Putting one’s trust in princes: thoughts on the General Election

The General Election turned out to be a little more interesting than expected. As with the referendum on EU membership and the American presidential election, the result was not quite what was anticipated. Until the exit poll showed that a hung parliament was likely, most people reckoned that the Conservatives would have an overall majority – probably a substantial one. However, it was not to be.

And that has made this election very interesting – for two reasons.

The first is that, once again, almost everybody got it so wrong. But one person, in particular, got it very seriously wrong: Theresa May. When she called the election in April, the Conservatives were almost 20 percentage points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls – the only time in the last 20 years, other than a few months in 2008, when they had such a commanding lead. It must have seemed too good to be true.

Polling for the election_crop

It was. The gap narrowed over the course of the campaign, but even then, the Conservatives still appeared to have a lead of 6 or 7 points on the eve of the election – sufficient to give them a good majority. But when the votes were counted, the Conservative lead over Labour was only 2 points – not enough for them to form a government without the help of another party.

Theresa May turned out to have been seriously mistaken.

The fallibility of the powerful

Of course, she wasn’t the only one who was wrong. One of the reasons she was so confident was because Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was widely thought to be a major electoral liability for the Labour Party. Many people in the Labour Party warned that choosing Corbyn as leader was the road to disaster.

And, in particular, Tony Blair did. In August, 2015, he wrote: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”

I mention Tony Blair for a particular reason. This is not the first time Tony Blair has been badly wrong. He has been wrong about many things, but he will go down in history for being wrong about one thing in particular: weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the decision to involve Britain in the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It is well worth reading his comments over the months on the subject of WMDs as listed by the BBC here.   Until the publication of the Butler Report in July 2004, Blair was convinced that Iraq had WMDs. Only after its publication did he admit that he was wrong.

What is significant about this is that in the House of Commons vote in 2003 about invading Iraq, Theresa May voted for war while Jeremy Corbyn didn’t. Andrew Marr, interviewing her on the 30th April said

And you have raised again and again the question of Jeremy Corbyn. Can I put it to you that when it came to one of the most important votes that we’ve had in recent times, on the Iraq war. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he was on the right side, looking at history, and you were on the wrong side. You went into the voting lobbies behind Tony Blair and voted for the Iraq war, which had so many disastrous consequences. And he did the unpopular thing and stood out against it.

Marr called it one of the most important votes we’ve had in recent times. I suspect that’s an understatement. I think it is the most important vote in Parliament in the last 30 years.

But the point is this. Theresa May and Tony Blair have both shown themselves to have the ability to be very seriously wrong. Tony Blair’s mistake in 2003 effectively destroyed Iraq; Theresa May’s decision in April this year looks likely to finish her political career.

But it is not just them. Politicians have a remarkable ability to be wrong. Daniel Hannan’s amusing video “Wrong Then, Wrong Now” (about how most of the British political establishment turned out to be wrong about the Euro) is very instructive. Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment have a track record of being disastrously wrong.

And yet a remarkable number of people in Britain look to the government – which in practice means Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment – for solutions to the major problems that the country faces.

They need to heed the words of Psalm 146:3: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.

Uncertainty

Which brings me to my second comment about the election.

It seems to me that one of the main reactions to the election is concern about “uncertainty.” A lot of people seem to feel that not knowing exactly who is going to be in government is a cause for anxiety.

I find this strange. We live with great uncertainties all the time. Why is not knowing exactly who will be in government such a big problem?

I think that this is closely related to the fact that many people think that a hung parliament is, per se, problematical. They think that the country needs a “strong” government. And, it seems to me, the reason they believe this is because people look to government for solutions to problems. When people see a problem, many of them ask the question “What is the government going to do about it?”

In other words, there is what we might call a “something must be done” mentality with regard to government – and the reason for that is that people have an almost childlike faith in government to solve problems. They may not believe that a particular government will solve the problem – but they believe that government can solve the problem, and should attempt to do so.

I’m sceptical. I suspect that most social problems do not have political solutions.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that in my opinion, the way so many people look to government to solve the social problems the country is facing is a prime example of trusting in princes.

I’m with the Psalmist:

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
   on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
   the sea, and everything in them—
   the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

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