In defence of political apathy (Part 1)
“Politics is the pastime of empty souls.”
-Nicolás Gómez Dávila
Introduction: Political Britain
Remember political apathy?
Until about the middle of the last decade, it was an often-heard complaint from opinion formers that the British public had lost interest in politics. Membership of political parties had fallen from well over 3 million people in the mid-1960s to around half a million in 2013. In the 20th century, electoral turnout at general elections was usually well above 70%. By the early 21st century, it had fallen to not much more than 60%, with a particularly low turnout among younger people. Viewing figures of political programmes were declining, and surveys indicated low levels of trust in politics and the media.
Different people had different pet theories about why this might be, but they all agreed that political apathy was real, and self-evidently A Bad Thing. They all agreed that Britain would be a better place if more people were politically interested and engaged.
But as so often, we need to be careful what we wish for. In a sense, the people who raised those complaints now got what they wanted. The Britain of the 2020s is a highly politicised nation. The trouble is that this does not mean that we all get together to collectively shape our future. It means that we are constantly at each other’s throats.
The most obvious example of this is Brexit. Brexiteers have described the EU referendum result as “the largest democratic exercise in UK history”, and they have a point. It is not just that electoral turnout was above 70%: Brexit also became the topic of “watercooler conversations”. I remember people who I had never heard express a political opinion before suddenly having strongly held views on Brexit. Brexit was undoubtedly a great democratic engagement-starter, and it was not a one-off: far from dissipating again after the Referendum, it grew stronger. Three years after the referendum, more than one third of the population had developed a strong “Remain identity”, and more than one third of the population had developed a strong “Leave identity”. Having a Leave/Remain identity means more than just being for or against Brexit; it means integrating your position on Brexit into your sense of who you are, as a person.
The Brexit identities did not form out of nothing. They mapped onto cultural division that already existed. One survey (p. 107) in which Leavers and Remainers were asked to identify their favourite brands produced results that are almost comically clichéd. The favourite brands of Remainers included Twitter, Instagram, BBC iPlayer, Spotify, Airbnb, LinkedIn and easyJet. The favourite brands of Leavers included HP Sauce, Birds Eye Food, Iceland supermarkets, Cathedral City Cheddar, PG Tips tea, and Richmond Sausages. However, forming an identity around a specific political project is very different from forming an identity around a general cultural outlook. There need not be a conflict between different identity groups, as long as they can just all do their own thing, and get out of each other’s way. But political choices are not like that. EU membership is not an individual subscription service like Netflix, where 52% of the country can cancel their membership, and the other 48% keep theirs. It is a collective choice: either all of us leave, or none of us do.
This, in a nutshell, is why Brexit became so toxic and divisive. When our political position becomes part of our identity, disagreement becomes personal, and vicious. And since political choices are collective choices, there is no “Let’s just agree to disagree” option.
The toxification of Brexit is also the reason why the Brexit negotiations became much more protracted, and why Brexit itself became a much bigger deal, than they needed to be. If people on both sides had been more relaxed (or “apathetic”, if you will), it is quite plausible that the good old-fashioned British sense of pragmatism, winging it, and muddling-through, would have prevailed. There could have been some lazy, half-hearted compromise – a bit Brexit but not too Brexity – that nobody would have been enthusiastic about, but that would not have caused much trouble either.
The other great politicising event of recent years was Corbynism. In the two years or so after Corbyn was first nominated in 2015, more than 370,000 people joined the Labour Party. This made Labour the largest party in Europe, overtaking their (historically much bigger) German sister party, the SPD. (Although arguably, in the Corbyn years, Labour’s German sister party was not really the SPD, but the socialist party Die Linke). Other parties also saw a small influx of new members, but the Labour figures alone were enough to reverse Britain’s decade-long decline in party membership numbers. Almost half of the population (49%) now claimed to have a party-political identity.
Corbyn’s supporters pointed out that he was energising young people like no politician before, including previously disengaged, apolitical young people – and they were right. He did. Corbyn was obviously a polarising figure, who never went down well with Baby Boomer voters, but among those he did reach, the enthusiasm he inspired was something else. I remember “Obamamania” very well; I remember the initial popularity (hard to imagine now) of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and I have the vaguest childhood memories of the post-reunification surge in the popularity of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. By I had never, in my life, seen this level of reverence for a politician before.
“Milifandom” was literally just one person. “Corbynfandom” was hundreds of thousands of people, from the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” chants at Glastonbury to the jubilant crowds that greeted him everywhere he went to the thousands of fan merchandise articles on Etsy.
Corbynism has been compared to the cult status of a rock star, but there is, of course, a crucial difference. A rock star can be polarising, in that some people love their music and/or personality, and some hate it. But that need not cause any tensions between the two sides. In order to enjoy that rock star’s music, the fans do not need to persuade the haters to join them.
But as with Brexit, general elections are collective choices for the country as a whole. A government is not a subscription service, where 40% of the electorate can subscribe to Corbyn Governance Services Ltd., and the other 60% subscribe to competing governance service providers. We are either all governed by Corbyn, or none of us are.
Thus, the flipside of Corbynmania was that for Corbyn’s vast social media army, everyone who was not on board became an enemy. They quickly became extremely protective of their idol: there could be so such thing as a valid criticism of Corbyn; everything was just “a smear”.
And while Corbyn’s quasi-victory in 2017 was followed by a period of triumphalism, this soon turned into angry defensiveness, and after the 2019 general election, into bitterness. More than two and a half years have now passed since Corbyn officially stepped down as Labour leader, but a lot of his disciples are still not able to let it go, and they probably never will. Corbyn is still trending on Twitter almost every day, mostly because of people complaining about the fact that he is not Prime Minister. He still has 2.5 million followers (for comparison, Rishi Sunak has 1.6m, Keir Starer 1.3m, and Liz Truss 0.7m); and left-wing newspapers like the Independent still write about him at least once a week.
This is a lot of time and political energy devoted to a complete dead end. As an electoral project, Corbynism is over. Corbyn is not going to come back.
Yes, he energised people – but not in a good way. Had he never been nominated, the “Youthquake” of 2017 would not have happened, and the Labour Party’s membership numbers might never have risen above 200,000 people again. But the party could have spent the intervening years working out what a modern, 2020s version of social democracy should look like.
Continue to Part 2