British voters are divided into anarchists and centrists – but the anarchists are calling the shots

The preponderance of right-wing anarchists helps to explain why the Conservatives have become so profoundly unconservative.

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In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, I remember talking to an old acquaintance, a former colleague. He was just about to retire from his well-paid job and was looking forward to days spent with  grandchildren and golf clubs. I don’t know where he lived, but I can picture it: a large detached house with an assiduously kept lawn, in a village with a cosy pub and frequent outbreaks of bunting.

We chatted briefly about politics. He told me he’d never felt strongly about the EU, and he could see the economic argument for staying in. But he was leaning towards a vote for Leave. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” he said, “to give the buggers a kick up the arse?” The buggers, as far as I could tell, were not just the EU and not just the government, but everyone in a position of authority. The establishment.

I have just read a fascinating new report, from the Social Market Foundation, entitled “Anarchy in the UK (and Everywhere Else)”. The authors of the report, Mirko Draka and Carlo Schwarz, assess the extent to which the political turbulence we are seeing across much of the developed world is driven by fundamental changes in how people vote.

The researchers analysed more than two decades’ worth of data on voter attitudes and values in 17 countries, in Europe and North America. They found that the traditional way to divide voters – between left and right on an ideological spectrum – still holds. But they also identified another big dividing line: whether or not you trust in your country’s institutions: parliament, trade unions, business, the press. Draka and Schwarz call voters who have very low institutional trust “anarchists”, and those with relatively high trust “centrists”. Anarchists, who may be left or right wing, are the most fertile soil for radical movements and populist politicians promising to shake things up.

The British electorate has become slightly more left wing over the past couple of decades (less so than the international average) but quite a lot more anarchist. Centrists make up only a small majority (56 per cent) of voters. Our anarchists are not evenly distributed across left and right, but skew right. Britain’s left is dominated by liberal centrists, which may be why Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular even with Labour voters.

The preponderance of right-wing anarchists helps to explain why the Conservatives have become so profoundly unconservative. The party’s leading figures are not only prepared to countenance chaos and uncertainty in the name of their favoured policy; they relish the prospect. In this they are supported by the party’s members – most of whom are a lot more like my friend than they are like Leave voters in Rotherham or Wigan – and by many of their voters.

I recall my friend’s remark whenever I read that the Leave vote was made up of the left behind and downtrodden. It’s true that many Leave voters are working-class people who feel forgotten by Westminster, and many of them were adversely affected by austerity. But like the Remain vote, the Leave vote was a diverse coalition. Leave votes piled up in the Home Counties, some of the richest areas of England. Voters who felt they had nothing left to lose were joined by those who felt invincible, and prosperous enough to take a punt. Most in the latter group are not suffering from deprivation, and don’t feel oppressed. They just want to kick some arse, or at least watch, from a safe distance, some arses getting kicked.

The researchers didn’t collect data on how voters feel about their own lives, but their report made me think about one of the most surprising and seemingly anomalous social trends in Britain: we’re getting happier. Given the agonising dysfunction of our politics, we naturally assume that people are miserable. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The share of people in Britain who say they are “fairly” or “very” satisfied with their life has been rising steadily for more than 20 years. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of unhappy people in this country; of course there are. But it does suggest that there are a lot of happy anarchists out there.

Attempting to explain momentous political upheavals, we tend to look for deep-rooted causes: cultural alienation, globalisation, economic uncertainty. But that means we can underrate more superficial factors. What if a lot of people are voting for disruption simply because they’re bored with stability? What if some voters are treating politics like a Netflix series in need of dramatic conflict to advance its narrative arc?

Like children who feel safe enough to test the boundaries of parental authority, happy anarchists revolt against institutions only because they cannot conceive of those institutions ever collapsing or being degraded enough to cease functioning. In Britain, anti-elitist Brexiteers still expect those elites to clear up the messes that Brexit will create. In the US, the increasing radicalism of white activists in the Democratic Party is tempered only by black voters, who perhaps have more reason to remember that politics isn’t a form of creative self-expression.

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, is often cited by those fond of pointing out that history seems not to have ended as he is supposed to have predicted. But Fukuyama could be said to have anticipated our current political distress. He wrote that, at the end of history:

… the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will get history started again.

To update Marx, history repeats itself, the second time as arses getting kicked. I’m just not sure how funny it is going to be. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace