The institutions and challenges we have identified in previous weeks’ editions of Westminster Wednesday do not exist in a vacuum. They sit within and among us, and therefore our understanding of them – what they are, what they should do, where they came from – and so on, informs the way they operate, and how we respond to that. The concept of ‘political culture’ is one worth introducing here. Philip Norton defines it as “denoting the emotional and attitudinal environment within which a political system operates.” All of us exist within the UK’s political culture, and have been influenced by it – consciously and unconsciously. Here, we will look at two things – first of all, some of the influences on the process by which we acquire our political culture (this is called political socialisation) and secondly, some of the ways in which our political culture shapes our view of politics.
There are many places from which we, as humans, draw our understanding of how the world both is and should be. From our families, to teachers, friends, work colleagues, and beyond, we are all informed by the environment in which we live. In terms of how we understand politics, those listed above are important, but not exclusively so. Here, we will consider three key factors in the UK’s political socialisation process; class, location, and history.
The UK is a deeply class conscious society; as anthropologist Kate Fox noted “class pervades all aspects of English life and culture.” Class is, as Fox, Norton and others have observed, more than merely a function of how much you (or your family) earns; it is also a social statues, and has measurable impacts on our behaviour in everything from how we speak and dress, to what we do with our front gardens. Naturally, therefore, it shapes our view of politics. Traditionally, those of a working class background voted for the Labour Party, and those of a higher class background voted Conservative. But the class distinction also operates in terms of interest in politics – surveys have indicated that people of a lower social class report less interest in, and less optimism about, politics, than those of a higher class.
Secondly, our location plays a critical role in shaping our culture. On the grandest scale, there is a sheer geographic fact which shapes British political culture – that the country is an island (or series of islands), dwelling close enough to a major landmass to be unable to ignore it, but far enough away that it is able to rely on the sea as a means to be permanently distinct. Below that, we are confronted with an array of nations, regions and localities, each with their own identity. These identities are informed in part by their location within these islands – rural areas and urban areas have developed different value sets, different views on the importance of aspects of politics, based on their geography.
Finally, there is history. The history of the UK, and the countries that would form it, is told to us through a host of mechanisms – schools, the media, politicians, our families. We are told about the UK’s relationship with Europe over time, our relationship with monarchs and powerful leaders, our attitudes towards values such as liberty, justice, and peace. We are told about what we have fought for, built for, lived for – and so carried on in ourselves, and the world. Sometimes, we are told things that we are ashamed of now, as a warning to keep away from repeating past mistakes – more often, we are told things we should be proud of, things that are worth preserving. This is not just a lesson about old buildings or pieces of paper – it informs what we believe are politics are for, what makes them valuable, and how we can impact them.
We can measure the impact of political culture in a host of ways; for now, we will focus on three key areas – its impact on problem solving, political systems, and co-operation. Each of these is a distinct area, with clear impacts on the way we, as the British, think about and “do” politics.
The UK’s approach to problem solving can be characterised as focused on the empirical, as opposed to the rational. Whilst this division was theorised by the Italian thinker Giovanni Satori, other writers such as George Orwell have identified this distinction that marks the UK out from its continental neighbours. What this means in practice is that the UK tends to justify things in pragmatic terms – that is, they’re good because they work, rather than they’re good because the theory is sound – and to look to policy issues when something goes wrong, rather than an overarching theme of the state, or democracy, or similar, to understand these issues. The UK is perhaps the clearest example of an empirical political culture anywhere in the world.
The British political culture towards its own political systems exists in a strange state of semi-deference, and semi-approval. Individually, the British often disapprove of the actions of their governments, or the way that the system is seen to respond to their expectations and demands. But, on the other hand, there is no significant effort to overturn the fundamental basis of the constitution, nor has one seriously been threatened in the UK since the end of the 17th Century. There have been changes, but the process is seen as incremental – and that is understood to be a good thing. Whilst the British political culture does not entail whole-hearted deference to, and approval of, its political system, it would be wrong to state that the British reject these systems.
Finally, the British conceive of their politics in terms of individual liberties. Here we see the history coming through strongly – a story about the UK’s attachment to individual freedom often begins with the Magna Carta of 1215, and may include such events as the Civil War and the Great Reform Act. British political culture places great emphasis on the right of individuals to go about their lives without what is seen as undue interference from the state, and this manifests itself in frequent angry resistance to government efforts to invade the privacy of citizens.
There is a caveat to all of this. Some of you will have read this, and immediately produced a red pen to correct my history or evidence here and there. But that in some sense is wrong – because political culture, like a nation, relies not on evidence to function, but on a common story. These stories aren’t necessarily true in an objective sense – Magna Carta was, for example, mostly concerned with restating existing land rights for nobles, rather than any kind of effort to establish some sort of widely held rights for the citizenry – but they are held to be one thing or another, and so become a part of the story.
This, here, is a truth that has been forgotten and uncovered again in recent months – politics, political culture, the very essence of a community – rely as much on stories and narratives as they do on objective, recoverable facts. We tell ourselves stories to give our communities a sense of higher, wider, nobler purpose than the cold light of day would seem to allow for. It might be comforting to some of you to image these fairy tales will blow away on the wind; but they remain critical to our lives, giving meaning and texture to the world around us. Without understanding them, the institutions that run our lives can seem arid and strange. Put them back into the picture, and context draws them into full life.