Explanations for the Decline in Political Participation

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To What Extent Do You Agree with Hay’s Assessment That ‘We Hate Politics’?

Academics continue to debate the changing nature of political activism and participation in politics in Britain since 1945. Mainstream literature describes public participation in politics as having either declined, or simply changed – moving into different spheres, and manifesting itself in different ways, with new kinds of social and political activism emerging. One field of thought suggests that people no longer engaged with politics through traditional means such as voting, joining political parties or trade unions. Instead they began to turn to single-issue pressure groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a wide range of social movements. The purpose of this essay is to look at the politics of the post war period, and to note its transformation from multiple perspectives, to a system where political analysts held a dominant role in the assumptions of politicians and the politics that were then formed. The history of politics emerged in the 19th Century, but only became part of popular history following the Universal Suffrage Movement and the Golden Age of the 1950s.This essay seeks to prove that the level of political participation, and our feelings towards politics, was not out of trend with the past, but instead the real differences were found in how society changed its form of participation.

There has been popular debate on declining political participation during this period, drawing from a range of perspectives. From Bang’s belief in the rise of new forms of political participation, to Burnham’s view of depoliticisation as ‘a form of statecraft’ where political decision making is placed one removed from the governmental sphere, suggests change instead of decline.[1] The sources offer a variety of socio-political and economic problems, but all can roughly be placed within Hay’s ‘supply-side corrective to a pervasive demand-side orthodoxy’[2]. Hay discusses depoliticisation as the overturning of the conventional view that the people got the ‘politics [they] deserve,’ with his view that politicians got ‘levels of political participation they deserve’.[3] He delineates one main reason for change as down to falling trust in politicians, and pairs this mistrust with the growth of neo-liberal ideas. A view developed amongst society that politicians were inefficient and self-serving. It is referred to as the Public Choice Theory, introduced by Hay, where the public trusted experts drawn from the non-political sphere as better-placed to complete agendas. Growing belief in Public Choice Theory legitimized functions transferred away from elected politicians to these non-elected experts where cultural and societal changes led to the development of new, more specific political contributions.

Where historical sources disagree is over how much change occurred in politics during this time. Whilst historians agree that political participation declined after World War Two, the majority argue decline was only relative to the ‘Golden Age’ of politics experienced in the 1950s-1960s. The opposing field views obvious decline irrespective of this post-war peak: a ‘political disenchantment’.[4] Opinions also differ over how specific research into this problem should be approached, with Flinders and Woods using ‘Schmitt’s broadness’ as a counter to Burnham and Bate’s ‘incisively specific’ definitions.[5] Changing breadth of analysis alters how political participation is seen, and its use is fundamental to understanding whether ‘we hate politics’.

This period was full of more votes, political parties and consequently more opinions, therefore conflict followed high political participation in the 1950s. The Left’s popularity rose at the end of WW2, and took office in the 1945 general election under Atlee, winning ‘48.1%’ of the seats.[6] Labour held power until 1951, when Conservatives then held a majority until 1964. Here Labour took power during neo-liberal and socialism popularity. Hay champions the ‘supply-side’ debate which emphasizes politics and politicians as the cause for any depression in participation, therefore is at fault for depoliticisation. He states, ‘politicians are increasingly seen as powerless and ineffective’ which is a view shared by both the public and politicians themselves.[7] Through the Public Choice Theory, public support for privatization grew – which placed political affairs beyond state control and into private companies (i.e. Banks and NGOs). In this context, people began to feel prioritization of policy lost out to the politicians’ cyclical drive to win elections. Especially after the wars, politicians had to deal with employment for returning soldiers, house-building initiatives, the creation of a national health service, and the trade union. The Conservative coalition under Churchill during World War Two was deemed unfit to fulfil these tasks and Labour took power. Thus, society still used politics to place the appropriate party into power which promised greater equality, and therefore more in line with progressive ideologies. But people also looked beyond the political sphere with their ideas lobbied through NGOs.

Putnam viewed the decline of democracy through his idea of social capital and how civil society became more distant from associational lives, leading to fewer social interactions. Putnam’s idea of ‘across the board decline’ counter to Hall’s view ‘of rising levels of middle-class social capital’ against a consistently low level of ‘working-class social capital’ shows significant socio-political differences.[8] Differences emerged in this period as liberalism took hold in this new consumer society which changed culture (i.e. in music and literature). Putnam’s theory of the decline of social capital further supports the idea of a disenchanted political population. However, Li, Savage and Pickles challenged Putnam’s perspective in an empirical article that applied quantitative data to show historical trends. Although this gives a narrow perspective of social capitalism – which describes the capital people use through social networks to better themselves – it does delineate general patterns, discerning whether social capital declined. ‘Our results do show some general decline in civic engagement compared to what one might have expected from changes in the social structure’, which is in support of Putnam.[9] This seems to agree, in a rather definitive way, with Hay and his mantra that that ‘we hate politics’. However, as Hall debates in Social Capital in Britain, ‘the erosion of social capital that Putnam find[s] in the American case is not a uniform phenomenon across the industrialized democracies’, and does not prove true in Britain.[10] Li and Marsh view the change as a ‘decline of citizen-orientated participation’ and suggest that instead new forms of participation took root.[11] They researched the socio-cultural and gender differences in social groups, where class differences were linked with educational qualifications, mobility trajectories and social networks. From this, while still important, working-class groups were still excluded.

This period witnessed the rise of socialism and the Left, and with this came greater centralized State control. According to Li and March, ‘Socio-cultural determinants’ showed increasing middle-class participation in activist groups and charities following post war mass affluence.[12] Bang, described by Li and March, concludes that there are two assumptions that can be taken from these determinants, where citizens’ political participation was meant to influence public authority and decisions, and citizens’ identities revolved around creating strong moral ties to assert social influence within groups.[13] Bang’s view helps draw a focus on politics as a fusion of representation and participation, but discusses few links between politics combined with the field of either ethnicity or faith – both fundamentals in establishing social identity.

Black describes a growing focus on dual-disciplined research with the New Left’s insight as culture being central to politics, with social movements and pressure groups more attentive to cultural and moral agendas to draw in support.[14] Discussion of NGOs and the rise of new social movements offers itself as new means of political participation, and is analyzed by Hilton as their ‘role of social action and its role in society’.[15]  Through lobbying, passing legislations and taking politics into the public sphere, NGOs extended the means by which politics can be used. Hay’s idea of depoliticisation contains similarities, an idea which sees issues taken from the governmental to the public sphere, from the public to the private sphere, and from the private sphere to the realm of necessity.  Through these social movements, an expanding middle-class participated in politics, but in a non-traditional mode. Politics changed due to the energy released by NGOs as there was ‘no authentic realm of the political in these organisations’.[16]

Through using the public sphere, politics was personalised and made more accessible to ordinary people, where they knew their concerns better as it was articulated by those who understood them comprehensively. Hilton concludes that there was neither depoliticisation or repoliticisation in Britain after WW2, but instead it witnessed a change in politics and the reorientation of state-society relations.[17] On the other hand, Hilton also argues that there was still a class based lack of political participation with the exclusion of the poor. NGOs had done little to change this trend, with the main support from an expanding affluent middle-class.[18] The view, ‘we hate politics’ can take authority from this idea, because despite an apparent change in how people participated, there was a definite class and education based element of exclusion which has been omitted by analysts, and still remains a problem in contemporary Britain.

Hay follows this debate discussing politics and its relation to human nature, quoting that ‘politics is dependent on assumptions about human nature we project onto political actors’.[19] His book Why We Hate Politics concludes with a notion of the supply-side failing to prove itself effective, as well as the cumulative effect of assumptions forcing politicians and politics to always be seen as pursuing individual gain. He summarises ‘politics is often viewed as much shallower than it actually is’.[20] Leighton reviews Hay’s work on ‘the politics we deserve’, and concurs that the public’s view and disenchantment with politicians handicaps politics, with an ‘increased individualised and politically naïve citizenry bound to be disappointed by discourse of collective decisions in democracy’.[21] This ‘hate’ of politics and depoliticisation’s collective effect takes more issues off the political agenda and gives it to ‘neutral’ experts for administration (i.e. Banks were given economic management). The historiography surrounding this debate maintains a feeling of discontent towards politicians and sometimes politics, which some see as a necessary evil. What seemed to provide authoritative statistics of decline in attitude to politics was the visible decrease of participation seen after the ‘Golden Age’. However, contemporary debate about a democratic crisis must be set in historical context. Jefferys states that ‘Britain has never had a strong tradition of popular participation in politics’ and furthermore, this has not damaged the legitimacy of democratic institutions.[22] Thus, this states that the level of political participation and opinions of the political sphere returned to a norm in line with Britain’s past.

Hay’s perspective formed a backbone for political analysis, through which other historians based their work. Flinders and Woods were critiqued by him, where Hay objected with their use of Schmitt’s distinction between politics and the political as it contextualizes between the ‘broad and narrow definitions’.[23] Despite conceptually agreeing with Hay, they use Schmitt to broaden the discussion of depoliticisation beyond British political, economic and state theory – so encouraging new cross-disciplinary research. From this, political analysis might be able to escape a crucial problem of the contemporary: political exclusion of the lowest and most vulnerable classes and social groups.[24] Jeffery’s own book has many similarities, stating that the willingness and ability of people to participate in politics was frequently determined by factors linked to class, gender and ethnicity.[25] If lacking in these aspects, you were generally excluded from participating. These attempts to broaden historical research into a multi-disciplined field suggests that these historians’ views saw political participation as simply transforming, rather than declining.  Due to their search through different disciplines, they found new forms of politics. Schedler’s description of anti-politics as a governing strategy replacing collective problems with self-regulating orders, a perspective on politics which finds similarities with Hay’s view of depoliticisation. The key difference is that ‘depoliticisation is the cause. Anti-politics is the effect’.[26]

Black’s book offers a middle-ground by describing nation-wide depoliticisation with the view that politics only changed. Cultural values were changing as a post-materialist agenda took hold of Britain. Politics now had to read the dynamics of this quickly changing culture and establish its place and status in society again.[27] It was no longer based on economic statistics, rather on the ‘priorities, ethics and aims of the market’.[28] This suggests that the change in nature of politics does not cause anti-politics. Civil society was not benign or a less contested sphere due to pressure group’s challenging the party system. The big change was that this public form of politics was more conscious of its private components. Hall analyses both levels of social capital and political participation in post war Britain and from ‘the balance of the evidence’ collective levels of social capital have not declined significantly in Britain during this period.[29] It provides similar results in civic engagement, which is measured in terms of interest in politics and political activism and remained relatively high, despite widespread changes in this period.[30] Hilton concurs with Black supporting the ‘ordinariness of politics [as] a clue to the changing dynamics the wider public has with the political process’, such that there was ‘no optimism or pessimism for the democratic future’.[31] Thus from Black and Hilton it seems appropriate to distinguish that this view of contempt disassociation towards politics was nothing new in British history. Instead of perceiving a decline in political participation or opinions towards politics and politicians, changes occurred altering the way we participate.

It seems incorrect to entirely agree with Hay’s view ‘we hate politics’ as during the period after WW2, people grew increasingly active in pushing for more specific policies by personally becoming activists. As Li and Marsh state, it requires both ‘social and cultural capital for political participation’ and during this period of greater social individuality and cultural transformation, these economic, social and cultural resources were readily available.[32] It also seems relevant to point out how Hay, despite admitting political analysts are not ‘neutral, but participant observers’, concludes Why We Hate Politics with a pacifying suggestion to view politics less harshly.[33] His main argument addressed the current cynicism and lack of respect for politics which are often wrong.[34]  He suggests the assumptions the public have towards politics are sometimes ‘distorted’, and beyond that, people are more critical of the politicians themselves. But people still participate in politics, they did not undermine a system that, at least, attempted to give them a voice. Herreros’ review of Hay’s book agrees that there was a ‘growing gap between citizens demands and the political system’s capabilities’, and encourages political trust instead of hatred.

In conclusion, although politicians were often viewed with contempt, and politics was often seen as ‘the pursuit of individual utility’, this assessment views politics as shallower than it is.[35] ‘Politics is what we make of it’, and Hay stresses the importance of the detrimental effect the majority’s assumption has on the ability of political actors to act.[36] The debate around this political history has often set a trend between political participation and its relation to our feelings about politics. Through doing this, instead of seeing a stark decline in social capital, as Putnam suggests, we see a change in political focus throughout society – a sharpened interest in helping the minorities and less fortunate on both a national and international level. Individualisation developed which Bang describes as a ‘key for democracy’.[37] Yet this change in form of political participation did not see greater inclusion: those in a lower class, lacking education, or part of a minority ethnicity remained excluded, while a rising affluent middle-class participated. Nonetheless, the opinions towards politics has changed little in Britain’s recent history, showing no stark decline that some assumed followed the 1950s ‘Golden Age’ of participation, with ‘hate’ also being too strong an emotive. Rather public distaste for politics is more appropriately directed towards politicians, thus suggesting that instead of Hay’s assessment ‘we hate politics’, it could be re-worded ‘we [distrust] [politicians]’. 

Bibliography:

Black, L., Redefining British politics: culture, consumerism and participation, 1954-70, (Springer Nature, 2010)

Bang, H., Everyday Makers and Expert Citizens, (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005)

Clarke, N., Jennings, W., Moss, J., Stoker, G., Is anti-politics explained by depoliticization?, (The Political Studies Association), (12/04/2015)

Hall, P. A., Social Capital in Britain, (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Hay, C., Why We Hate Politics, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

Herreros, F.,Why We Hate Politics: Review, (12/2008)

Hilton, M., Politics is Ordinary: Non-governmental Organizations and Political Participation in Contemporary Britain, (Oxford Academic, 01/06/2011)

Jefferys, K., Two Cheers for Democracy: involvement and interest in British politics since 1918, (2008)

Leighton, D., Why We Hate politics by Colin Hay – the politics we deserve?, (openDemocracy)

Li, Y., Marsh, D.New Forms of Political Participation: Searching for Expert Citizens and Everyday Makers, (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Li, Y., Savage, M., Pickles, A., Social capital and social exclusion in England and Wales (1972-1999), (12/2003)

Putnam, R., D., Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, (Journal of Democracy, 1995)

Wood, M., Flinders, M., Depoliticisation, Governance and the State, (01/04/2014)

Wood, M., Flinders, M., Tracing the political: depoliticisation, governance and the state, (The Policy Press, 2015)

Websites:

http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/uktable.htm [23/10/2017]


[1] Clarke, N., Jennings, W., Moss, J., Stoker, G., Is anti-politics explained by depoliticization?, (The Political Studies Association), (12/04/2015)

[2] Hay, C., Why We Hate Politics, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 158

[3] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p.153

[4] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p.1

[5] Wood, M., Flinders, M., Tracing the political: depoliticisation, governance and the state, (The Policy Press, 2015), p. 228

[7] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 158

[8] Li, Y., Savage, M., Pickles, A., Social capital and social exclusion in England and Wales (1972-1999), (The British Journal of Sociology, 2004), p. 518

[9] Li, Savage, Pickles, Social capital and social exclusion, p. 519

[10] Hall, Social Capital in Britain, p. 457

[11] Li, Y., Marsh, D.,New Forms of Political Participation: Searching for Expert Citizens and Everyday Makers, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 249

[16] Hilton, Politics is Ordinary, p. 260

[17] Hilton, Politics is Ordinary, p. 265

[18] Hilton, Politics is Ordinary, p. 263

[19] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 162

[20] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 163

[29] Hall, P. A., Social Capital in Britain, (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 457

[30] Hall, Social Capital in Britain, p. 457

[31] Hilton, Politics is Ordinary, p. 258

[33] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 163

[34] Herreros, F.,Why We Hate Politics: Review, (12/2008)

[35] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 163

[36] Hay, Why We Hate Politics, p. 161

[37] Bang, H., Everyday Makers and Expert Citizens, (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005), p. 3

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