Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015


University of Southampton History Seminar Series

By UoSAnti-Politics |

UOS research seminar series

Last week, Nick Clarke presented findings from the project for the University of Southampton’s History Department’s research seminar series. Nick discussed current debates about disaffected democracies and rising negativity towards politics, which inform the context for the project. He described some of the key changes in political engagement we have found from looking at survey data going back to 1937. He then tried out some arguments we think we can make about possible explanations for these patterns from listening to citizens’ voices in the Mass Observation archive. These include:

– There was never a golden age for democratic engagement in Britain, but things have got worse since the Second World War.

– More citizens have expressed negativity towards politics and politicians in stronger terms because a) citizens’ images of the good politician have changed and b) the circumstances in which citizens and politicians encounter and interact with each other has changed.

– In the earlier period, encounters were structured by long radio speeches and rowdy political meetings. Politicians were able to perform virtues. Citizens were able to judge and distinguish politicians.

– In the current period, encounters are mediated and allow for less in the way of impressive performances by politicians and well-calibrated judgements by citizens.

The paper was followed by a discussion about the influence of historical events on attitudes and behaviours, distinctions between popular understandings of politicians and political institutions and issues with defining politics and anti-politics


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