Frankly, no one gives a damn

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The Independent Online
THE new political year has begun against a backdrop of unprecedented cynicism and apathy towards politics and politicians. The Government has a pathetically low level of popular support; it must tackle a record budget deficit and is faced with deep divisions and uncertainties in the party and the country about the European Union and our role in the world.

This statement is more or less correct, except for the 'un' that precedes precedented. The period in which parliaments opened to mass enthusiasm for the public- spirited measures they were going to pass was that same period when adolescents respected their parents, sportsmen played the game fairly and women could freely wander the streets at night without being accosted. That was before the middle class rose, materialism replaced spiritual values and there emerged an under class without hope or moral constraint. The latter is clearly identifiable as, say, the late Roman republic (Cicero: O Tempora, O Mores), the early Tudor period (try Sir Thomas More) and the 1720s (John Gay's The Beggar's Opera reads well as an account of late 20th-century England).

But the myth of the Good Old Days does not explain everything. By all normal measurements of popularity, John Major is doing worse than his predecessors and there is a sense of resignation about the state's inability to tackle its problems. History does not repeat itself, and the cynicism and apathy of one period has a different flavour and context from that of any other.

This time around though, disillusionment with politics is a global phenomenon and the level of cynicism in Britain is far lower than in Italy, Mexico or Japan, for example.

Three related phenomena affect the world condition. First, is a 'globalisation' of the world economy which, in the absence of effective global institutions, leaves politicians unable even to maintain a pretence that they can do much about the things their constituents care about. Second, is what Daniel Bell in the Fifties called 'The End of Ideology' and Francis Fukuyama, in the Eighties, 'The End of History'. The names may be wrong, but there is a sense in which all political economies seem to be converging on the same sort of technocratic, market-orientated, mixed- economy position, a sense that there is no alternative.

If the first two dimensions of the syndrome mean that the true slogan of the age is 'It doesn't matter any more', the third should come as no surprise: the decline of grassroots party politics. All over the world voting may not be declining much, if at all, but party membership certainly is, and in a secular, irrevocable kind of way. There will be no shortage of ambitious young people willing to stand for office, but the number willing to knock on doors for the cause is declining. Which is something to worry the Government; this must erode that solid minimum of one-third of the electorate who would always have voted Tory in the past to keep Liberals and then Labour out of power.

The same global phenomenon produces dramatically different effects in different countries. Canada presents the nightmare scenario: Kim Campbell turned a safe majority and 169 seats in 1988 to just two seats in 1993. In France, by contrast, a fairly sophisticated sympathy is extended to politicians, and their impotence is recognised as the country is buffeted by recession, the collapse of the exchange rate mechanism, European Union and the Gatt talks. In Australia, late-night maudlin conversations about the country's inability to cope with the global economy give way to mornings of 'She'll be right, mate'.

The most remarkable phenomenon is the apathy of the former Communist countries. 'It doesn't matter any more' has coexisted with the greatest movement towards democracy in world history. One might have thought that this would be a period of optimism, idealism and political enthusiasm. Instead, there is everywhere an even greater degree of apathy and cynicism than in the West. Georgia, the country I know best, has seen nationalistic fervour, anarchic breakdown, economic collapse and deep disillusionment - all in four years.

If there was a time when people really believed in politics and policies in this country, it was 1945. In a lesser way, it was mirrored in 1979. In both cases there was a substantial number of people, though never anything like a majority, who really thought government could change life for the better. Although much was achieved, normal disillusionment set in within three years.

There is a lot to be said against political enthusiasm and in favour of a reasonably cynical realism. The great minds of the 18th century - Hume, Smith and Bentham - were united in their condemnation of Enthusiasm. Their greatest fear, after all, was of a return to the conditions of the 17th century: theological fervour, constitutional instability, civil war and puritan dictatorship.

The rejection of such conditions has been built into our polity for a longer period than in any other country. Enthusiasm, for the most part, is driven by hate; it feeds on equal and opposite enthusiasms. One of the achievements of our political history is that neither fascism nor Communism got far off the ground during the inter-war period when they were dominating politics on the Continent. Fortunately, the British National Party and the Anti-Nazi League are even more marginal today.

It is even possible, while decrying Enthusiasm, to favour a certain cheerfulness. In September, I saw England through the eyes of a Georgian colleague. 'What a lucky country]' he concluded. 'You have energy and agriculture and industry. You have the sea around you and modern weapons to protect you. You have order and tradition. You have a problem with Europe, but at least you have a choice.' All right was it to be alive, on that afternoon, more or less.

The author is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.

(Photograph omitted)

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