It seems widely accepted today that governments, parties and politicians are distrusted, even despised, to an extent that is unprecedented. Turnout at the 2001 general election fell dramatically to its lowest level since the First World War, when less than six in ten people bothered to vote. The situation in local elections is worse still, with more people voting for reality TV shows such as 'Big Brother' than in council elections. Concerns about the 'democratic deficit' and a 'crisis of legitimacy' abound. In response to this, the Government announced in November 2008 the setting up of a Speaker's Conference - only the sixth since the nineteenth-century - to examine how Parliament can be made more representative of the population as a whole, looking in particular at gender, race, disabilities and sexual orientation.
Yet despite the strength of contemporary feeling, laments about the condition of the body politic are rarely informed by historical perspectives. Only in the light of past experience can we judge dispassionately if there was ever a golden age of democracy and whether there has been a real decline of involvement and interest in politics. What a historical survey suggests is that anxiety about disengagement is far from being a new phenomenon. If we are to understand the enduring reluctance of most British people to take an active interest in the political process, we need to look at the distinctive manner - and lasting implications - of Britain's path towards a 'one person, one vote' mass democracy in 1928.
Modern democracy has evolved in different guises, in various time periods, and under widely contrasting conditions: from France and America in the nineteenth century to the ex-Communist eastern European states in the more recent past. In the case of Britain three particular features stand out about the road to 1918, the year in which the Representation of the People Act increased the numbers eligible to vote from 8.4 to about 21.4 million, including for the first time women (over thirty) as well as all men over twenty-one years of age.
The process of widening voting rights in Britain was, in the first place, exceptionally drawn out, taking place in piecemeal stages for nearly a century stretching back to the 1832 Reform Act (after which only some 20 per cent of adult males were entitled to vote). Even after 1918, with many still unable to vote, Britain could be more accurately described as a 'near democracy'. It took a further, non-controversial, Act in 1928 before the voting age for both sexes was equalised, adding another five million women over the age of 21 to the electorate. And it was only in the late 1930s, with European war looming again, that it became commonplace to refer to Britain as among the world's 'leading democracies', a counterpoint to the fascist dictatorships. The elongated nature of this process of democratisation was such that in the latter stages it occasioned neither wholesale celebration nor intense, diehard opposition. This lack of passion contrasted with cases - such as the new democracies like Weimar Germany created out of the peace settlement in Europe - where there were sudden changes of regime.
The second distinctive feature was that when reform took place in Britain, its impact was modest rather than dramatic. In comparison with other states, some devastated by the Great War, electoral change in Britain took place in benign circumstances (see the paper by John Garrard). Unlike, for instance, in Germany, there were no displaced groups in Britain removed at a stroke from all authority, waiting in the wings to turn back the clock if democracy faltered. It also helped that franchise reform took place in a context where liberal freedoms of speech and religious belief commanded broad approval, and where civil associations such as business groups, friendly societies and trade unions had experience of political involvement. Aside from the extension of voting rights, much remained unchanged in Britain after 1918. In Europe old regimes were cast aside, sometimes violently, whereas in Britain, the monarchy, the unelected House of Lords, the public school/Oxbridge nexus that trained so many of the political elite, even the first-past-the-post system of counting votes, all survived intact as remainders of the pre-democratic order.
Electoral reform in Britain was always much more a 'top-down' than a 'bottom-up' process. Pressure groups such as the Chartists and the Suffragettes campaigned noisily and tirelessly, but neither could be described as mass movements, and when it came, franchise change was shaped ultimately by the prejudices and concerns of parliamentarians. Many writers have given the lion's share of credit for the 1918 Act to the Suffragettes. Yet there are good reasons for questioning whether feminist pressure was the main driving force behind reform. The wartime coalition government took up the issue primarily to enfranchise not women but men; owing to the complex requirements of registration, millions of men who had left to join the services faced the prospect of disenfranchisement. Suffragette campaigners were not closely involved in the wartime talks that led to legislation, and the concessions granted to them were strictly limited: the age restriction of thirty meant men still outnumbered women in the electorate as a whole until 1928.
The Edwardian suffragette campaign certainly prepared the ground, in that the discussion thereafter centred not on if women might be given the vote, but when and on what terms. But the war did not necessarily revolutionize the attitude of male politicians towards extending the bounds of citizenship, and in 1918 legislation was based mainly on party calculations. It was a compromise between the demands of the two main forces, Liberals and Conservatives, working together in the wartime coalition. The result went a long way towards replacing the old idea that voting was related to a material stake in the community with the democratic notion of 'one person, one vote' However, Parliament did not discuss reform with such an ideology in mind; MPs had pragmatic concerns and avoided presenting the issues in terms of principles or theories of representation.
The combination of these three distinctive features on the road to 1918 helps to explain why British democracy as it subsequently evolved was stable but not vibrant. The system stood the test of time because it had strong historical roots (unlike Weimar Germany, which collapsed when economic crisis struck), but it was an elite-centred version of democracy in which the majority of 'the people' were not much involved from the outset. The implications are best appreciated by contrasting Britain with France or the United States, nations with revolutionary traditions dating from the late 18th century. These traditions created a very different model of citizenship. According to political scientist Bernard Crick, the French and Americans 'are not a hyperactive ancient Athenian citizen elite; yet they know there is a kind of official...blessing on being at least spasmodically active; or at least not feeling peculiar if they are'. In Britain, by way of contrast, the language has more often been of 'good subjects' than of 'active citizens'. Against the setting of Britain's unique historical background, it should come as little surprise that in the years after 1918 most good subjects were in no rush to turn into active citizens.
In summarising the period from the 1918 Act to the end of the twentieth century, the continuities in involvement and interest in politics are more striking than the changes. The context in which popular politics is conducted has of course changed enormously since the First World War. The days when public meetings and radio broadcasts were leading components of election campaigning have long gone, to be replaced by saturation media coverage and attempts by politicians to exploit the latest technology, reaching voters through telephone canvassing or internet blogs. The manner of public involvement has also altered significantly. The energies of those looking to become politically engaged were for a long time channelled primarily through the major parties, Labour (replacing the Liberals) and Conservative, whose mass memberships peaked around mid-century at a combined total of about 10 per cent of the adult population. As class divisions became blurred and loyalty to the two-party system diminished, political activity became more diverse from the 1960s onwards, with pressure groups and single issue campaigns mushrooming in size and scope. The term 'the atomised citizen' has been used to illustrate the rise of more individualist types of participation at the expense of traditional collectivist forms. Aside from its size, a striking feature of the anti-Iraq war demonstration in London in 2003 was that most people went along of their own accord on their own or with friends and family; they did not take part as paid-up members of an anti-war group.
Set against shifts in the context and manner of participation, much of Britain's political culture has remained unchanged across the generations since 1918. There have been general elections when passions have been roused beyond the norm, as when class and party intensity peaked in the elections of 1950 and 1951. These two elections, which saw the mass of working-class voters endorse Labour's welfare reforms (such as the NHS) but prompted the middle classes to react against higher taxation and nationalisation by supporting Churchill's Tories in droves, witnessed turnout well in excess of 80 per cent - almost unthinkable today. Equally, there have been issues which, for short periods at least, propelled large numbers from the comfort of their homes to furious protests on the streets, ranging from the hunger marches of the 1930s to the poll tax riots and the Iraq war protests in more recent times. Yet the numbers taking part can easily be exaggerated. Only 200 men participated in the Jarrow Crusade of 1936, which thanks mainly to the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson was accorded publicity out of all proportion to the numbers taking part, and the total levels of activity and interest in politics measured over ninety years have barely fluctuated. Although the numbers joining pressure groups has offset the decline in party memberships, the proportion of adults classified as 'activists' has stayed stubbornly low at no more than 10 per cent of the adult population. All reliable indicators from the 1940s onwards show that no more than 20% of the population has ever been 'very interested' in politics. At least twice this figure consistently say that they are 'not very' or 'not at all' interested. The indifferent majority were cynical about politicians from the birth of democracy onwards, and have always been turned off by the rituals and rhetoric that accompany election campaigning.
Political actions and attitudes also remain associated with discrete groups in society. The pattern of public involvement - and the absence of it - has always been skewed in terms of class, gender and ethnicity. Even the academic Peter Hall, in arguing that levels of engagement in the 1990s were higher in Britain than in the United States, accepted that 'political activism and the associational life that sustains it have remained middle-class phenomena in Britain and the preserve of those in middle age'. In 2008 less than 20 per cent of MPs are women and less than 3 per cent are members of an ethnic minority. Furthermore, a 2002 study by the group Operation Black Vote reported that a quarter of ethnic minority citizens were still not registered to vote, compared with 6 per cent of the total population. The election of Barack Obama led to discussion in the media about the likelihood of a British Prime Minister from an ethnic minority background being elected. However, an overwhelming 94 per cent of ethnic voters believe there will never be a Black Prime Minister in Britain.
The mould in which popular politics was set when the 1918 Act became law has thus been difficult to break. The weight of history bears heavily on the perception of politics in Britain today, as it does in other nations. Involvement and interest have not remained static; the British people have increasingly become not so much passive 'subjects', but what Pippa Norris terms 'critical citizens', willing to voice concerns though not necessarily inclined to become politically engaged. In effect none of the events and forces coming into play since 1918 has fundamentally altered a longstanding, deeply embedded, lukewarm approach to all things political. What though, of the era of New Labour? Is there any substance in the widely held view that things have got worse rather than better in the past decade?
Politicians and media commentators usually agree that disenchantment with politics has never been greater than it is today, though they part company over who is to blame. In the words of the TV documentary-maker, Michael Cockerell, the two groups have been engaged in 'a dance of death', with politicians accusing the media of corrosive cynicism and journalists insisting that politicians have forfeited trust through policy failures and personal scandals. As the battle rages, many in their ranks fail to notice that another, entirely different viewpoint is on offer.
According to academic orthodoxy, there is no 'crisis of legitimacy' in contemporary Britain. This is the territory of political science rather than history. Most political scientists employ the vast amount of available data to put an optimistic case, insisting that hostility to some features of political life is not incompatible with pride in others. The 2004 study Citizenship in Britain used responses from 12,000 randomly selected adults to argue that democracy in this country 'is not in deep crisis and in some respects is quite healthy'. What is to be made of these competing claims, of politicians and journalists on the one hand and academics on the other? Is British democracy at the start of the twenty-first century a sickly, ailing patient, possibly in terminal decline, or is it 'quite healthy'?
Political scientists are reluctant to attach too much importance to what politicians and pundits see as the clearest manifestation of recent public disenchantment - the decline in voter turnout. In Britain the numbers voting in general elections averaged 74-75 per cent from the mid-1970s until 1992. But when Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, the turnout of 71.5 per cent was the lowest since the Second World War. According to the most detailed study of New Labour's 'low turnout landslide', this reflected the coincidence of two crucial factors: the outcome did not seem in doubt (whereas contests regarded as close generate higher turnouts), and there appeared to be little to choose between the parties. The proportion of those surveyed who thought that there was 'no difference' had doubled since the previous election, reaching almost a quarter of the population by 1997. The same arguments applied when turnout shrank in 2001 to a dismal 59.1 per cent. The result was again widely anticipated, with Blair comfortably re-elected, and few people saw important policy differences, which meant those already disengaged from politics were particularly prone to abstaining. Rather than pointing to a rising tidal wave of disaffection, with increasing numbers seeing elections as irrelevant or pointless, academics reached the relaxed conclusion that voters felt the choice on offer was just not interesting. Far from heralding a crisis of democracy, poor turnout in recent years (with a slight increase registered in 2005) simply reflects elections being given what one study calls the 'scant attention' they deserve.
Political scientists maintain that across many fronts, talk of democracy in danger has been overblown. The word 'crisis' is often used in contemporary discussions without any clear definition. If meant to imply a threat to the existing political system, this is largely non-existent. The state can function where only a minority plays an active role, whilst the majority accept the principle that democracy is the best form of governance. If 'crisis' is used as a way of saying involvement and interest in politics is lower than ever, most political scientists would argue that this is not borne out by the 'British Election Survey' and the 'British Social Attitudes' survey. Trust in politicians, for example, has always been low, and the data indicates that young people have no more or less faith in governments than the elderly. According to political scientists, the robustness of civil society is underpinned in numerous ways such as a healthy willingness to take part in non-violent protests, a huge amount of voluntary work taking place outside the sphere of paid employment, the introduction of citizenship programmes in schools that have never been attempted in the past, and major constitutional initiatives such as Scottish and Welsh devolution. Democratic Audit, a research group based at Essex University, employs a range of comparative statistics to conclude that in spite of shortcomings, 'the quality of democracy in the UK is relatively high'.
While apocalyptic scenarios may largely be an illusion, academic observers can be accused of going too far in the opposite direction. One recent study, for example, claims that those who live to old age today might vote in about twenty national and local contests. The actual act of voting in that number of elections would take, in total, little more than an hour. Yet in the light of falling turnout, even this level of commitment is proving too arduous for many voters. The same statistics that impress political scientists can be used to show that four out of five people feel that they have little or no influence over what governments do; that overwhelming numbers believe politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth; and that sixty per cent have little or no interest in local government. For most Britons, civic duty stops well short of obviously political undertakings such as becoming a school governor or standing for the local council, still less joining a political party; only two countries in Europe now have smaller proportions of their populations than in Britain belonging to political parties. There may be no 'crisis of legitimacy', but it's equally misleading to suggest the fabric of democracy is in good shape. Britain's political culture in the early twenty-first century can perhaps best be described neither as ailing and in sharp decline, nor as healthy and robust, but rather as anaemic; lacking in vigour and vitality, as it has been since 1918.
There was no former golden age of citizen involvement and interest in politics. The British people have always been reluctant to give anything more than, in E.M. Forster's words, 'Two cheers for democracy'. Although forms of participation are constantly evolving - with the small minority who take a strong interest in politics turning more than ever to action groups at the expense of parties - nothing has occurred since 1918 to shake the priority that the majority give to work, home and recreation, to private ahead of public concerns. Against this backdrop, much of the talk about democracy in crisis at the beginning of the twenty-first century appears exaggerated. While many changes could be made to improve the fabric of democracy, present-day reformers might do well to remember that Britain does not have a strong tradition of active involvement in politics and that much of the contemporary data tells a less gloomy story about civil society than is often reported. As Pippa Norris notes: 'Although...there are genuine causes for concern about the issue of public trust in government, nevertheless the evidence...suggests the sky is not falling down for democracy'.
Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton, 1963)
Bernard Crick, Essays on Citizenship (London, 2000)
E.M. Forster, 'What I believe' in Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)
John Garrard, Democratization in Britain: Elites, Civil Society and Reform since 1800 (London, 2002)
Kevin Jefferys, Politics and the People. A History of British Democracy since 1918 (London, 2007)
Pippa Norris (ed), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Government (Oxford, 1999)
Charles Pattie, Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley, Citizenship in Britain: Values, Participation and Democracy (Cambridge, 2004)
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