Comment: Britain's decline is about much more than just money

Broken promises are the result of the coalition experiment
Broken promises are the result of the coalition experiment
Alex Stevenson By

Britain's economic recession is being matched by a political one made much, much worse by the coalition. Clegg and Cameron's dream of a 'new politics' is turning into a nightmare.

For years politicians have moaned about the public being increasingly disinterested in them. What has been a slow-burning problem is now rapidly turning into a crisis.

On the day that the Office for National Statistics confirmed that Britain has entered a double-dip recession, a separate set of statistics proved equally shocking.

If the latest findings of the Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement are anything to go by, our society's malaise is about much more than just GDP growth.

It has found that the percentage of people who are interested in politics has slumped to just 42%, down 16 points in the last 12 months. Three in ten people are unlikely or definitely not going to bother voting at the next general election. Less than half think parliament debates issues of relevance to their daily lives.

What's caused all this? The last year has certainly not been a boring one. It's been a tough 12 months, with the riots, spending cuts and the phone-hacking scandal all impacting on the public consciousness.

You might think these would trigger more interest or engagement in political issues, not less. But all these news stories push people away, not raise their enthusiasm. Politics is about making people angry - but it is also about hope and the future. There has been precious little of the broad sunlit uplands about this country since 2008.

Disengagement and alienation go hand in hand. Economic malaise is infecting the health of British politics, as broad negativity is reflected through protests and increased lawlessness. Politicians are not seen as part of the way out of this stagnation; they are part of the problem, and so cannot be trusted to come up with the answers.

This may explain why enthusiasm for the coalition government is also looking very ropy. Just 24% think the coalition is working well as a system of government - that's down seven points in one year.

Clegg and Cameron had sought to put a positive spin on the formation of Britain's first peacetime coalition government in decades. The public were told that the political parties were putting aside their own agendas for the national interest, pleasing those who had complained that politicians should just sit down with each other and get on with it.

That was an illusion. The reality of British politics after the 2010 general election was a hung parliament in which voters judged no party fit enough to govern by themselves. The verdict, just a year after the expenses scandal, was of scorn for all three parties. How did the Tories and Lib Dems respond? By agreeing to secure power for themselves, bringing stability to the government but bringing instability to their policies.

Coalition politics, it turns out, is about broken promises. It has allowed both parties to sacrifice their cherished policies on the altar of businesslike compromise behind closed doors in Whitehall. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems have been able to be selective about which bits of their manifesto become reality - and which do not. For the ordinary member of the public the gap between their vote and what actually gets done in government, in the name of the party they backed, has widened to a gulf.

Would a single-party government, forced to push through with a drastic retrenchment in response to the economy, have been less popular than the coalition? Perhaps not. But it would have triggered ideological debate in a way we are not seeing as much under two-party government. The last two decades has seen the steady dwindling of belief-based politics in Britain. Coalition government is just another step on that road, promoting the belief that there is no real difference between the parties.

The economic recession is fuelling a political one made possible by Britain's still unusual coalition experiment. Voters, already alienated by our 21st century establishment, now feel even more distant than ever from those who rule them. 


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