Are the young too cynical? No

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Opinion polls show that youngsters simply do not trust politicans. Is this disastrous for Britain?

Bob Worcester takes far too gloomy a view of his findings. This is because his analysis takes far too narrow a view both of trust and of politics itself.

His survey suggests dwindling trust in politicians will result in fewer voters. No one will join parties. And so democracy will wither on the vine.

Almond and Verba in the early Sixties warned that what they called our Civic Culture was, like Tinkerbell, kept alive solely by our collective belief in its existence. The moment we all stopped believing politicians were honest and well-intentioned folk, political civilisation as we knew it would end.

But it turned out that people believed nothing of the kind. In 1973, MORI helped me discover that 70 per cent of the public believed politicians told the truth "only some of the time" or "almost never" and nearly all the young thought this. Yet the past 30 years of political life in Britain have been quite lively. Voting turnout a year later in 1974 was huge, for example. And successive pulses of political mobilisation for and against the poll tax, woman's rights, gay rights, hunting, cruise missiles, wars, and so on, reassured us that the wellsprings of British political action were still in good working order.

Even as this latest MORI study was undertaken, schoolchildren poured onto the street to protest against the Iraq war, largely because they thought they were being lied to. This is the fascinating paradox of democratic politics. Young people are more likely to be drawn into political participation because of their mistrust of politicians - by anger, disgust at all their works than they are by awe of middle-aged men in grey suits.

Round up today's political activists - MPs, party members, people who work for pressure groups and ask them what they thought of politicians when they were 14. You will find that the "protest generation", who in 1968 trusted no one over 30, are running the country. One is our Foreign Secretary, gazing glumly from his Whitehall window at thousands of chanting children who don't trust him or his war.

The truth is that we now educate children to be mistrustful. Teachers encourage a sceptical approach. Then along comes MORI and asks children to say what they think of politicians. I mean, just look at some of them! Politics is a highly partisan affair. We are all supposed to discount what politicians say.

Professor Ken Norton who has researched the issue of political trust points out how wretched politicians now look at close quarters, thanks partly to TV, and how people are now better educated to see through them.

They ought to behave better and it might be better for democracy if they did. But what counts is that young people hold onto the idea that they can still change things. Teach them about South Africa's struggles. Tell them that if they can change things, they must. If necessary, they will have to draw on reserves of mistrust and anger. To do so they will use many of the skills they learned at school but did not know at the time what they were for.

Alan Marsh is professor of social policy at the university of Westminster and deputy director of the Policy Studies Institute. He is author of Political Action in Europe and the USA, Macmillan 1990

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