On 3 October 2019, as the parliamentary battles over Brexit raged, a new think tank called Onward published The Politics of Belonging. The report attracted attention for its announcement of a pivotal new voter-archetype – “Workington Man” – an older, white, non-graduate Leaver living in the north of England or the Midlands, who saw the country diverging from his economic and cultural views. But it also revealed a more startling finding: 35 per cent of under-35s, interviewed in June 2019, believed “the army would be a good way to run the country”. And almost twice as many said they would back “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament”.
Will Tanner, a co-author of the report and a former adviser to Theresa May, told me that he was “blown away” to encounter “such a strong desire for security over freedom”. This was not just a freak result of that strange, febrile summer. The findings corresponded to research published in 2018 by the US-based political scientist Yascha Mounk, in his book Democracy vs The People. In April, a study by YouGov for the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) detected a similar loss of faith in democracy’s ability to serve voters’ interests, especially among 18-24-year-olds.
In June, the pollster Peter Kellner reported results from a Deltapoll survey of more than 10,000 people. This suggested that 30 per cent of adults think “Britain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions without having to consult parliament”. Many commentators who fear for democracy’s future see it as a political system to cherish for its own sake, in which each side accepts its electoral and legislative defeats with grace. But Kellner suggests those alienated voters take a much more hard-nosed view. They believe “they are not getting out of the system what they feel they should” – and are concluding that parliamentary democracy has failed.
In response to such findings, there is a tendency to conclude that, after decades of stability, British society now faces a uniquely dangerous moment. But people have turned against democracy before. Might rediscovering those moments have something to tell us about how the rejection of democratic politics can actually play a role in its renewal?
Britain did not become a mass democracy until 1918, when most women, and millions of working men, received the vote for the first time. Women were not fully enfranchised until 1928. Yet before its modern establishment, democracy was long thought of as a risky innovation that contained the seeds of its own demise. What if all those new voters failed to use their new power responsibly, or were manipulated by demagogues and false promises? Some Edwardians feared democracy would spawn fascistic parties; others warned that dim-witted working-class voters would elect spendthrift socialists, to the point of disaster.
In 1901, the novelist HG Wells prophesied that “the grey confusion that is democracy must pass away inevitably of its own inherent contradictions”. Wells was associated with the National Efficiency movement, which dismissed parliament as a clapped-out talking-shop. Rule by an expert elite would deliver social reform for the working class much more effectively. In 1910, one of National Efficiency’s favoured politicians, the dynamic, commanding David Lloyd George, was mulling the notion of a “businessmen’s government” – an idea he drew on as prime minister six years later. All of this amounted to a challenge to parliamentary government: was it strong enough to modernise Britain without resorting to autocracy?
After 1918, working men returned from the war to find they all had the vote – but not necessarily a job. The spectre of former servicemen turning against democracy’s timid compromises haunted the early 1920s. In Germany, embittered veterans coalesced in the paramilitary, proto-Nazi Freikorps. In Italy, the ex-soldier Benito Mussolini and his new fascist party seized power. In Britain, Stanley Baldwin strove to build an inclusive, one-nation conservatism. The idea of the “property-owning democracy” was coined in 1923 to try and stabilise mass democracy by giving working people a stake in the economy. Yet the mass unemployment of the 1930s brought a new wave of frustration. Watching MPs “twaddling” over whether to break from defunct economic orthodoxies, Aldous Huxley dismissed parliamentary democracy as a “whorish old slut”, and put his political faith in authoritarian economic planning. One of those MPs, the disillusioned Labourite Oswald Mosley, was hardly alone in admiring the dynamism of Mussolini’s dictatorship.
After years of cynicism, the outbreak of another world war in 1939 transfigured democracy. Defending it became a part of the national cause, as Britain faced the threat of being colonised by totalitarians. This also made non-dictatorial intervention in the economy seem more possible than ever, as old nightmares about the dangers of a big state and deficit spending were overwhelmed by the demands of all-out war.
Yet for all the idealism of William Beveridge’s plan for a welfare state, many voters doubted that politicians would have the will to enact it against the vested interests of banks and insurance companies. In 1942, Labour’s Arthur Greenwood warned the House of Commons that failing to plan postwar reconstruction risked “bitter disillusionment”. He added that MPs might find “this country in the hands of what some people would call a strong government”. In his book Demobbed (2009), the historian Alan Allport argues that there were fears that, if veterans ended up on the dole again, “soldierly anger would be too volatile for parliamentary democracy”.
The 1945 Labour government finally showed that parliamentary government could deliver transformative change that had once seemed unthinkable within the confines of democracy: a National Health Service, full employment. But one of the pressures that made such radicalism possible was the prospect that, without it, people would reject democracy altogether.
Before 1945, democratic politics had seemed too weak to do enough to satisfy the demands of voters. By the 1970s, it stood accused of being too weak to refuse them. In 1975, in the wake of two successful miners’ strikes, a Trilateral Commission report titled The Crisis of Democracy, co-authored by the French and Japanese sociologists Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki, and the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, contended that the British state was being blackmailed, not least by the trade unions. The upshot was inflation, which Huntington described as “the economic disease of democracies”.
[See also: Henry Kissinger’s whitewashing of Richard Nixon]
Once again, influential figures had begun to despair of democracy; once again, that despair would compel new thinking. If democratic governments were too weak to withstand the “strike weapon”, there might have to be an “authoritarian interlude”. On 28 April 1974, the Mirror’s Geoffrey Goodman tipped off Labour’s secretary of state for industry, Tony Benn, that “among senior businessmen” there was “a general belief that there will have to be an authoritarian government until the oil comes ashore, in order to control the trade unions”. In Chile, inflation had soared to 100 per cent, and a military junta had seized power; the Times observed sympathetically that there was a limit to the ruin a country should be expected to tolerate. The former Labour minister Lord Chalfont suggested that “more and more people in this country, many of them men and women of impeccably liberal instincts, are beginning to contemplate seriously, and not without some satisfaction, the possibility of a period of authoritarian rule in Britain.”
The Economist predicted that, if another government were “wrecked by industrial power”, more people would conclude that the army should be involved in ending the crisis. Perhaps this was what Lord Hailsham meant when he warned that a strong government would “use the public forces to seize control” and force through parliament “a series of authoritarian measures” – and that there would be “a lot of violence one way or another”. One such measure, written about by Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan, was the abolition of the right to strike. Finally, a Labour deal with the unions brought wage inflation under control, and such talk ceased. But the nightmares it stirred were part of the slow process of making the unthinkable prospect of a return to mass unemployment seem like the worst option – except for all the others.
Today’s deep disillusionment with parliamentary democracy has been coming for decades. The IPPR’s report Road to Renewal (2022) points out that voter turnout has declined significantly since the 1970s. But as the political scientist Will Jennings has highlighted, that long-term disenchantment was “turbocharged” in 2008-2009 “by the parliamentary expenses scandal and the global financial crisis”. There are also the years of stagnant pay that followed. IPPR found that 53 per cent of the 3,442 adults polled thought donors, businesses, lobbyists or pressure groups had the most influence on shaping government policy; only 6 per cent thought voters themselves were the most influential. When asked to name the worst features of British democracy, 54 per cent of Deltapoll’s respondents pinpointed the quality of MPs; 59 per cent picked the rich and powerful having more influence than voters.
How should politicians respond? Parth Patel, the co-author of Road to Renewal, suggests voters know that “the bedrock of our democratic deal isn’t really there” – and that it is vital that politicians re-embrace civil society, to revitalise trust in democratic institutions.
But perhaps the disillusionment with democracy will force a more radical change, overcoming old nightmares, as in the 1940s and 1970s. Today, it would mean mastering the fear – in this case, the fear of transformative levels of government spending. That, after all, is what was supposed to have happened after 2016. The Brexit vote was interpreted by the Conservatives as a vote against politics as usual; it is striking that, after they won, the trust that Leave voters placed in democracy rose. The Conservatives’ 2019 “levelling up” manifesto was the response. But the vision of levelling up has been of minimal import in the Tory leadership race. Tanner, whose Politics of Belonging told me that abandoning it would undermine democracy, because the Conservatives won by appealing to Labour voters’ sense of having been let down. “Can you imagine the renewed sense of betrayal,” he asked, “if the Conservative Party less than three years later turns round and says, ‘Actually, we don’t really care about you any more?’”
But what about young people, who predominantly voted Remain, and yet are reportedly turning away from democracy in greater numbers than older voters? Tanner argues that they need to be given more of a stake in the country, by helping them to own a house, and so have families, and put down roots in a neighbourhood. He worries that, without that, the inter-generational “social contract that is at the heart of democracy” will break down.
[See also: Nora Ephron and the art of self-narrative]
All of this depends on politicians noticing the threat of a large-scale rejection of democracy. Tanner argues the parties “instinctively know that democracy is facing a generational test but have not yet internalised the implications – and are light years away from knowing how to respond.” A few senior Conservatives, Tanner told me, such as William Hague and Jesse Norman, “recognise the profound threat that disaffected and detached young people pose for democratic society”, but “the party’s growing reliance on older voters means that MPs have a diminishing incentive to take it seriously.” He still advocates a post-liberal “politics of belonging” – greater economic equality and security, strengthened social bonds and an emphasis on the “common good” – as a way to coax disaffected voters back from the divisiveness of authoritarian populism.
Peter Kellner fears the emergence of an openly authoritarian leader who promises to channel the rage against the status quo, warning that “if things don’t start to improve over the next few years, you could see a political movement arising which could do great damage”. If past cases of the rejection of democracy are any guide, drawing disillusioned voters back into mainstream politics will require overcoming old nightmares. Politicians will have to remake the case for representative democracy, and, crucially, show that it can deliver, even in the face of vested interests. If not, voters may continue to ask, what’s the point?