We are forever hearing that there is great public apathy towards our politics. Whether it is the expenses scandal, MPs being sent to prison, foreign wars or disastrous government policies at home, voters don’t like politicians. I remember vox-popping a few dozen Londoners last year and finding the prevailing answer was that politicians cannot be trusted.
This week, YouGov have done some slightly more scientific research. A reasonable hypothesis would have been that, given this supposedly widespread disenchantment and disenfranchisement, the public would be deeply cynical of government. Instead the results say the opposite.
31% say government is “mainly a force for good”. Almost half that number, 17%, say government is “mainly a negative force”. When asked whether they wanted the government to do more or less, voters said they wanted more by an overwhelming 62% to 38%.
Despite apparently despising politics and politicians, voters see government as a good thing and want more of it. How can this be?
Perhaps the consensus of public apathy is a myth? It could be that those proclaiming their contempt for politicians are just a loud minority.
Perhaps the public have lost the plot? Maybe the really do think politicians are awful and incompetent, but they want to give them more power anyway.
Or, perhaps those arguing for a smaller state, for less government, are not doing enough to win the great political argument of modern times.
I don’t think public apathy is a myth. Rightly, voters are deeply distrusting of politicians. I don’t think it is fair to say the public have lost the plot either. There is no escaping it: if 62% of the population say they want more government, then conservatives, classical liberals and the Right are catastrophically failing to convince people of the merits of their small state ideology.
Ideas of limited government have been incredibly popular with voters before. Ronald Reagan rolled back the state to great electoral success in the States and Margaret Thatcher won three elections and three majorities advocating much of the same here. Those leaders are still popular today; Thatcher regularly polls as Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister.
Why, then, does their ideology seemingly no longer appeal to the public? Have we all become rabid leftists, addicted to the state, discarding our individual freedoms in exchange for the false promise of government-provided security?
As our state balloons – whether it being the extension of welfare to people in work or the massive outlay of public spending and vast debt of the last five years – where are the crusaders for personal liberty? Where are the politicians, in government or outside it, seeking to inspire citizens to think for themselves, to look after themselves, to not ask what the state can do for them, but what they can do for themselves and their families?
This election certainly offers little by way of example. Even the Tories – accused by Labour of wanting to cut the state back to 1930s levels – only want to reduce spending to a similar amount to the Tony Blair years. A few years ago UKIP seemed to offer a genuine low tax, small state alternative, but that has gradually been rejected as the party shifts towards more populist, statist policies.
62% of the public say they want more government, and no one seems to want to change their minds. This is a dark day for conservatism.