The game of Cheat the Prophet

The first English book I’ve ever owned is G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I had read it a few times in translation before I got the original, and I have read the original a few times since. What makes the book, if not unique, then at least very unusual, is the fact that not a single female character appears in it – and yet you don’t have the feeling there’s something missing. (Unless you’re female yourself, presumably.) Recently, however, I was reminded of its very beginning. The first paragraph of the first chapter runs like this:

THE human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

It occurs to me that something very similar have been happening in relation to the general election.

Before the campaign began, pundits predicted social media would play a major role. In the end, all that happened was a handful of candidates losing their parties’ support over something stupid they said on the Net.

After the first TV leaders’ debate, pundits predicted this began a whole new era, as Clegg’s performance meant a sharp rise in polls for his party. In the end, debates or no debates, the Lib Dems won even less chairs than five years ago.

When the results were in, pundits told us Lib Dems were natural allies of the Labour Party, which latter would do (or promise to do) anything to stay in power. In the end, Cameron and Clegg found common language very easily and Brown left No 10 without any unnecessary procrastination on his part.

There are less visible things. I don’t think many foresaw Tories letting SNP ministers leading UK delegations at top European talks, promising to implement the Calman Commission recommendations, or giving the Nats a brand-new opportunity of instigating the indepence referendum. On the other hand, who had realized beforehand the coalition would give the Tories some mandate even in Scotland?

I admit I noticed few pundits telling us with apparent certainty how would the ConDem coalition fare. Possibly even they realize it’s anybody’s guess. (Personally, I just hope against hope the Lib Dems will be able to prevent Tories from doing too much harm.)

Incidentally, what nobody predicted was that every single seat in Scotland will be won by the very party which had won it in the previous general election. Nobody? Well, Chesterton might have… The last paragraph of the first chapter in Napoleon reads thus:

Then the people went and did what they liked. Let me no longer conceal the painful truth. The people had cheated the prophets of the twentieth century. When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.



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