Cynicism about democracy will only help the wealthy and powerful gain more influence – Joyce McMillan

As I write, the voters of North Shropshire are heading to the polls to elect a successor to former Tory MP Owen Paterson, who resigned last month after being found guilty of a major breach of Westminster lobbying rules.

Voters went to the polls in the North Shropshire by-election yesterday to elect a replacement MP after Owen Paterson resigned (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Voters went to the polls in the North Shropshire by-election yesterday to elect a replacement MP after Owen Paterson resigned (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The result will be significant, of course; but it might also be interesting to keep an eye on just how many voters go to the polls at all, following the very low turnout in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election two weeks ago – that is, on the question of whether Owen Paterson’s misconduct in office will inspire people to turn out and vote against his party, or whether the shabby end to his parliamentary career will be met with little more than an apathetic shrug.

For if there is one political opinion that can almost be guaranteed to attract widespread nods and grunts of agreement, at whatever Christmas gatherings take place this year, it’s the notion that politicians are almost uniformly a bad bunch, up to no good, and “in it for themselves”.

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Earlier this month, for example, a poll for the centre-left think-tank IPPR found that 63 per cent of UK citizens now think politicians are motivated primarily by self-interest; a measure of mistrust that has risen by 13 points since 2016, and by six points since May of this year, to the highest point since the Second World War.

Clearly, the serial scandals surrounding the Johnson government have provided fresh evidence, for many, that those who aspire to political power are no more than chancers; and as the IPPR points out, all of this signals something of a looming disaster for democratic politics in this country.

The more cynical citizens feel about politics, after all, the more they feel justified in disengaging from the whole business, and ceasing to inform themselves about it.

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It is astonishing to hear people whose entire quality of life may depend on government decisions declaring with some pride that they have no time for politics, and don’t know anything about it.

And it takes only a moment’s thought to grasp who benefits most from this process of disengagement from, and discrediting of, politicians and political institutions, since politicians lacking strong and enthusiastic grassroots support are clearly far more dependent for funding and patronage on those already powerful, and therefore far less able to make substantial changes in the balance of power in our economy and society.

In that sense, the “anti-political” rhetoric which has become so prevalent in 21st-century Britain represents nothing more than a hugely successful reactionary project, designed to disempower and disarm politics and democracy, and to allow a free run to those already wealthy and powerful.

Worse, recent experience strongly suggests that people disengaged from the detail of everyday politics may become – in moments of stress – profoundly vulnerable to the kind of intense polarisation that now characterises so much of our political conversation, and to the forming of sudden passionate attachments to populist politicians, causes or even conspiracy theories, that are often dangerously adrift of reality.

The only solution to this whole phenomenon of disengagement and cynicism – and the volatility and powerlessness that comes with it – is therefore to encourage citizens to become more involved in the practical nitty-gritty of the decision-making that affects their lives and communities, and to provide the resources and conditions that make that involvement possible.

As a matter of fact, most politicians are not the useless monsters of greed and over-privilege that too many voters believe they are; and as the tributes to murdered MP’s Jo Cox and David Amess have shown, many MPs – perhaps the majority – are much-loved, hard-working figures, both in their communities and at Westminster.

Politics, though, is an immensely complicated business, mostly conducted in shades of grey; and even the best and most idealistic of serious politicians face a lifetime of difficult decisions and questionable compromises, in the effort to get anything done.

The job of citizens in a democracy is therefore not to turn away in disgust, nor to be drawn towards the simple option of idealising one group of politicians and demonising another, but to bend ourselves to the business of making relatively fine distinctions – for example, preferring the less-than-perfect to the downright corrupt, the mildly incompetent to the seriously misguided, and the occasionally evasive to those who make lying their daily business. And these are often uninspiring choices, no question.

Yet still, let it never be said – as both cynics and impatient radicals are inclined to say – that our democratic choices between the bad and the not-so-bad don’t matter.

At the practical level, even the smallest differences to practical policy – measures like the new Scottish child benefit, or the Labour government’s Sure Start scheme, between 2000 and 2010 – can make a huge difference to individual lives.

And above all, as citizens who currently enjoy the hard-won right to vote, to campaign, and to express our views, we should vote first and always against those who would seek to remove or diminish those rights, or abolish the means by which they can be held to account.

Knowing enough about politics to navigate these decisions is not easy, of course; and it is certainly not as simple or superficially satisfying as dismissing all politicians as crooks.

Yet informing ourselves, making those distinctions, and voting accordingly, is our vital duty as citizens – to ourselves, to our forebears who won these rights for us, and to our children and grandchildren.

Otherwise, we simply surrender control of our future to those who care nothing for our well-being, and who, unlike our elected politicians, have no reason to consider our hopes and wishes at all – not every two years, not every five years, but never again.

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