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Finding of support for a ‘strong leader’ helps provoke responses to 2019 Audit of Political Engagement

15 Apr 2019
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This post rounds up the wide range of responses to our 2019 Audit of Political Engagement made in the first week after its publication. The post focuses on several commentators who offered considered rather than purely alarmist responses to the Audit’s finding of majority support for a 'strong leader willing to break the rules'.

Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher, Hansard Society
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Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Dr Brigid Fowler

Dr Brigid Fowler
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Brigid joined the Hansard Society in December 2016 to lead its work on Parliament and Brexit, as well as contribute to its ongoing research on the legislative process, parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, and public political engagement. From 2007 to 2014 she was a Committee Specialist for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where she led on the Committee’s EU-related work. In the first six months of 2016 she was on the research team of Britain Stronger in Europe. She has also worked as assistant to an MEP in Brussels and as an analyst and researcher on EU and European affairs in the private sector and at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London.

After completing BA and MPhil degrees at the University of Oxford in PPE and European Politics, respectively, she spent the first part of her career focusing on the politics of post-communist transition and EU accession in Central Europe, and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham on the case of Hungary. She has given media comment, appeared before select committees and published several journal articles and book contributions.

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Our 2019 Audit of Political Engagement showed the public’s opinions of the system of governing at their lowest point in the 15-year life of the Audit study – worse than in the aftermath of MPs’ expenses scandal in 2010. This year’s Audit report contained eye-catching findings such as 54% of people saying that ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’, 43% preferring political parties and leaders ‘with radical ideas for change who haven’t been in power before’, 42% thinking that ‘many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament’, and less than 35% of people confident that MPs, parties and the government act in the public interest (against 60%+ for judges and the military).

These kinds of findings seemed to fit against a background of Brexit-related ‘political crisis’ stories in the UK, and a prominent showing for illiberal nationalist and populist politicians internationally. The Audit findings prompted The Times (£) in its first leader to declare that “populism, it seems … has infected the British body politic” and to warn against democratic complacency.

We are especially pleased that the Audit findings are feeding into the UK's wider political debate and prompting broader consideration of the nature and potential of British democracy, at this time of reflection and change regarding the UK’s political and constitutional arrangements.

For example, in the Evening Standard, Matthew d'Ancona wondered whether the Audit results presage an even-lower-than-normal turnout in the European Parliament elections in May (assuming that the UK holds them), although he suggested that “this would reflect a new spirit of furious protest, rather than the traditional apathy spawned by European elections”.

Staying with the electoral politics theme, Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, argued that the frustration and sense of powerlessness evidenced by the Audit showed that that two-party system was no longer delivering its claimed advantages. He advocated the replacement of first-past-the-post with a proportional electoral system, so that people no longer have to engage in tactical voting; seats better match votes; and new parties, more able to represent the full range of public opinion, have better prospects of breaking through.

In her call for democratic renewal in response to the Audit findings, Sarah Calkin, Deputy Editor of the Local Government Chronicle, canvassed not only some form of proportional representation, at national and/or local level, but also “abolishing council elections by thirds to give real opportunity for change … or increased use of citizens’ assemblies in decision-making”.

Calkin argued that reforms such as these to the UK’s current electoral politics would be a “harder sell to a disillusioned public" but a "much more effective option for long-term peace and prosperity” than a turn to a strong leader.

However, Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) was sceptical about political reforms driven by the Brexit impasse. He contended that some of the reforms being canvassed could make things worse, not better, and posited that “if Parliament is stuck on how and, in a substantial minority of cases even whether, to achieve Brexit, it is not because it fails to represent reality or public opinion. It is precisely because it does”.

The Audit finding of majority support for a ‘strong leader willing to break the rules’ drew the most considered response from commentators.

In the 10 April edition of the 'Talking Politics' podcast, which is moderated by the Cambridge Professor David Runciman in association with the London Review of Books, Professor Helen Thompson suggested that the exasperation evident not only among the public but also in some of Theresa May’s language arose from Parliament’s failure to take a decision – any decision. She implied that there might be particular risks for Parliament, having had itself inserted into the Brexit process through the Miller judgement and then having voted to invoke Article 50, if it were seen to fail to take responsibility. In the podcast’s broader discussion of personality- versus process-driven politics, Professor Kenneth Armstrong suggested that the desire for a strong leader might arise when the rules of politics that would normally impose some decision-making discipline appear to have broken down.

Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, Leonid Bershidsky, argued that the desire for a strong leader evidenced in the Audit did not necessarily mean popular support for non-democratic authoritarianism or autocracy. For example, he suggested, if people really wanted to hand power to an autocrat, far fewer than the 55% measured in the Audit would want to see greater use of direct democracy, in the form of referendums.

Rather, Bershidsky thought that the kind of ‘strong leader’ people might be seeking was compatible with democracy, but simply lacking at present – as shown in the failure so far to either plump for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit or deliver a compromise deal. In these circumstances, support for a ‘strong leader’ “reflects British voters’ frustration with endless process without results, stubbornness without creativity, infighting without closure”, Bershidsky thought. “That’s not a failure of democracy”, he said, but “a failure of the political system to lift up individuals worthy of leadership and present them to the people”.

Nick Barlow, a local councillor and PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, also cautioned against jumping from the Audit’s ‘strong leader’ findings to conclusions about imminent authoritarianism. Partly, Barlow drew attention to the way in which the sequencing of questions in the Audit survey might have cued people towards pro-‘strong leader’ answers, as well as to the fact that the idea of a ‘strong leader willing to break the rules’ might cover a wide variety of politicians and actions.

But Barlow also argued that the idea of a ‘strong leader’ was not as opposed to the UK’s current democratic practice as might be thought. He suggested that the last couple of decades have seen the “normalisation of the ‘strong leader’ in British political discourse” and the development of a politics that “valorises” individual leaders, from the introduction of directly-elected mayors to the celebration of high-profile business executives to the appointment by national government of assorted ‘tsars’ to deliver rapid cross-government results in various problem areas. Barlow also offered a reminder that most people answering the Audit survey "will have clear and recent memories of a time when ‘strong government’ was the norm” – but was not generally seen to threaten the accepted boundaries of our democracy.

In the context of a “political system and discourse … based on the idea that … getting the right person in the right position will change everything”, Barlow therefore wondered whether we should be “really that surprised that people think a ‘strong leader’ will sort out all the problems?”

For our own discussion of the Audit results, see our piece in The Times Red Box, or our Director Dr Ruth Fox appearing on the BBC World Service programmes 'The Real Story: Has Brexit broken UK politics?' and 'Order! Order!', a review of Brexit so far in the Westminster Parliament with the BBC's Parliamentary Correspondent Mark D’Arcy.