The broadening political scope of anti-politics in Britain
This talk reports findings from the ESRC-funded project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015’. The project was a response to concerns about rising political disaffection in Britain and many other democracies around the world. Drawing on data from commercial polling organisations and Mass Observation, both of which began operating in Britain during 1937, the project sought a longer view of political disaffection than has commonly been taken by researchers, and also to listen more to what citizens have said when given the opportunity to speak or write in their own terms about the institutions of formal politics. The starting point for this particular talk consists of popular accounts that often assume a ‘golden age’ of political engagement in Britain immediately after the Second World War, and alternative accounts of a historically continuous, unchanging, anaemic, populist political culture in Britain. Comparing volunteer writing for Mass Observation during the 1940s and 1950s, and again since the turn of the twenty-first century, I make two main arguments. First, there was no golden age of democratic engagement in Britain. Prominent storylines about politicians, circulating widely in British society during the immediate post-war period, were largely negative and focused on politicians’ self-interest and lack of straight-talking. Second, anti-politics broadened in political scope during the second half of the twentieth century. Prominent storylines circulating in the early twenty-first century remained largely negative but were also more numerous, indicating an expanded range of grievances, especially regarding career politicians thought to be out of touch with citizens and all the same as each other.
Nick Clarke is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Southampton. He is co-author of Globalising Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption (Blackwell, 2011) and various journal articles on citizenship, social movements, state-space, and democratic engagement.