at different times, the rules can change dramatically - if indeed there are any rules. Things that can seem completely unimportant in advance can become the subject of all-consuming debate. Dull subjects can become the lead story. Who would have guessed in January that the public would have been transfixed for days by a political story involving a bathplug and porn?

All of this is perhaps stating the bleeding obvious. But political betters do have a tendency to assume inevitability about the future in a way that they would consider barking mad in other aspects of life. Sometimes the race goes not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and strong happen to them all.

Political betting involves weighing up contingencies: when is the election date? will Gordon Brown be replaced? can Labour recover in the polls? But behind those contingencies, the known unknowns if you like, there are, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, unknown unknowns: the things we don't know we don't know.

Some things are truly unknowable, but others are unknown unknowns simply because no one has bothered to think about them. So in that spirit, I set out five things that might transform British politics in the next 10 months.

1. A natural disaster

George W Bush was able to invade Iraq, screw up the occupation and still get comfortably re-elected. But he never really recovered from the debacle of Hurrican Katrina. In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen, but we could get floods, storms, unnatural heat (don't laugh), a big freeze or, if you are a fan of the Discovery channels, the fallout from supervolcanoes or asteroid strikes. Would it be to the benefit or detriment of the Government? That depends on how it was handled. An asteroid strike would, I expect, lead to a sharp rise in Lib Dem prospects in Wales.

2. Financial turmoil

Amazingly, given that we have only just come out of a bout of this, everyone seems to have forgotten how scary it can be. Might it happen again? If it did and the Treasury responded with as much assurance as it did last time round, might the Government benefit?

3. War

As late as mid-July 1914, the war that British people feared was a civil war in Ireland. A new war could erupt very quickly. There are plenty of obvious flashpoints where Britain might get sucked in - and staying out might be as controversial as going to war in some locations. If the war was of worldwide significance, British politics would be shaken up completely.

4. Flags at half mast

This is rather morbid, but if the Queen were to die, the nation would go into mourning. Things that seemed perfectly fine in normal circumstances would seem horribly inappropriate. Some politicians would get it right, some would get it completely wrong.

Then the nation would be consumed by issues of the succession and the difficult question whether Camilla should be queen. No politician is going to rush into that, particularly since the heir to the throne is hardly a man without opinions of his own.

Fortunately, the Queen seems to be in excellent health.

5. David Cameron trashes his brand

The story of the last few years has been the inexorable rise of David Cameron. But he is a man not a demigod, and he can make mistakes. One serious mistake is all it takes to finish a politician off. If David Cameron becomes damaged goods, all bets are off for the next election.

Of course, none of these things may come to pass. Other entirely unexpected things almost certainly will come to pass. Each year something comes as a bolt from the blue. When calculating political odds, a discount factor must be applied for "events".



Ave it 09 said...

A 6th option - 'Ave it' gains world control!!!!!!!

Ted said...

To an extent we can make a judgement on the unknowns you mention as they aren't entirely unprecedented but agree a "game changer" can pop along without warning. Looking at uour list:
1 - Brown escaped sanction for the floods & plague in summer 2007 because the press was friendly; today? Doubt he would and the real response i 2007 was poor.
2 -Financial turmoil. You can only save the world once, another financial crisis does indicate you didn't do it the first time.
3 - Gov't unprepared would IMHO be the judgement, as in 1 the media have written Brown off so the worst construction would be made.
4 - Gordon is no Baldwin or Blair. Doesn't do empathy nor judge mood. He suggested changing the rights of succession without actually asking the Queen.
5 - Hard to see what, DC is a careful man but its a risk. Its the Conservatives to lose now - and they could.

Mike Smithson said...

This post has now been republished on the main PB site