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Golden age, apathy or stealth? Democratic engagement in Britain, 1945–1950

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Abstract

This article revisits democratic engagement in post-war Britain in a context of debates about political disaffection in the current period. The study systematically reanalysed volunteer writing in the Mass Observation Archive and represents a significant methodological advance on previous studies. Little evidence was found to support common existing interpretations: whether ‘golden age’ narratives of deference to authority, partisan alignment and high voter turnout or revisionist accounts of apathy. Instead, evidence was found of something akin to what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call ‘stealth democracy’. Citizens thought democracy to be important and felt a duty to vote, but wished for government by experts in the national interest. This ‘stealth’ interpretation builds on existing studies of duty, populism and expertise in twentieth-century Britain. It helps to move discussion of democratic engagement after the Second World War beyond the binaries of self/collective and private/public, and to explain the paradox of high voter turnout in a context of hostility to party politics. It also promises to inform debates about declining political support in the current period.

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Moss, J., Clarke, N., Jennings, W., & Stoker, G. (2016). Golden age, apathy or stealth? Democratic engagement in Britain, 1945–1950. Contemporary British History, 30(4), 441–462. https://doi.org/10.1080/13619462.2016.1180982

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