To what extent are citizens in britain less politically engaged
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 1To what extent are citizens in Britain less politically engaged today than hitherto?Which factors might explain any such disengagement? Anurag Gangal Professor and Head of Department, Political Science and Director, Gandhian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Jammu, Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir, India. Citizens in Britain are apparently more politically disengaged today in view of decreasingpercentages of participation in voting in elections and emergence of nonchalant attitudes. Thereare factors like apathetic attitude of numerous voters – especially younger ones – andinadvertence towards politicians and participation in elections. These are but only a few reasonsbehind expanding political disengagement among British citizens. Ascertaining these and quite afew other factors alone does not fully explain this entire context of disengagement. Our quest for the extent and causes of political disengagement is not only important butalso such that it has to traverse a challenging route to find out why citizens in Britain havebecome so indifferent and somewhat lazy towards politics. All such perspectives involvesensitive matters and attitudes of citizens of the oldest and strongest democracies in the worldlike the United Kingdom. Indeed, here emerges the question of mutual trust between politicalleaders and citizens of the land as well. This issue is perhaps the most significant aspect of thisessay. The mutual trust in a democracy is indeed the basic requirement for successful functioningof the political system. What is political engagement? This is necessary to know the real nature of its disengagedform. It includes particular types of behaviour and attitudes. Behaviourally speaking, itincludes voting in elections; being a member of a political party or group; going andparticipating in marches for a public cause; writing to political leaders and communicating withthem; participating in public and planned boycott activities and also donations to political parties,groups and other organizations.1 These aspects have their corresponding attitudes too such as1 United Kingdom, The Electoral Commission, Research Team, Social Exclusion and Political Engagement—ResearchReport 2005, London: Electoral Commission Publications, 2005, p. 6. Relevant definitions and views of C. Lessoj, R.Jowell, R. Levitas, K. Duffy are quoted by the commission while explaining the contexts of social exclusion anddisengagement in Britain. As such there is a relationship between these two aspects. Political disengagement isalso a form of social exclusion as such.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 2support to political parties, institutions, groups, actors and leaders.2 This results in having apolitical interest to be pursued by citizens actively. When such behaviour and attitudes do notoccur then it is political disengagement. This political disengagement in any democracy has unwelcome portents for the health ofa political system like the one in the United Kingdom in particular and for other democracies ingeneral. The British case is very special for it is having a mix of democracy based on largelyunwritten constitution, deep rooted customs and traditions, modern outlook and rule of law thathas evolved for about several centuries now. There is no other democracy having suchcharacteristic features. Political disengagement is a threat to hitherto fore largely healthy democracy of Britain.The very edifice of democracy cracks down like a melting wax-pot or a wavering light of acandle in a stormy weather. Citizens’ participation is the pulsating heart of an otherwise vibrantdemocracy of Britain. Decreasing level of citizens’ interest in legitimate political activities and participation inelections has shown yet another trend. This relates to Bromley’s survey showing “only some oftime/almost never” having “trust” in “Government” or representatives running the governmentfrom about 60% in 1974 to 85% in 2009.3 The percentage of those having trust in government isalso going down over the years from about 40% in 1974 to 15% in 2009.4 This is clearly morethan 25% decline in peoples trust in government and representatives in elected bodies in ademocracy like Britain’s. This situation is based on a select population sample of an expansiveand widespread survey.5 Real state of affairs maybe much worse. Added to such data is one more dimension of above mentioned survey. This is concernedwith “parties only interested in votes” and “MPs losing touch pretty quickly [with people in theirconstituencies]”. As regards former context, the percentage has increased from about 66% in2 Ibid.3 Bromley et al, Http://www.britsocat.com , 2004. Updated using BSA data.4 Ibid.5 The word “expansive” here means what it conveys and it is not a spelling mistake. “expensive” is not being usedhere.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 31974 to 71% in 2009.6 In 1991, this was just about 53 percent. The percentage of MPs losingtouch has also increased from about 66% in 1974 to 71% in 2009.7 Voters’ turnout has alsodeclined quite sharply from about 78% in 1992 to wavering from 59% to 65% upto 2010 generalelections.8 Despite such declining statistics about declining interest of voters in politics and politicalleaders, it is interesting to see what Harold D. Clarke says. For him: The analysis of political engagement yields a simple conclusion. Overall, there is little evidence to suggest that British citizens have become more disengaged from the political process over the last several decades. They vote less in elections but they are as concerned about outcomes as they were in 1960s.9 It is difficult to agree to this observation of Clarke. Interest in the outcome of electionsdoes not show active political engagement of citizens. It is rather an additional example ofpolitical disengagement only. It shows political apathy and indifference to what is political.Interest in outcomes of election results available through electronic media filled with excitingstories and presentations depict an inclination and attitude towards instantaneous sources ofdiversified entertainment and different kind of excitement while sitting at home. It is not at allrelated to any type of political engagement. Trends of political disengagement in the British democracy are loud and clear. Theycannot be ignored or taken up lightly just because the politically disengaged British citizens areprone to be deeply interested in knowing the outcome of election results. Indeed, the levels of political disengagement are growing leaps and bound. Suchdisengagement involves not only political apathetic attitude of the British citizens but alsopolitical disengagement of political leaders from their major and primary task of their service tothe public and the nation. This is further proven by a noted British Social Attitude Survey 2008.Accordingly, in the year of the survey, only 56% citizens felt that “to vote is a duty” they must6 Bromley et al, Http://www.britsocat.com , 2004. Updated using BSA data.7 Ibid.8 Ibid.9 Clarke, Harold D., Political Choice in Britain, London: OUP, 2004, p. 289.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 4perform though this percentage has gone up again to nearly 64% in 2010.10 One another aspectrelated to such attitude of citizens is also exemplified by the “MPs Expenses Scandal” of thesummer of 2009 where exorbitant and even fraudulent levels of Additional Cost Allowanceswere found mainly for the purpose of personal financial aggrandisement.11 One is reminded ofoft quoted saying of Lord Acton when he says that “political power corrupts and absolute powercorrupts absolutely”. These matters relating to present-day political leaders and the disengaged citizens werefurther widely disused for six months all across the nation through diverse ways of inquiry andmodern communication technology anent the Power to the People independent inquiry into theincreasing political disengagement of the British people and the conspicuous role of politicalleaders in this context.12 This ten member commission -- comprising noted jurists, policy makersand recognised members of civil and political society of Britain – is of the view that politicalarena, political leaders and political parties are going astray from working for the cause of thepublic. They are indulging in gross personal aggrandisement at the cost the public and thewelfare of the entire country.13 As such, the British democracy is failing. This is a democratic malaise primarily responsible for increasing political disengagementof the people of Britain.14 The political parties and institutions have therefore failed to keep pacewith changing needs and aspirations of the British populace. Writing on the wall is very clear. Political leaders, though not all of them, are indulgingin amassing personal wealth from public exchequer, they are not doing their duty to people, theyare not serving the people and the country, political parties largely bother about their votes and10 Butt S. and Curtice J., ‘’Duty in decline? Trends in attitudes towards voting’’, A. Park et al. (eds.), British SocialAttitudes: the 26 report, London: Sage, 2010, p. 72.11 Curtice J. And Park A., “Will Anyone Vote: Prospects for Turnout in the General Election”, London: publication ofBritish Social Attitudes and National Centre for Social Research, research paper, 2010, p. 1.12 White, Isobel, Power to the People: the Report of Power: an Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy,London: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust; and Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust publication, March 2006, (see thewebsite http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03948.pdf ), pp. 1-11.13 Ibid. See specially p.p. 15 and 38 of the original report. As regards abridged website pdf version, pp. 4-5.14 Ibid.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 5not about people and, above all, political leaders are losing their touch with the people of theirconstituencies. After the elections, they just forget the people in their constituencies! Helena Kennedy, the Chair of the aforesaid Commission, says: …the evidence presented to the inquiry suggests that voting itself seems irrelevant to increasing numbers of people and that there is a feeling that there is no choice [available to people] despite our living in the era when choice is the dominant political mantra.15 It has also been observed that the economic class and social and religious group votingfactors have weakend after 1950s in Britain and especially in more recent years.16 In this sense,political disengagement is mainly at the level of going from one individual’s apathy to anotherindividual citizen. This apathy is apparently multiplying very fast. Politics, for thus politicallydisengaged, is becoming irrelevant as if they think that let imprudent people fight to be ingovernment for it does not matter who forms the government! But the question is if selfish andfoolish people are in government then who will rule the country. Will it not be like paving theway to irresponsible governance in Britain ever more year after year? Very pathetic scenario is emerging in Britain. However, despite this trend, people’sparticipation either is stable with continuity of the earlier years or it is increasing through suchactivities as protest marches (although a few different views concerning such participation arealso shown in previous pages of this essay), demonstrations and contacting media etc.17 Bromley,Curtice and Seyd believe that voting is but merely one aspect of the variety of political activitiesin which even those British citizens take part who do not vote in elections.18 This appears to be aray of hope for the future of British democracy. Yet voting in elections is the most fundamentalexercise for the success and strength of a democracy without which a time may arise when allvoters decide not to vote at all. What will happen then? Can it be called the silent peoples’revolution against erring politicians and the failing democracy? It is really difficult to imagine15 Ibid. “Foreword” of original report. See website version, pp. 4 and 5.16 Colomer, Josep M. (Ed) Comparative European Politics, London and New York: Routledge, 2008, p.1817 Bromley, Cathrine; Curtice J. and Seyd, Ben, Is Britain Facing a Crisis of Democracy? London: Oxford, pp. 5-7 ofthe web pdf version http://www.crest.ox.ac.uk/papers/p106.pdf18 Ibid. p. 6.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 6what such a situation will bring forth. Will it be a social boon or a doomsday? These are validquestion though difficult to answer. Bromley, Curtice and Seyd have also shown in Table-5 of their above mentioned studythat the level of trust of people is decreasing over the years.19 What is the meaning of above mentioned explanation, data and analysis in earlier pagesof this essay? It means that despite a serious crisis of democracy in Britain, there is still hope forvibrant recovery through adopting certain well thought about measures. In addition, effortstowards change of attitudes of voters and politicians would also be necessary. It is thereforeappropriate moment to see what can be done in this context? Root and branch transformationmay also be needed as such. Unbridled pursuits of self-aggrandisement not only among politicians but also in nationaland global comity of all countries will have to be given a proper and required direction.Otherwise, cities will never have rest from their evils of corruption and malpractices in societyand politics. Morally upright statesmen will have to come forward to set examples of publicconduct and behaviour. Values of sacrifice of personal self interests for the cause of largersociety cannot but be best infused through real life exemplary personalities of leaders parexcellence. This transformation may take place over a period of gestation, say, in a decade’s time orso. Social and political changes cannot be brought about overnight. Several political, social andlegal measures and reforms may be necessary for these purposes. This is ever more necessary inview of there being only about 5% British populace involved in contacting media and usingorganisational activities for political purposes while not going for signing petitions, contactingMPs or going for public marches in 2005.20 For quite a few years now, several suggestions and measures of reforms are being putforth at the behest of British Government, political parties and leaders. Most of these relatemainly to transform or change attitudes of disengagement of the British citizens. There are,however, scanty studies to bring about changes in political parties and leaders. In reality, it is thepolitical leaders who are to be blamed for increasing attitudes of disengagement among British19 Ibid. p.p. 12-13.20 Ibid
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 7citizens. Primary responsibility rests with them and not with the people because they and theirself-aggrandising behaviour and attitudes are the main causes behind the current crisis ofdemocracy in Britain. It will be well to go for a few practicable suggestions or, as it were, recommendations todeal with the existing crisis of democracy in Britain. First, British citizens must be bestowedwith the right to recall not only their erring representatives but also the entire lot of all Membersof Parliament alongwith all cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister and Speaker etc whenthey are not performing their duties towards citizens. This will instil a very strong sense ofinducement towards ever more active and zestful political engagement among British citizens.This will also lead political leaders to adopting rightful duty bound attitudes towards theirconstituencies and voters. This is not a novel idea. It is being practised in Switzerland. Moreover,it was John Locke who had put forth in his Second Treatise on Government as well. This right torecall will also help people restore their trust in the political institutions and actors.21 There are other suggestions suggested by Alison Park and others in the edited volumeBritish Social Attitudes – the 20th Report: Continuity and Change over Two Decades.22 Theseexperts are suggesting diverse changes in health schemes, education, welfare schemes, need forchanging political attitudes of political leaders and other related measures. Such changes in thegovernance of political and social system will bring concomitant transformations in the attitudeof presently disengaged British citizens. A general nationwide discussion is already going on anent reforming electoral systemwith alternative voting, proportional representation; and single transferrable voting system.These suggested changes in the voting system are more oriented towards benefitting the politicalleaders despite citizens’ political disengagement attitudes. These are not citizen oriented. Whatwe need is such planned measures of reform which transform political leadership towardsperforming their duties in a better way. Otherwise proper inducement will not emerge forengaging voters meaningfully.21 Seyd, Ben, “What we Know (and do not Know) about Political Trust in Britain: A Review of Existing Studies andSuggestions for Future Research”, Draft Paper for EPOP Conference, University of Essex, September 2010, pp. 7-9.22 th Park A., Curtice J., Thomson K., Jarvis L. and Bromley, C. (Eds), British Social Attitudes – the 20 Report:Continuity and Change over Two Decades, London: Sage, 2003, pp. 104, 131-153.
Political Disengagement in British Democracy 8 Select BibliographyBromley et al, Http://www.britsocat.com , 2004.Bromley, Cathrine; Curtice J. and Seyd, Ben, Is Britain Facing a Crisis of Democracy? London: Oxford.Butt S. and Curtice J., ‘’Duty in decline? Trends in attitudes towards voting’’, A. Park et al. (eds.), British SocialAttitudes: the 26 report, London: Sage, 2010.Clarke, Harold D., Political Choice in Britain, London: OUP, 2004.Colomer, Josep M. (Ed) Comparative European Politics, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.Curtice J. And Park A., “Will Anyone Vote: Prospects for Turnout in the General Election”, London: publication ofBritish Social Attitudes and National Centre for Social Research, research paper, 2010. thPark A., Curtice J., Thomson K., Jarvis L. and Bromley, C. (Eds), British Social Attitudes – the 20 Report: Continuityand Change over Two Decades, London: Sage, 2003.Seyd, Ben, “What we Know (and do not Know) about Political Trust in Britain: A Review of Existing Studies andSuggestions for Future Research”, Draft Paper for EPOP Conference, University of Essex, September 2010.United Kingdom, The Electoral Commission, Research Team, Social Exclusion and Political Engagement—ResearchReport 2005, London: Electoral Commission Publications, 2005.White, Isobel, Power to the People: the Report of Power: an Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy, London:Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust; and Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust publication, March 2006.