Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

New politics of a new generation?

The editors of The Economist are delighted that young Brits seem to have political attitudes and values that agree with those of the editors. And Boris Johnson.

Generation Boris
A GROUP of 17- and 18-year-olds assembled in their lunch hour… When pushed to describe their politics, they agree that the state’s primary role is to protect individual freedom. For them, social and moral causes such as gay rights and sex equality loom larger than things like welfare and health. Asked whether any had joined recent protests against government spending cuts, they respond with raised eyebrows, laughter and effusive denials…

The young are less likely than their elders to consider themselves part of any particular religion, less likely to join a political party or a trade union and, according to the long-running British Social Attitudes survey (BSA), less likely to have a “high or very high opinion” of the armed forces. As far as they are concerned, people have a right to express themselves by what they consume and how they choose to live…

More than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements”. Less than one-third of those born after 1979 say the same…

“Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster. All age groups are becoming more socially and economically liberal…

Just as the construction of the post-war welfare state helps to explain the collectivist instincts of the old, today’s economic adversity and dwindling welfare payments appear to be forging a generation of dogged individualists…

Young Britons’ beliefs probably owe much to the country’s education system. Britain has high levels of university attendance, a factor that correlates with social liberalism, says James Tilley, an academic specialising in public opinion. It is a materialistic society with a flexible labour market; its citizens chart their lives on social media with more zeal than most—all things that tend to contribute to a competitive, individualist mindset.

As yet, there is little sign any of this is permeating mainstream politics. The two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, broadly adhere to the conventional right-left divide (with economic liberalism on one side and social liberalism on the other). Most young people reject politics altogether…

Boris Johnson
A mainstream politician could yet tap into it. Speaking to young people from different backgrounds and parts of the country, from the engaged to the apathetic, your correspondent often asked if any politicians appealed to them. The reaction was strikingly uniform: silence, then contemplation, then a one-word answer—“Boris”—before a flood of agreement: “Oh yeah, I’d vote for Boris Johnson.” The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain’s libertarian youth in the bag. The 2020 election beckons.

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