A dark divide: the unequal distribution of social capital in the UK.

Author:Weir, Stuart

In response to concerns about a decline in civic citizenship and premonitions of 'apathy', some have found grounds for optimism in reported levels of associational life and 'social capital' in the UK. The Citizen Audit in 2000 found that 'people frequently participate in activities designed to influence political outcomes' (Pattie et al, 2003). The 18th British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for the same year indicated that associational life in the UK had been 'relatively stable'; and as about one in four people were members of organisations, social capital showed no signs of being in decline (Johnson and Jowell, 2001).

But which segments of society participate? Who gains from the tangible benefits--networks and political and social influence? How far do different segments of British society share in the advantages of the 'continuing pool of social capital'? Who plays a full role in associational life? How far are the inequalities in resources and power that disfigure British society perpetuated in civil society and political participation? How should a government that says it is committed to a more participatory democracy ensure that more participation does not simply strengthen the power and influence of the haves at the expense of the have-nots?

Variations in political participation

Before answering these questions, it is worth looking at what proportion of the public participate for political ends and the forms does their participation takes. A weighted survey of over 3,000 people for Citizen Audit were presented with a list of seventeen actions and were then asked, 'During the last 12 months have you done any of the following to influence rules, laws or practice?' and, 'Would you do any of the following to influence rules, laws or practice?' Table 1 overleaf sets out the findings:

Table 1: Acts of political participation Have done Would do (% yes) (% yes) Donated money to an organisation 62 75 Voted in a local government election 50 71 Signed a petition 42 76 Boycotted certain products 31 59 Raised funds for an organisation 30 55 Bought certain products for political, ethical 28 49 or environmental reasons Contacted a public official 25 59 Worn or displayed a campaign badge or sticker 22 49 Contacted a solicitor or judicial body 20 60 Contacted a politician 13 53 Contacted an organization 11 50 Contacted the media 9 43 Attended a political meeting or rally 5 26 Taken part in a public demonstration 5 34 Formed a group of like-minded people 5 23 Taken part in a strike 2 27 Participated in illegal protest activities 2 13 (Pattie et al, 2000, 78) More than three quarters of the respondents had engaged in one or more of these activities over the previous twelve months, and one in three had taken five or more actions. (A Home Office Citizenship survey in 2001 found that 38 per cent had taken part in political actions over the past 12 months, but respondents were given only five choices and voting was not among them--Prime et al, 2002). The authors note the 'individualistic' nature of the most common actions and remark that more collective actions (acting together in a demonstration, political meeting, strike or illegal protest, or forming a group) were less common. (While this is no doubt the case, I think it is often a mistake to separate out individual and collective action for very often an individual initiative can be the catalyst for collective action or for achieving a collective good.)

The British Social Attitudes survey in 2000 asked people what actions they would undertake if Parliament were considering a law that they thought was 'really unjust and harmful'; and what actions they had ever in fact undertaken in response to an unjust and harmful government action. Nearly a third of respondents said that would take three or more actions from a list that they were offered; and 16 per cent said that they would go on a demonstration or protest, a figure twice as high as it was when this question was first asked in 1983. As to what people have actually done, just over half the respondents reported that they had undertaken at least one action in response to an unjust or harmful government action. Signing a petition was by far and away the most common action (42 per cent), but there has also been a slow but consistent increase over time in the proportion of people who have been on a protest or demonstration (to 10 per cent) (Bromley et al, 2001).

There are, however, marked biases in which segments of...

To continue reading