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Government and politics

If you don’t do politics, politics will do you

Matteo Bergamini MBE works to increase democratic engagement.

24 April 2024

The idiom 'history teaches us nothing' is ambiguous. Originally declared by the German philosopher Georg Hegel, it suggests that there is nothing the past can teach us that may be helpful to the present. However, perhaps the real problem is that we are somehow incapable of learning from it.

This would seem to be so where politics is concerned. In 5th-century Athens, political participation was a matter of duty rather than personal choice. The city (political community) punished those who abstained from active citizenry with fines and public shaming. Politics was serious business in Ancient Greece and reserved for the few, not the many. Women, children and slaves were not regarded as citizens, and so could not vote. 

Luckily, nowadays, almost anyone living in Britain can partake in the democratic process of voting. Across the nation, those who are British citizens, citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, are 18 and over and have registered to vote can cast their ballot. Additionally, for those who are living in Wales or Scotland, the voting age is 16. 

And yet, despite the barriers to voting having become more egalitarian since ancient times, political participation, especially amongst the youth, remains low. During the 2016 EU Referendum, voter turnout for 18 to 24-year-olds was 60 per cent while those aged 65 to 74 contributed a healthier 82 per cent. 

The 2019 General Election yielded a total turnout of 66 per cent across all age groups, with 18-to-24-year-olds at 54 per cent and the 65s and above showing the highest turnout at 77 per cent.

Judging by these dispassionate voting figures, it would seem that history has taught us very little about the importance of embracing opportunities to become active rather than passive citizens of a democracy. For thinkers such as Aristotle, this would be inconceivable. 

Famously stating that 'a human being is by nature a political animal', he underscored our capacity to be rational and aim for the common good, which could only be gained by being part of a political community. According to Aristotle, those who abstained were 'either a beast or a god,' since only an animal lacks reason and only a god is self-sufficient enough to make do without the protection and benefits of a city.

Aristotle aside, there is a distinct difference between being politically engaged and being civil (that is, being a member of a political community). The latter does not entail the former, though it presupposes it in an ideal city. 

Therein lies the problem we presently face. Political apathy and disengagement have become recurring characteristics of our society, largely owing to poor levels of political literacy. When people are politically illiterate democracy suffers and when democracy contracts, society experiences a gradual breakdown in justice. 

The opposite of this is democratic engagement through active participation as citizens, and due accountability from our political representatives.

The People have spoken

One infamous quote frequently used in political parlance was given by the American Democratic politician Dick Tuck in 1966 when he ran for the California Senate. On being asked what he thought of his election defeat, he said: 'The people have spoken ….' What is less known but of infinitely more importance is Tuck's full statement: The people have spoken – the bastards.' 

As someone who was not beyond tricks and deceit to get votes, earning him the nickname 'Tricky Dick', Tuck expressed an essential truth about the influence of civil society within the public sphere when it comes to questions of politics; namely, that in a genuine democracy, the people have the last word. 

The inherent power of the people to overturn expected outcomes by expressing their will has continued to surface through the years. Most recently, it was evident following the Brexit Referendum's surprise 'Leave' vote and in the election of political provocateur Donald Trump. But despite these clear examples of civil engagement, young people continue to struggle to appreciate the quiet power of democracy. 

Nothing so crude as using shards of pottery to cast one's vote is required nowadays, but registering to vote and having an accepted photo voter ID is. Statistics for voter registration in 2018 for 16 to 24-year-olds reveal an average of 53 per cent. In 2022, the average for the same age group across the country slipped to 48 per cent. By comparison, those who are 35 to 64 achieved a 90 per cent registration rate in the same year. 

That said, the same statistics, published by the Electoral Commission this year, did have one major positive in that 'in England, among different types of local authority area, the most notable change in completeness has been among London boroughs with an increase from 76% in 2018 to 82% in 2022'. 

The one notable difference across London and the rest of the country is London Voter Registration Week. Originally piloted by the Greater London Authority in 2019, it was then delivered year-on-year by Shout Out UK, a civil society organisation, of which I am founder and CEO. This dedication by the major regional authority year-on-year to an impartial, non-election-specific week where Londoners focus on their civic role, responsibility and rights has paid off.

Democratic engagement as continuous

Impact-orientated democratic engagement, then, should not be a 'one-hit wonder' for elections, but a constant effort to educate and engage, to replicate the results in London, with basic knowledge of politics (known as political literacy) introduced at an early stage in schools. 

That said, we must not forget that political illiteracy is not reserved exclusively for the next generation. A report commissioned by the APPG on Political Literacy and authored by Dr James Weinberg of Sheffield University found that, of all the teachers surveyed across England for the report, less than 1 per cent self-reported as having the ability, knowledge and tools to actually deliver strong political literacy. 

Political Literacy is a vital component for democracy and ensuring that future generations partake in their civil duties, but this can only be done effectively with a strong civil society, a committed government and the workforce in schools that can deliver this. 

Make no mistake, this lacking in our civic education ensures our vulnerability to dis/misinformation and gives us a collective false sense that we have a choice between taking part in politics and civic life or not. We don't. The only choice we have is if we want to be in the 'room' voicing our opinion about decisions that ultimately will always affect us, or stand outside and let others speak for us. 

After all, only when a country has a sufficiently educated voting public, can it truly be said that 'the people have spoken'.

Matteo Bergamini MBE is the Founder and CEO of Shout Out UK, a multi-award-winning social enterprise that provides impartial Political and Media Literacy training and campaigns focused on democratic engagement and combatting disinformation online, tailored to local circumstances and culture.