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About this book

This broad-ranging text examines the big issues about political attitudes, behaviour and participation in contemporary Britain. Written by a leading expert and drawing on extensive research, this will be essential reading for all students of British politics and everyone involved in the world of politics and policy.

Table of Contents

1. British Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

Abstract
These two descriptions of the state of civil society in Britain are separated by nearly fifty years. The first comes from the classic study of participation by Almond and Verba undertaken in 1959. The second is from the report of the Power Commission, an investigation of the state of democracy in Britain published in 2006. There is a dramatic difference between these two accounts of British democracy. The aim of this book is to explain why these changes have occurred and what they mean for British politics and society.
Paul Whiteley

2. Changing Political Values and Attitudes

Abstract
Why are political values, beliefs and attitudes important to democracy? The answer to this question is rooted in the relationship between the beliefs of citizens and the effectiveness of democratic government. In essence, for a democracy to work properly its citizens need to share certain basic values and beliefs. To elaborate on this point, a citizen might be highly critical of the government of the day and strongly prefer another party to be in power. But this feeling represents no challenge to democracy and in fact helps to sustain the democratic process by encouraging that citizen to become involved. On the other hand, if the same citizen is highly critical of the political system as a whole and holds key institutions such as Parliament, the Civil Service and the Judiciary in contempt, this is a different matter. If most citizens think that politicians are corrupt and in it for what they can get, and the institutions they serve irrelevant or venal, then they are likely to ignore politics altogether or try to undermine government processes. If these views are widespread in society then democracy will not function effectively. Thus the values and beliefs citizens have about their own political system and their role in it are crucial to the effectiveness of democratic politics.
Paul Whiteley

3. Trends in Participation in Britain

Abstract
Political participation is at the heart of democratic government and civil society, and without it there can be no effective democracy. Participation refers to activities such as, voting, lobbying politicians, attending political meetings, joining protest rallies and being active in political parties. These activities have a common thread involving volunteering as, for ordinary citizens, they are unpaid, but they are all designed to directly or indirectly influence the policies and/or personnel of the state. Of course attempts by individuals to influence decision making may be very parochial, for example, a citizen may attend her MP’s surgery in order to get advice about claiming benefits. But they might also be quite general, when the same citizen joins a protest march to try to change British foreign policy.
Paul Whiteley

4. Political Parties and Grassroots Activism

Abstract
The previous chapter showed that changes in political parties are one of the key factors in explaining the decline in electoral participation that has been occurring in Britain over time. They are also contributing to the decline of other forms of participation, a topic discussed more fully below. Given this conclusion, the aim of this chapter is to look closely at changes which have occurred in British political parties, to get a sense of how important these are for the civic culture. It is essential to remember that political parties are not single entities but are complex organizations, which operate at different levels of the political system. They exist in the minds of voters as objects of identification or indifference and, at this level, they influence electoral behaviour.
Paul Whiteley

5. Voluntary Activity and Social Capital

Abstract
Chapter 4 focused on political parties, which are one type of voluntary organization, and, consequently, in this chapter we widen the focus to look at voluntary activity more generally. It is fair to say that volunteering has always been recognized as an important feature of civil society in Britain (see Almond and Verba, 1963). But work over the last ten years or so has shown that it is even more important than the earlier research suggested, because of its contribution to social capital. The concept of social capital has become more and more influential in social science in recent years. As Chapter 3 explained, social capital refers to cooperative relationships between individuals based on mutual trust and norms of reciprocation. Students of social capital look at networks of volunteering, the effectiveness of voluntary activity and interpersonal trust in society. It transpires that unpaid voluntary activities make a very important contribution to social capital, which, in turn, has all kinds of benign effects on society and politics, and therefore, trends in volunteering take on a particular significance for supporting civil society (see Putnam, 1993, 2000).
Paul Whiteley

6. The Media and Political Participation in Britain

Abstract
The media play a key role in the political life of a modern democracy, such as Britain, for the reason that most political information acquired by citizens comes from the media, as against their direct experience of the political process. In an election campaign, for example, some of the information they receive about the election will come from discussions with friends and family, but much of it will come from the media, that is, television, radio and the newspapers. Thus a great deal of the political information received by citizens is mediated by others rather than being the product of their direct experience. Increasingly, ‘impersonal influence’ that derives from anonymous ‘others’, who are not known to the person concerned, shapes political views (Mutz, 1998). The media are the key conduit for these impersonal ‘others’ by providing news, political analysis, and explaining trends in public opinion over time. These mediating agencies analyse and interpret events in a way which helps citizens make sense of the political world.
Paul Whiteley

7. Britain in Comparative Perspective

Abstract
Following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the subsequent recession, governments across the democratic world faced the task of cutting back on public expenditure in order to deal with ballooning deficits. The size and scope of cuts are, of course, highly controversial and even though they have been forced on governments by events they do raise fundamental questions. Perhaps the most important question is: are governments trying to do too much? There is the argument that the state has become too large and it is time for it to withdraw from some activities and let the private sector take over. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government which formed in Britain after the 2010 general election brought the issue of cuts in public expenditure into the forefront of debate. The coalition plans large-scale cuts in public services in order to deal with the deficit.
Paul Whiteley

8. Government Effectiveness and Civil Society

Abstract
We have been looking closely at the values and practices which make up civil society and have seen that voluntary activity, institutions, such as political parties and norms, which support civic engagement and obedience to the law are all important ingredients in civic culture. But does a healthy civil society make for effective government? This is a crucial question, first raised in empirical research by Almond and Verba in their landmark study in the 1960s (Almond and Verba, 1963). They argued that a civic culture was crucial to understanding and explaining effective government.
Paul Whiteley

9. Civil Society and Governance in the Future

Abstract
This book has charted the ingredients of the civic culture and civil society in Britain by looking at attitudes, values, participation and also at key institutions such as political parties and Parliament. In this final chapter, we bring it all together by examining, more generally, the links between the various components of civil society, governance and the state of British democracy. Britain is one of the world’s oldest democracies and has the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, but how is contemporary British democracy actually performing? In particular how exactly does democracy relate to civil society? And how can democracy be reinforced and strengthened in the future? To address these questions we need to spell out a broad definition of democracy and then observe how the components of civil society relate to it. Once again this is done using a comparative analysis in order to characterize British democracy in relation to other countries across the advanced industrial world.
Paul Whiteley
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