Surprise Party

Men hope to acquire certainty about the future and are always disappointed. The ancients consulted the oracle at Delphi and scrutinized the entrails of fowls. The Middle Ages relied devoutly on the relics of saints. When the Reformation opened the Bible to all, zealots fell upon the Prophetic Books, and the great Sir Isaac Newton spent more years conning the Book of Daniel than he did on discovering gravitation. Later a knowledge of history was expected to provide the answer. Increased understanding of the past would lead to increased understanding of the future. In practice historians guessed like other men and usually guessed wrongly. Most historians foretold success for their own country. Some preached woe. It was blind hooky in either case.

Now the historians have been superseded by the academic students of politics or, as they call themselves, the social scientists. Once more we are told that if only we accumulate enough facts the answer will come out like the winning combination on a fruit machine. An imponderable still defeats the best calculations. Human nature remains a mystery despite the efforts of the sociologists. For instance, Messrs. Mackenzie and Silver have written on British workingmen who vote Conservative.1 There are plenty of explanations after the event, but we are no nearer knowing why and when voters switch. Again, there is a splendid political atlas by Mr. Kinnear of every electoral result since 1885.2 The one thing missing is a series of maps on what men expected beforehand. Some would have been right. Some would have been wrong, which is not surprising.

Even the political pundits have been eclipsed by the pollsters. Before the recent British general election we had no less than seven different systems, each proclaiming the superiority of its method. Each came up with slightly varying results, but until the last moment they agreed on one thing: Labour was going to win. At the end one poll hesitatingly pointed to a Conservative victory, and now all the pollsters are claiming that they would have got the results right if they had counted still later. This is a sad conclusion. If these ingenious systems cannot get things right as little as a week or two days before, we are back at the old method of prophesying an event only when it has taken place. The wise expert is the one who remains silent while things are happening and then demonstrates that he had expected them to happen like this all along. We already have plenty of these. In fact nearly every commentator is busy explaining that he foresaw a Conservative victory and hesitated to say so. This is very good news for the historian who has always regarded this hocus-pocus of social science with contempt.

The public opinion polls certainly had an effect on the election results, though not in the way that was feared or foretold. It was widely conjectured that a large number of voters would go the way the polls were swinging,…

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