Party politics turns Britain into an 'apathetic' nation

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Britons are now deeply apathetic about party politics, strongly punitive towards criminals, and surprisingly in favour of imposing higher taxes on the rich, according the annual survey of British Social Attitudes, published today.

Startling figures in the survey suggest that public cynicism about the political system has plumbed new depths, with fewer than one in four voters believing that British governments of any party put the national interest above that of the party.

The lack of interest is even more dramatic among teenagers - included in a special sample of the survey for the first time. Only one in eight 12- to 19-year-olds expresses a strong interest in politics, compared with one in three of those aged 25 or over.

And although nine in ten teenagers, despite growing up during the Thatcher years, know that John Major is not the first male Prime Minister, and eight in ten know the Tories won the last election, the 12- to 19-year- olds are much less knowledgeable about more complex subjects. For example, only four in ten know that there are more than 100 MPs.

The public's apathy is also marked when it comes to local politics. In 1965, three-quarters of the public believed that voting in local elections mattered, compared to just over half who now believe it. Interestingly, in view of what many commentators believe is a decline in the powers of local government, more than twice as many people (39 per cent) favour less central control of local government compared with 16 per cent who want more central control.

Only one in three people believes councillors can be trusted to place the needs of their area above those of their own political party. But in this respect local councillors do better than MPs - trusted by only 25 per cent of the electorate to put the national interest first.

The survey, produced by Social and Community Planning Research, suggests that the "British public has become more punitive and less libertarian over the last decade in its attitude towards crime and punishment".

Fewer than three in five people (58 per cent compared with 67 per cent 10 years ago) now support the classic view of the British legal system "that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to convict an innocent person". About the same majority is still solidly in favour of the reintroduction of capital punishment for all murders.

While a majority of people (58 per cent) favour higher spending on social welfare, most are also well aware that this would mean higher taxes. But there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of people who believe that the burden of higher taxes should fall especially on the better off. Fifty-six per cent of people now take that view, compared with only 32 per cent a decade ago, and this includes 51 per cent of those in the top third of the income scale.

Figures on attitudes to Europe show deep divisions on whether there should be further integration, although 77 per cent of the populations do not believe there is now any question of leaving the European Union. The number thinking that the United Kingdom should withdraw has dropped from 42 per cent to 17 per cent in the past 10 years. The survey also suggests that younger and better educated voters are more pro-European in outlook.