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Twenty-five years ago, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki identified a “crisis of democracy” which painted the “bleak future for… government”
Twenty-five years ago, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki identified a “crisis of democracy” which painted the “bleak future for … government” as an image of “the disintegration of civil order, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders, and the alienation of citizens” (Crozier 2). While this vision of the demise of democracy appears extreme, there has been a dramatic drop in the public’s trust in politicians and political parties in recent years which has resulted in a public disenchantment with the government. A growing scepticism among the British public has reversed the traditional deference to political elites, and voters are quick to voice their opinions on policy and politicians alike. The growing discontent with the negativity of political discourse, and a lack of confidence in the efficacy of the government suggests that voter disengagement and disenchantment is a threat to the stability of the government, and politicians must take note and reconnect with their public.
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Although many are quick to blame the apathy of voters or the sensationalist media on voter scepticism, research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has found that charges of misconduct against individual politicians are responsible for the decline in trust in the government and politicians (Denholm). Voter apathy is a result of the growing perceptions of scandal amongst the elite members of all the main political parties, resulting in a disinterest in politics in general and a negative estimation of politicians themselves. In response to this growing mistrust, a series of Parliamentary committees in the 1990s examined issues of political corruption, ethics, and abuse of campaign finance regulations. The committees found that perceptions of politicians as untrustworthy and self-interested derive in part from gossip regarding individual members of the elite, which raises public uneasiness about the standards of behaviour of the political elite. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, established by the Prime Minister in 1994, is evidence itself of the mounting concerns of the public. The introduction to the Committee’s first report states:
We can say that conduct in public life is more rigorously scrutinised than it was in the past, that the standards which the public demands remains high, and that the great majority of people in public life meet those high standards. But there are weaknesses in the procedures for maintaining and enforcing those standards. As a result people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. This we regards as the principle reason for public disquiet (Whetnall).
The decline in trust and the corresponding drop in voter activity is not due to long-term social forces, but to recent political affairs such as allegations of sleaze in the early Nineties.
However, it is impossible to pinpoint recent political scandals as the sole cause of the drop in the public’s trust of politicians. There is the perceived lack of difference in the major political parties after the general election of 1997, which contributed to lower voter turnout and general apathy. Giddens (1998) has argued that contemporary Britain requires a politics free from sharp ideological division and adversarial conflict as a response to global trends such as globalisation, detraditionalisation, increased reflexivity, and a new individualism (368). This ‘politics without adversary’ is an attempt to appeal to a broader range of voting public, but in reality has alienated much of the public and raises doubts regarding the genuineness of the party and politician ideology. In an interview conducted by Weltman and Billig (2001), a Conservative councillor suggests that the left/right distinction is not longer capable of mapping the social and political world because the contours of modern society have altered. Asked whether he generally thinks of other members of the council in terms of ‘left’ or ‘right’, he says that he ‘could have used those words with more sense ten years ago, both in terms of individual people, councillors, and in terms of attitudes’ (Weltman and Billig 373). One can infer from this interview that contemporary politics are breaking down into a non-adversarial form of politics, one with which the public cannot identify and cannot trust to enact significant change.
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Through an examination of the social and political events which have shaped the current public mistrust of politicians and political parties, one can deduce that much of the current disenchantment in politics and politicians is rooted in the absence of available political spaces for the public. There are few practices or institutions which are able to respond to issues of public interest and political disagreement, and to channel the public opinion in an effective and meaningful way. Currently, Britain is facing public disquiet over the prospect of joining the European Union and the coinciding single market economy, along with the protests against the involvement of Britain in the war in Iraaq. Whatever the reasons behind the drop in public confidence in the government, what is clear is that the British government needs to re-evaluate its relationship with the public in the light of an invasive media, new technology, a better educated public, and a pervasive culture of cynicism. New technology, such as the internet, offers politicians the opportunity to make a connection with out-of-touch voters and offers new ways of mobilising and recording popular opinion, an opportunity which few politicians have taken. We are entering a new era of politics, in which the old ideologies of ‘left’ and ‘right’, public and private, moral and immoral, are breaking down. The public, alienated from this new ‘politics without adversaries’ and incensed at the unethical behaviour of individual politicians, has expressed their loss of trust in the government. It remains up to the politicians themselves to win back the confidence of the public.
Crozier, M., A. Huntington, and J. Watanuki (1975) The crisis of democracy, New York: New York University Press
Denholm, A. (2004) Public trust in politicians hit by sleaze claims, The Scotsman, Tuesday 25 May.
Giddens, A. (1998) The third way: The renewal of social democracy. Cambridge: Polity.
Pharr, S. (2000) A quarter century of declining confidence, Journal of Democracy vol. 11, no. 2, April: pp. 5-25.
Weltman, D. and M. Billig (2001) The political psychology of contemporary anti-politics: A discursive approach to the end-of-ideology era, Political Psychology vol. 22, no. 2: 367- 382.
Whetnall, A. (1995) The management of ethics and conduct in the public service [online]. Case Study released by the Cabinet Officer, Office of Public Service, United Kingdom. Available from: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/30/21/2731894.htm [Accessed 15 March 2005]
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