Dorothy Byrne, former Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, caused a minor ripple in the news pond last week when she made public reference to the Open Society Foundations’ recent democracy barometer of 2023, which had found that faith in democracy was plummeting among the young. According to the Foundations’ survey, 35% of 18-35 years-olds around the world say that having a leader who “doesn’t bother with parliaments or elections” is a good way of running a country (the highest of any age group). An article in the Times reported that Byrne cited these figures in the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University (sadly, no recording or transcript exists) which seemed to indicate that the figure for the U.K. specifically was 29%.
This is, of course, concerning if true. But it is perhaps more concerning that Byrne – ostensibly an intelligent person who is now President of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge – is so incapable of thinking through exactly why this cratering in support for democracy might be taking place among the young. In this, of course, she is not an outlier (she is entirely emblematic of her class), and perhaps it is unfair therefore to single her out. But it is useful to do so all the same, because her analysis is so illustrative of the failures of our ‘thought leaders’ to actually think very hard about very much at all.
In Byrne’s world, you see, the problem is really all about Boris Johnson. She has form in this regard, having publicly denounced his “lying” before. But in her lecture at City she seems to have – without naming him – given him centre stage. The reason why young people have lost faith in democracy, she tells us, is “dishonest politicians”. And this means that the issue is fundamentally (yes, you’ve guessed it) inadequate fact-checking by journalists. What we need, she tells us, is for media outlets to inform us when politicians are “lying”. It is only then that faith in democracy will be restored.
It’s all about Brexit buses, in other words: the founding myth of Remoanerist-centrist-dadism, in which everything in the world that has gone wrong since 2016 is the fault of a disputed figure on the side of a campaign vehicle, and in which the only way to fix everything is for journalists, academics and right-thinking politicians to make sure that the stupid proles are never duped into voting for anything so silly as Brexit ever again. (The American equivalent, one presumes, is Donald Trump’s compendium of ‘lies’, handily put together for us by the Washington Post.)
The holes in the argument are, of course, big enough to drive a truck through. It assumes that politicians and spin doctors have not been publicly and notably ‘lying’ for a very long time. It imagines a fantasy world in which the public expects politicians to tell the truth and is violently disillusioned when they don’t. It conveniently ignores the fact that if the proportion of British young people who have no faith in democracy is 29%, this is actually a lower percentage than the international average, suggesting that if anything our politicians are considered somewhat more trustworthy (hated less, might be the better way of putting it) than they are elsewhere. And it entirely overlooks the fact that for older age groups – also exposed to Boris’s ‘lies’ – the percentages of people lacking faith in democracy are lower.