The nation in a state

Trust in politicians and confidence in our system of government are at an all-time low, according to a major opinion poll out today. And the prospect of a Tony Blair government does not inspire new hope, argue Stuart Weir and Patrick Dunleavy
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In the 1950s, when our scepter'd democracy was universally admired, its "great secret" was the deference of the British people. By and large, people were ready to leave politics to the politicians and had confidence in the way they were governed. This was a nation at peace with itself.

Forty years later, the mood of the public is profoundly altered. People no longer have faith in the way they are governed. They distrust government ministers and hold politicians in far greater contempt than they did even a generation ago. And while they now want more power over government policies, they know all too well that they don't possess it and are very pessimistic about their chances of ever obtaining it.

Even Britain's political circles now recognise that there is a crisis of confidence in government, but they largely ascribe it to a popular disillusion with the excesses of Mrs Thatcher's later years, the effects of the recent revelations of "sleaze" in government and Westminster and dismay at the sexual indiscretions of a handful of ministers and MPs. They therefore see popular discontent as a merely transient phenomenon which can be weathered by such palliatives as the Nolan reforms or the Citizen's Charter.

They do perhaps have an inkling of a wider and deeper crisis in confidence. But John Major clearly believes that the fruits of economic growth will soon re-establish confidence in the morality of Conservative government and Tony Blair apparently thinks it is enough to say "Trust Me".

Both men underestimate the huge scale of popular discontent and contempt. The evidence of a remarkable "State of the Nation" survey of public attitudes about the body politic in Britain, conducted this month by ICM for the Daily Mirror and Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, reveals that most people believe it to be very sick indeed.

The misconduct of MPs, the Scott report's revelations of devious and incompetent ministers and a host of other political scandals and crises - like the BSE scare - have brought about a steep fall in just two years in belief in British democracy itself. In 1994, nearly three-quarters of people felt that they lived in a "very" or "fairly" democratic country. Two years later, fewer than two-thirds of people believe that Britain is democratic and more than a quarter say it is "not very" or "not at all" democratic.

Both Major and Blair need also to come to terms with a popular contempt for politicians which runs deeper and stronger than either man supposes.

The Nolan Committee's need to carry the politicians along with change has fatally flawed its ability to satisfy the public. The fact is that people are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the new rules governing MPs' earnings outside Parliament. In particular, people are clearly outraged by the arguments of MPs like the former Tory minister David Mellor, that they are entitled to keep secret their earnings from private companies and interest groups because they have nothing to do with their role as MPs. By a huge margin - 86 per cent to 8 - they reject such special pleading.

People want their MPs to represent their constituency interests and to ensure that the government is efficient and honest, and to take up individual people's complaints and grievances. They are generally against MPs having any sort of employment outside Parliament.

But the most striking evidence of people's contempt for politicians comes in their responses to five questions first asked a generation ago, in 1973, for Granada Television. They show that the cynicism count has risen to alarming levels.

In 1973, only two-thirds of people were ready to agree that "most politicians will promise anything to get votes"; now 81 per cent of people agree. In 1973, just 39 per cent believed that "politicians are in politics for what they can get out of it"; now a whopping two-thirds of the population hold this view. Belief that politicians care what people think has fallen from 48 to 39 per cent.

This contempt for politicians is, in our view, bound up in a wider distrust in the political system altogether. Take the BSE crisis, which most politicians and commentators believe that the Government has ingeniously turned into a populist issue of European interference and German malevolence. At one level this may be so.

But look deeper and what do you find? We asked ICM's pollsters to inquire whether people trusted government ministers and their advisory committees to tell the truth about the safety of food, nuclear installations, "British beef", medicines and safe sex and Aids. On the first three, there was a resounding "no" from three-quarters or more of the people asked. Some 60 per cent replied "no" on the safety of medicines and even on safe sex and Aids - where the Government has tried, belatedly, to "tell the truth" people are still broadly sceptical (47 per cent said they did not trust the Government's sexual pronouncements compared with only 41 per cent who did).

There is no sign anywhere, among politicians of all parties (nor among political pundits in the media), of willingness to think through these huge changes in public perception or to think what is now required to restore public faith in the way they are governed.

The two major parties and their MPs believe that they can put their own interests first. After sifting through the evidence, our view is that the first - and most significant - change necessary is to give the public a far greater share in political decision-making. For a deeper-lying dissatisfaction, in part fed by disillusion with politics and politicians, is also at work. In this and previous polls we have found that the great majority of people in Britain want a "great deal" or "fair amount" of power over government policies between elections. But very few people believe they possess any such influence. And more than a third of people now believe that they have no power at all over government policies. This mismatch between expectations and reality is damaging the fabric of democracy in Britain.

Take the greatest of all current issues - the future of the European Union and the single European currency. Here the public quite reasonably feel very pessimistic about their ability to influence events. More people are against the proposal to create a single European currency than favour it - the balance is 43 per cent against, 31 per cent for. A clear majority - of three to one - want a referendum on the issue. But by a majority of four to one, the public believes that the single currency is none the less likely to come about, whatever their wishes may be and they tend to believe that Britain will finally join (by a majority of 38 per cent to 23). Mind you, even more people still (40 per cent) are simply unsure what will happen.

Unhappy though they may be, the British people are not resigned to their undemocratic fate. The democratic agenda may well have been inspired by Charter 88 and the "chattering classes" but it is a unifying theme among the population as a whole, and especially among people who intend to vote Labour at the next election.

The great majority want greater checks and balances on government power. Some 77 per cent want a freedom of information act, 75 per cent want a bill of rights, and electoral reform is favoured by a massive three-to- one majority. Three-quarters of the public even want --horror of horrors for the political establishment - a written constitution "providing clear legal rules within which government ministers and civil servants are forced to operate".

Apologists for political elitism often argue that people do not know what they are "voting for" when they endorse such reforms. They write off the public's willingness to choose far-reaching reforms as a "knee- jerk" reaction. They point to contradictions in public attitudes (as though they themselves are free of such sins). Our experience of interpreting such polls is that the public is far wiser than it is given credit for being. For example, in the midst of the political controversy over the string of court rulings against Michael Howard (and other ministers), we asked people what their views were on the struggle between ministers and judges. Four out of five people agreed that judges must use their powers "to ensure that ministers act within the law". But when we gave people the chance to agree with Richard Shephard MP, that judges now provided a more effective check on government than do MPs, the majority wisely preferred not to advance a view at all on such a delicate judgement.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Labour commands wide approval for its pledges to introduce a bill of rights, a freedom of information act, a referendum on the British voting system and the chance for people in England to have elected regional assemblies of their own. Indeed, the promise of a bill of rights comes second only to Gordon Brown's pledges on job creation and above Labour's promises to control inflation and introduce a minimum wage. But Labour's confusion over devolution in Scotland has almost removed past majorities for both Scottish and Welsh devolution in the country as a whole. Just 40 per cent now approve of Labour's plans for an Edinburgh parliament and a mere third believe that it will actually happen.

This loss of confidence is undoubtedly due to Labour's mishandling of the issue, for overall the survey reveals a strong wish for a lot more dispersal of power in Britain. Nearly two-thirds of people believe that "government power" is too centralised and there are clear majorities for the view that regional assemblies or local councils should play a key role in developing major roads, initiating transport projects, cleaning up rivers and beaches, attracting new investment and generating jobs.

A lot, therefore, is riding on the ability and political will of a future Labour government to fulfil its promise to deliver such change. Yet, not unreasonably, after the cover ups and U-turns on devolution to an Edinburgh parliament, people tend to be sceptical about Labour carrying out its other promises on democratic reform. True, nearly all the people who want a bill of rights believe Labour will deliver. But nearly as many people doubt that Labour will give them freedom of information as expect it to come about; and while two-thirds approve the idea of a referendum on voting reform, only a third expect it to be honoured and more are confident that it won't happen.

So Tony Blair's exhortation to trust him is not working. And if he gets in and does not deliver, the long-term consequences could be more far- reaching than politicians and commentators might imagine.

Of course, the crisis of faith in Britain's system of governance is part of a world-wide trend evident since the so-called triumph of democracy after the collapse of communism in 1989. There is evidence everywhere of a loss of trust in political institutions and politicians. There is also evidence throughout the world - from Bosnia to India and even Belgium - of what happens when people lose faith in democracy and its ability to protect minorities against the intolerance of a frustrated and disenchanted majority. The downturn in economic progress and the dominance of neo- liberal economic policies through the world have also played a significant part in this general onset of disillusion. And it is arguable that the immediate post-war period of political contentment in the West was probably atypical.

But it is equally unarguable that the crisis of faith in Britain is unique in significant respects. If so, and we are to restore confidence in British politicians, we must change the system within which they operate, and admit the public into that system.

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Government at the London School of Economics and Stuart Weir is director of the Democratic Audit, University of Essex. This is the third major Rowntree `State of the Nation' poll since 1991. ICM interviewed a tightly controlled quora sample of 1,000 respondents in their own homes between 10 and 13 September. At the analysis stage the results were weighted to the exact profile of all adults.