Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015


Anti-politics…not so new?

By UoSAnti-Politics |

Last month’s YouGov poll showed that political dissatisfaction is on the rise, and is driving UKIP support. It also illustrated that anti-politics is not new. The fact that 35 per cent of respondents to a 1944 Gallup Poll felt that politicians were ‘out for themselves’ suggests that citizens have been sceptical towards formal politics throughout the period addressed by this project.

However, the post-war period has often been portrayed by historians of cabinet papers and ministerial diaries as a Golden Age for British politics. Turnout was high. Support for the two main parties was high. The 1945 election is often considered as an especially golden moment, with Labour winning its first parliamentary majority on the back of consensus during ‘the people’s war’, which was fought by all classes and sexes and promoted a sense of national purpose and social reconciliation through events including conscription, evacuation, rationing and communal air-raid shelters.

But something else was also present during this period – an ignorance of politics, an indifference to politics, a boredom with politics, an alienation from politics, a cynicism towards politics, an antiparty populism. Such attitudes are evident in the sources of social historians Stephen Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, whose analysis of opinion polls, social surveys, commercial feature films and material from the Mass Observation Archive suggests that anti-politics is not new but is ‘derived from endemic tensions at the heart of democracy’ (Fielding, 2010). Jon Lawrence’s research indicates that high turnout and party membership during this period followed less from enthusiasm and interest – which had been on the wane as ‘the spirit of the hustings’ became replaced by a more sober, rational calm, serious, restrained political culture (in the context of an expanded franchise and the rise of Communism and Fascism in Europe) – and more from party organisation and selective campaigning.

James Hinton’s examination of material in the Mass Observation archive from this period raises questions about how popular attitudes to politics should be conceptualised. How should we distinguish between ‘personal concerns’ and ‘private ends’ on the one hand, and ‘political abstractions’ and ‘the public good’ on the other? Sources of personal testimony are suggestive, ambiguous, rich, complex, awkward. Popular attitudes to politics are elusive and contradictory. A key concern for this project is to establish a clear definition of what we mean when we think about politics and political engagement to evaluate the range of popular attitudes that have existed since 1937.

Whilst anti-politics may not be new, is it enough to know that ignorance, indifference, boredom, alienation, cynicism, and populism existed in the past? This project hopes to build upon previous research by evaluating how prevalent and deeply felt such attitudes were compared to other periods.


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