It came much sooner than expected. After all, it was only two weeks before Polling Day in 2015 when Joanna from Exeter admitted that despite being initially “excited” by the prospect of virginally exercising her right to vote, she had quickly grown “bored” by debate surrounding the mansion tax, immigration and healthcare. On this occasion however, it took dear old Brenda from Bristol a mere 2 hours to exclaim with tired desperation, “You’re joking. Not another one?! Oh for God’s sake, I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”
In doing so, Brenda encapsulated the weakness of British democracy: an all-pervasive and virulent unwillingness amongst voters to engage with the issues. The young take most of the flak for sub-par political involvement but a cursory listen to any of the ‘have-your-say’ programmes highlights that it is a nationwide endemic. A few days ago on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, a phone-in by the name of Paul claimed to have “voted for Remain in the Brexit”. Similarly, Trudy from the Isle of Wight squawked on last week’s Question Time, “why does the government hate the NHS so much?”; even amongst the electorate who bother to show up at the polling-booths, there is little desire to delve below the well-worn and frankly, tired caricatures of political parties and issues.
In a report by the Hansard society, a political research and education charity, that investigated the rise of political apathy, 58 per cent of people testified in 2012, to “not being interested” in politics, and a further 26 per cent declared that they were “not at all interested”. Eight per cent of people said they were “very interested” in politics, meaning they were outnumbered by the nine per cent of British people who thought climate change was a hoax invented to deceive people. Winston Churchill’s infamous joke that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” seems less of a joke, and more a truism.
Active interest in participatory democracy has collapsed over the last twenty-five years. In 1986, nearly eighty per cent of people thought “voting is the only way to have a say”, declining in the 2012 survey to sixty per cent. Furthermore, ten per cent more of the generation born in the 1930s thought everyone had a duty to vote in 1986 than they do in this decade. This is not a pan-European trend: in the 2012 French elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon attracted crowds in the tens of thousands and subsequently went on to come in fourth place; Tim Farron, the leader of Britain’s fourth largest party, the Liberal Democrats, spoke to a couple dozen activists on Richmond Green last Tuesday.
What is most concerning about ‘Brenda from Bristol’, an otherwise polite and respectable tribute to the south-west city and former port, is that her casual disregard and lack of interest in the democratic process made her a minor celebratory. #Brenda trended instantly, Reuters claimed she “summed up the mood of the nation” and John Kay, her interviewer, tweeted “politicians, watch out!” as if her comment that “there’s hardly anybody in any of the parties that you would put your life on the line for” meant anything at all, let alone something worth engaging with. The problem is not Brenda herself, it is that Brenda is not alone.