On the Westminster Hour yesterday, there was a segment reviewing the year in politics. In it, there were MPs from the three main parties and two leading national journalists. It is the Westminster Hour after all but there was something strange about it. Much of the discussion revolved around parties and politics that had no representation in the discussion (and at least two of the MPs naturally took the opportunity to take pot-shots without riposte- as you’d expect). Even two years ago, the voices in the discussion would have been pretty representative of our national political discussion. But now it feels removed. Outsiders have intruded onto the political field.
This didn’t happen at the peak crisis moment. It was happening before and has continued since – seemingly at a faster pace. In England, support for UKIP was translated into a first-place finish in the European elections, a foothold in local government and two MPs (albeit defections followed by by-elections). They currently stand at 15 per cent in the UK Polling Report rolling average. Meanwhile, membership of the Green party has doubled and they finish third in polls from to time (most importantly, they look to be in with a good chance of holding onto their single Parliamentary seat).
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP is now touching 100,000 members and has extended, at least in the short term, its dominance in Holyrood politics into an advantage ahead of the General Election next year. If this level of support is sustained then Labour will be unable to govern at the UK level without SNP support. The referendum campaign left Scotland with an independence movement as well as a party. Elsewhere in Britain the outsiders are knocking at the gates. In Scotland, they’ve pretty much taken the castle. In Spain and Greece, new forces of the left- both leading in the polls or close - threaten the political establishment wholesale.
Outsiders have not only been making the running in the world of politics. In the world of entertainment, the biggest new development that has come into mainstream consciousness in the YouTube star. Pie Die Pew has more followers than almost all democratic leaders and you’ve probably never heard of him.
If it hadn’t been for YouTube (and this blog) you may never would have done. Zoella gets a few million Youtube views per vlog and has a major book deal to her name. Psy’s Gangnam Style literally ‘broke the internet’ when it reached the outer limit of the internet’s mathematical universe in terms of views- more than 2.15billion. Ed Sheeran eat your heart out. The biggest TV stars are a group of families who are filmed watching TV once a week, or budding entrepreneurs, or unknown chefs, or amateur singers.
One of the biggest business stories of the year was the friction caused by the expansion of the car service, Uber (which I blogged about earlier in the year). Everywhere, traditional regulated taxi services were up in arms as prices were cut and customers fled to cheaper rates and a convenient service. Mass market supermarkets found the going the tough as new, no frills market entrants gained a greater foothold and, at the other end of the market, the independent and local supplier held its own.
Craft beer continued its ferocious assault on the beer mass market – eating into the sales of the big breweries in the US (again, a blog theme earlier in the year). At the RSA, Jeremy Rifkin talked about the sharing economy and zero-marginal cost. The problem is that for big supermarkets, transportation, beer and so many other, it doesn’t take much loss of market share to undermine the entire business model. Cracks are appearing everywhere.
In the world of football, the story of the year was Germany’s 7-1 destruction of Brazil in the World Cup semi-final. It wasn’t an outsider’s triumph but it was an outside bet. In England, Liverpool’s wonderful league challenge [insert metaphor of choice about Steven Gerrard’s slip]. Who would have forecast not just their success but their style of play at the beginning of 2014? And in Spain, unfashionable Athletico Madrid won the league with the galacticos of Barcelona and Real Madrid over their shoulder.
In many ways the ultimate outsider, Russia, began to assert itself once more. Its actions in Ukraine where it has militarily supported separatist movements and its actions to increase tensions with neighbouring and nearby nations throughout the year continue to cause anxiety. At the end of year, Barack Obama, perhaps the ultimate outsider politician in the US restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, outsiders since the revolution in the late 1950s.
So is this year of the outsider a one-off with the normal state of affairs being restored in 2015? The US could shape up for another, yawn, Clinton-Bush election. The new political pluralism could evaporate with both main parties currently led by establishment figures (the political mainstream has general reacted to the outsider threat by doubling down on insider-dom). Big industry players could mop up or annihilate the threats they face. Russia, crippled economically, could (hopefully) retreat from its aggressive stance.
Some of this will undoubtedly come to pass but there is something underlying all this – and there are many different trends that are impacting - that is important. Values are changing in concert with economic power and technological innovation. Insider institutions feel off-beat and outmoded. At the same time people are willing to experiment with many different and conflicting changes. These are creative times but they are fraught and anxious times too. The question for 2015 is whether people will continue to embrace change or whether there will be a big retreat. Our economy, politics, geo-politics, culture and society depends on the answer to that.
Anthony Painter is the RSA’s Director of Institutional Reform. You can follow him on twitter @AnthonyPainter