At the third ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the term Jonathan Moss, from the University of Southampton, spoke on ‘Popular Understandings of Politics: Perspectives from Mass Observation, 1945-1951.’ Here he gives us an overview of his paper…
This paper reported findings from an interdisciplinary project funded by the ESRC on ‘Popular understandings of politics in Britain, 1937-2014’. The context for the project is alienation and withdrawal from formal politics in many countries at the present time. In Britain, election turnout, party membership, and trust in politicians are all declining. Missing from research to date on this topic are the voices of citizens, in which can be found their shifting understandings, expectations, and judgements regarding politics and politicians. The overall aim of the study is to understand better what and how British citizens have thought about formal politics since the late 1930s.
The specific focus of this paper was on democratic engagement in the immediate post-war period. Between 1945 and 1950, the social research organisation Mass Observation asked its panel of volunteer writers to record their engagements, thoughts, and feelings about politics on 22 separate occasions. A panel that varied between 400 and 1000 writers were asked open-ended questionnaires about elections, political parties, politicians and local councils. The first part of the paper explained how we have re-analysed this material as evidence of the cultural resources respondents used and shared with each other as they constructed and expressed their understandings, expectations, and judgements of politics and democracy.
The second part of the paper presented our findings and identified three main stories shared between respondents to Mass Observation. The first shared story we identified was that democracy was important. Duty was a norm mobilised in panellists’ writing. A panellist explained ‘There seems to be a general feeling (justified I think) that it is one’s duty to vote’ [28, M, Statistician, North West, 1945]. Dutiful citizens distinguished themselves from the apathetic masses. Another panellist regarded ‘municipal Elections as very important indeed’, and had ‘been heard to go on record as disapproving of those who take no interest in them’ [28, M, Bank Clerk, South West, 1945]. A consequence of this widely shared story about democracy being important was that some respondents felt guilty about their lack of knowledge, interest, or participation in politics.
The second narrative emphasised that politicians were flawed. As a class or profession, politicians were described as ‘twisters’, ‘talkers’, ‘clever rogues’, ‘liars’, ‘unscientific’, ‘hypocritical’, and ‘distrusted’. They were repeatedly described as self-seeking and not straight-talking, or in the words of this panellist: ‘out to feather their own nests and gas-bags’ [28, F, Clerk, Scotland, 1945]. Another panellist suggested ‘we have some gift-o-the-gabbers too’ [58, F, Teacher, North East, 1945]. The ‘gas-bag’, ‘gift-of-the-gabber’ and ‘self-seeker’ were characters who frequently populate the panellists writing about politicians.
The third narrative we find is that politics is unnecessary. Throughout the MO material, politics – and party politics in particular – is repeatedly dismissed as ‘a dirty business’, ‘a game’, ‘clap-trap’, ‘eyewash’, ‘platform talk’, ‘guttersnipe’, ‘petty squabbles’, and ‘mud-slinging’. Mud-slinging’ was the most common line in the story circulating in the late 1940s about politics being unnecessary. One panellist was ‘sure this mud-slinging is not liked and gives people a bad view of politics’ [34, M, Electrical Engineer, South East, 1945].
Underpinning this narrative about politics being unnecessary was a storyline that government was best done by those capable of working in what was perceived to be a singular local or national interest. Characters populating this last line included national governments, coalition governments, independents and statesmen. For example, one panellist wrote in their 1945 election diary ‘I am normally non-party, and prefer an independent, or one will stand for a coalition’ [54, F, Housewife, South East, 1945]. In this view, democracy would function more effectively should politicians possess the ability and character to recognise common interests and put them ahead of party interests. As one respondent put it: ‘A statesmen must put the real need of his country first […] A really great man recognises universal greatness and has universal aims’ [N/A, F, Weaver, Yorkshire, 1945].
The concluding section discussed these findings in relation to existing interpretations of post-war democratic engagement. We’re currently thinking about these findings in relation to literatures on partisan dealignment, the decline of deference, stealth democracy and other folk theories. Any thoughts on how to proceed would be very welcome.
All quotations from the Mass Observation archive.
More updates will follow shortly from our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, including Robin McCallum (Queen’s University, Belfast) on his paper: ‘English towns and parliamentary representation, 1295-1350.’ For the full seminar programme, which returns in a fortnight, see the IHR website.