Why we should worry that the young are simply no longer interested in politics

They may well conclude that, as they never gave their consent, the government has no right to act on their behalf
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The Independent Online

For many years, I have tried to develop a visual memory, without success. I could not tell you how many Bellinis there are in the National Gallery or describe more than two of them, and even then with a pitiful lack of detail. This may be due to the fact that my brain cells are clogged up with lesser information, such as electoral statistics or lists of government ministers. On the latter topic, I used to enjoy competitive exchanges with the late Roy Jenkins, although he almost always won. Roy knew even more about the arcana of British politics than he did about claret.

Until recently, there seemed to be an advantage in using one's memory as a political lumber-room. I could have claimed that it had helped me to understand British politics. Now, I am not so sure. I suspect that the political class - broadly defined as politicians, senior activists and commentators - has never been less qualified to interpret the politics of the street.

Last week, I had two conversations which made me wonder what is going on. One was with a group of bright youngsters in the City; the other with some equally clever young television journalists. A few years ago, their responses would have been predictable. Though there might have been an exception in each group, the City people would have been Tories; the television ones, on the left. Now, there was no pattern, and none was even certain to vote at the next election. No one retained much faith in Tony Blair; no one had discovered an alternative creed.

The only individuals with strong views were a couple of Eurosceptics, including one of the television crowd. Both of them would have preferred to support a Eurosceptic party that was left of centre. I tried to persuade them to vote Tory; they were unconvinced. As the threat from Europe was receding and the Tories were not going to win, what was wrong with wasting a vote on UKIP?

In both cases, I sensed that my interlocutors did not often discuss politics. When I was their age - apart from believing that anyone who started a sentence with "When I was your age"' must be gaga - I and my friends devoted a lot of conversational energy to our political views. Though we were not monoglot politicians, we would otherwise have felt intellectually naked. We would all have agreed with Aristotle that the man without political opinions was an inferior creature.

The 20-somethings I spoke to were anything but inferior. Yet none of them saw the necessity of devoting much thought to politics, let alone to an allegiance. Indeed, they were curious to meet someone who had. It was as if I had just come back from an obscure and remote country, Politicia. They had vaguely heard of it and thought that they might visit it some day, but from what they had read, its natural beauties were not overwhelming. On the scale of seriousness, they would all have regarded politics as superior to train-spotting or Morris dancing, but some way below the Venetian Renaissance.

This has one healthy aspect. It does indicate that Britain is a more stable country. When I was their age, EP Thompson was writing that we might all wake up one morning to find that we were living in a socialist society. Even those of us who found that prospect repugnant could not be certain that he was wrong. Benn versus Thatcher: the entire future of the country seemed to be in question.

That is no longer true. Perhaps it might have been, if Mr Blair had displayed the courage of his euro-convictions and used the moral authority, which he once possessed, to try to abolish the pound and merge Britain into Europe. As he has failed, we can safely roll up that map of Europe.

Without Europe, there seem to be no great, polarising issues in play. None of the youngsters felt that the next Government would have more than a marginal effect on the way that they lived. It would appear that this is not only true of talented kids in the City or television, who might reasonably assume that they were able to control their own destinies. At the Leicester South by-election, despite maximum publicity and the likelihood of the seat changing hands, the turnout was one eighth lower than it had been at the general election. In modern Britain, Aristotle would appear to be preaching to a deaf audience.

It could be argued that the widespread lack of interest in elections is a sign of political maturity. Over the millennia - it started in late 5th-century Athens - demagogues have been claiming that they could use political mechanisms to transform the lives of their electorate. If the voters have at last realised that politicians cannot make them rich and happy, that might be a rare instance of the current age actually making some intellectual progress.

Yet there is also a problem. We need government. Deep underground, well below the modern architecture of politics, we could still discover that the whole system rests on Hobbesian foundations. Government exists to protect us from the dangers that would arise in its absence.

But as society becomes more prosperous and civilised, fear recedes. The citizens of advanced societies increasingly expect their governments to act in their name, with their consent. This creates an insuperable problem. Governments have to take decisions. If they were always easy ones which displeased no-one, there would be no need for government. They are not, and there is.

Difficult decisions bring discord. We can see that in the US. Whichever party loses narrowly this November, many of its partisans will promptly go into internal exile, refusing to accept the outcome as legitimate. The longer-term consequences of this bitter division are hard to foresee, but the United States is now less united than at any time since the Civil War.

In Britain, the fault lines are more dispersed. But in recent years, over issues as diverse as foxhunting and the Iraq War, millions of British citizens have in effect expressed their wish to withdraw their consent from the operations of government. If Mr Blair were to win the next election with 36 per cent of the vote, which is possible, while only 52 per cent of the electorate had voted - equally possible - he would be governing with the endorsement of fewer than one in five voters. If he started to become seriously unpopular while taking unpopular measures, this could lead to trouble.

Aristotle assumed that those who absented themselves from the political process had only themselves to blame if it went against them. A lot of the British public may disagree. They may well conclude that, as they never gave their consent, the Government has no right to act on their behalf and they have no duty to obey it. Much of the street may have withdrawn from politics. When and if it returns, it may wish to take politics onto the street.

The youngsters I was chatting to had no desire to bring about a crisis in the governance of Britain. Over a drink on a hot August evening, nothing could have been further from their minds. But that could be the unintended consequence of theirs' and others' political apathy.