The Absent Revolution

Sixth-formers of the future will gnaw on their cyber-pencils as they puzzle over Britain’s response to the economic earthquake of 2008.

The crisis toppled financial truths and taught us not to put our trust in the pin-striped generals of the banking sectors or the mathematical wizards they had lured into their oak-panelled lairs.

A nation witnessed the overnight intellectual decapitation of an ancien régime, but it did not respond by electing radicals determined to carve out a brand new economic order. Instead, the country’s citizens rushed to the polling stations and sent to Downing St – albeit via a quite unprecedented coalition – the leader of a party that has roots dating back to 1678.

It is possible that the British electorate – or at least its large English segment – truly does subscribe to Edmund Burke’s idea that the best way to hold a revolution is to manage change by preserving institutions. Or perhaps no credible alternative was on offer on the ballot paper?

When the future’s sixth-formers go to university they may write dissertations on why the Left, at the very moment when their arguments about the ultimate inviability of liberal capitalism were apparently proven spot on, could not create a popular mass movement. Sure, left-of-centre economist Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize, but when the bankers started drinking champagne again it was to celebrate their restored bonuses.

In previous decades, Methodist and other nonconformist preachers urged tens of thousands of people to demand radical social change. Sofas and television have largely replaced the time-slots once occupied by sermons and pews, so this could be one reason why public anger was not funnelled into political change.

But it is interesting to look across the Irish Sea where the voters of Donegal SW have elected Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty.

The near-collapse of the Irish economy has spurred the electorate to back a party that has never succeeded in ridding itself of the whiff of gunsmoke. Doherty is considered a rising star, and party president Gerry Adams has high hopes of entering the Dáil in the next election.

Irish republicans of different shades, such as the explicitly socialist Éirígí, sense that the crashing failure of Ireland’s romance with unfettered capitalism means there is an opportunity to revive the vision of leftist rebels such as James Connolly.

It is unlikely that the country across the water will become Europe’s answer to Cuba, but the fluidity of its electoral system means – even with the financial constraints of the terms of the bail-out – we could see governments emerge which look nothing like those in the House of Commons.

A Saturday column