Brexit and the crisis in democracy

10 Apr 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Apr 2019

Picture: Unsplash

Just how much has Brexit damaged peoples’ attitudes both to politicians and parliamentary democracy? We got the answer this week and it makes for uncomfortable, at times disturbing, reading.


Every year the Hansard Society publishes an Audit of Political Engagement, a health check on public attitudes towards democracy. This year’s report has just been published. The survey it is based on was carried out in December. It covers GB. However given the likely impact of Brexit here and the fact that we don’t even have a devolved government we must assume that if it were added to the mix it would not improve the picture.

The audit is not just a snapshot of current opinion. Because it has been carried out for 16 years it also allows us to track shifting views over time. Its questions are grouped into six themes: certainty to vote; interest in politics; knowledge of politics and Parliament; satisfaction with the system of governing; and people’s sense of political efficacy – the extent to which becoming politically involved can change things. It is a health check on democracy – and the prognosis is poor.

Opinions on the system of governing are at the lowest point in the history of the survey – even lower than in the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal. 72% believe that it needs “quite a lot” or a “great deal of improvement” . In 2010, the expenses scandal year, the figure peaked at 69%.

Respondents were asked if the problem was the system of government or the people running it. The largest group (38%) said both and just 7% think that both the system and the people are working well.

As for how politicians rank, only 34% say they have complete or a fair amount of confidence in MPs, this figure falls to 29% for political parties. This contrasts, perhaps rather ominously with 72% confidence in the armed forces. Even banks do better – rated at 36%.

When it comes to Brexit, only 25% have confidence in MPs handling of Brexit. It is important to note that the survey was carried out in December, before the current debacle in the House of Commons. This does not bode well for next year’s audit.

Disaffection with politicians has reached a point where 50% of all respondents said that politicians “don’t care about people like me” and 75% that they are so divided amongst themselves that they can’t serve the best interests of the country.

The survey reveals general pessimism about the future of the UK with majorities believing it is in decline, believe that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and that most big problems do not have clear solutions.

This appears to be feeding a growing appetite for authoritarian government with 54% saying they would favour a strong leader “prepared to break the rules” and an even split between those saying they preferred politicians to make compromises to those who want them to stick to their principles.

There is an alarmingly large minority (42%) who believe that government would be more effective if it didn’t have to worry about parliamentary votes and a growing appetite for radicalism with 43% wanting leaders with “radical ideas for change” who have not been in power before.

Support for referendums remains high with 55% believing that big questions should be put to the public more often. This has fallen from a peak of 76% the year before the Brexit referendum but still has majority support.

The survey finds no evidence of growing apathy about politics – quite the reverse. 61% said they would be certain to vote in an election. Not the highest recorded during the 16 years of the audit, but not far off. Both knowledge and interest in politics remains high as well.

This is despite the fact that 41% disagree that  political involvement can change the way the UK is run, with 18% strongly disagreeing – the highest level recorded in the audit’s history.

This is matched by a growing sense of powerlessness. 47% believe that they have “no influence at all” over national decision-making.

Perhaps surprisingly, 30% of respondents said that they never discuss government and politics.

Many will not be surprised at the survey, given the year that we have had. But given that political disaffection has been growing for years, it suggests that when or if politicians can resolve Brexit, their next problem will be to deal with a much greater, even existential threat – fixing democracy itself.

Perhaps the best metaphor of political disintegration was the moment that the House of Commons was suspended last week when water started to leak into the Chamber.

The Palace of Westminster is itself crumbling and is currently being restored. The total bill for this has been estimated at £3 billion. If Brexit is botched and we are plunged into a sharp economic downfall it is hard to imagine people dancing in the street at the prospect of such an expensive refurbishment.

Back in 2015 the survey asked people if they were in favour of restoring the Houses of Parliament – and only 47% were.

MPs will have to do more than restore their building if they want democracy to work.




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