Donald Rumsfeld once famously said:
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.
For that, he won the Plain English Campaign’s Foot In Mouth award for incomprehensible statements. Maybe it’s because I’m a lawyer, but this seems like a model of clarity to me. Those three categories – known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns – are central to understanding any attempt at prediction.
Political bettors spend most of their time making their predictions from known knowns – opinion poll data, economic data, their personal impressions of various political figures and such like. From this, it is all too tempting to get an illusion of control. But illusion it is.
The unknown unknowns (black swans if you like) are for another day. Today I am going to look at two sets of known unknowns.
Is Brexit done?
Britain left the EU on 31 January 2020. That’s not a date that stuck in many people’s heads because the rest of 2020 was taken up with negotiating a trade deal. At the last gasp, a sketchy deal was put out, covering goods (the area of prime EU interest) and not services (an area of much greater interest to the UK). This deal was rubberstamped by Westminster, but the European Parliament has yet to get its paws on it. Will it go quietly?
Britain is still negotiating with the EU over such matters as financial services. There’s no deadline for that but it is seen as very important for the UK. If the EU are disobliging, what then?
YouGov have tracked the public’s view on whether Brexit was in hindsight right or wrong ever since the referendum. For the last year the public has clearly thought it was the wrong decision and the gap has been widening. With the deal, will this gap now close, or are public perceptions now too entrenched?
There are many losers from the deal. Fishermen don’t seem very happy (are they ever?). The Northern Irish unionists are fuming (no change there then). Will they, and other losers, go away quietly? How much are people going to care about any of this?
The evidence is mixed. 15% of the public thought that the Brexit talks were the worst thing to happen last year. Even as someone who believes Brexit’s effects will be more enduring than the pandemic, I find that startling. And you can reasonably assume a similar number of passionate Leavers feel equally strongly the other way. Brexit waned fast in the most recent list of most important issues with YouGov, but still features highly at present.
And, of course, these questions need to be looked at not just now but over time. The longterm salience of Brexit as a divider of the public is critical to understanding the future of British politics.
What has Covid-19 done to London and what does that mean for everywhere else?
For decades, London has been the beating heart of Britain’s demographics, drawing in young people in their 20s from around the world then pumping them out around the rest of the country in their 30s and 40s (particularly to the London commuter belt), taking their metropolitan views with them.
Covid-19 has upended that. London’s population is set to drop this year by something like 300,000. This, however, is not the extent of the effect, because that’s a net figure. Far fewer people will have come to London in the last year, both from overseas and from elsewhere in the UK. And far more Londoners than usual will have upped sticks to the sticks. A vital circulatory system has seized up.
In a First Past The Post parliamentary democracy, where the voters are is a critically important question. The effect of emigration from London has been to Labour’s advantage in the places where they end up. If that emigration has doubled this year, that will presumably help them further.
Similarly, young people not going to London (or other major metropolitan city centres) would also benefit Labour in the short term: under 30s are among Labour’s most reliable demographic group of supporters. Far better, in short term electoral calculations, for them to remain in their home towns rather than fetch up in seats that Labour already hold with crushing majorities. Labour’s vote would get more efficient.
Will this continue once Covid-19 has vanquished? Office working practices are going to change – as a straw in the wind, three law firms are scaling back their requirements for their offices. We might well see fewer young people moving into London for a few years and more from older generations moving out. Even if the economy based in London recovers, the need for people working in that economy to live in London might diminish. This may have major implications for the electoral map in 2024.
But I’m guessing. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the wake of Covid-19. We shouldn’t elevate our educated guesses into predictions. If we do so when betting, we may be making very expensive mistakes.