The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them

The forthcoming tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has prompted much debate – including the claim by Sam Parker in the Huffington Post that the invasion of Iraq and Tony Blair’s ‘hubris’ “robbed a generation of their faith in politics”. As a result of the Government’s refusal to change course, he and apparently his generation “don’t trust the political system, and… don’t believe in politicians”.  Owen Jones has similarly recounted his experience of discussing politics with young people: “When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched [against the Iraq war] ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t”, a sentiment shared by Andrew Murray who argues that the ‘shadow of the largest demonstration in history’ and the fact that it didn’t stop the war constituted a ‘body blow’ for British democracy.

There are good responses, on normative grounds, to both these articles, here and here, but is the claim true empirically?  Thanks to data available from the Audit of Political Engagement, the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society surveys, and the British Election Study, we can test the belief that Iraq has destroyed a generation’s faith in British politics.

Let’s start with measures of political efficacy – the perception of how capable people are of influencing political outcomes when they engage with politics. Figure 1 shows the political efficacy of young people (18 – 24 year olds) from the British Election Study (for 2001, 2005 and 2010) and from the Audit of Political Engagement (from 2003 – 2011). It also shows the efficacy of over 25s from the Audit series for comparison.

It is clear that the events of 2003 had virtually no effect on the perceived political effectiveness of young people, or indeed the rest of the electorate. In 2001, according to the British Election Survey just under 20% of 18–24 year olds reported having some feeling of political efficacy. By 2010, this figure had risen to 22%. The Audit of Political Engagement data shows that in 2003, 39% of young people reported some sense of political efficacy. This figure fluctuated slightly in the following 8 years, and was a slightly higher 41% by 2011. The lack of government responsiveness to the protests against the Iraq war therefore did little to disrupt British voters’ belief that they could change political outcomes if they engaged with politics.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (and Understanding Society from 2009) we can also look at interest in politics. Had the Iraq war destroyed people’s faith in politics, we might expect interest in politics to drop from 2004; if people didn’t feel that politicians would listen to them no matter what they did, why be interested in politics?

The British Household Panel Survey shows that in 2002, 60% of 18–24 year olds had at least some interest in politics. This fell to 57% by 2004 immediately after the Iraq war (hardly indicative of a collapse of political interest), and by 2010 had returned to 60%. There was no collapse in the political interest of young people after the invasion of Iraq.

Data from the British Election Study confirms these findings. Figure 2 shows a range of variables measuring the political attitudes of 18-24 year olds. It confirms that there was no sudden drop in their political interest between the 2001 and 2005 general elections. It also shows that whilst young people’s belief that it was their civic duty to vote in general elections did fall (by 6%) between 2001 and 2010, their overall satisfaction with British democracy – perhaps the most direct indicator relating to the argument that  Iraq destroyed faith in British politics –increased in the same period. In 2001, 58% of young people were satisfied with British democracy; by 2005, the election immediately following the Iraq war, this figure rose to 61%, and reached 66% by 2010. By the time of the general election after the Iraq war, young people were more likely to be satisfied with British democracy than they were before it. There is no evidence at all that an entire generation has been politically scarred for life by the invasion of Iraq or the events that surrounded it.

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

We can go further still in this analysis, however, and compare the political attitudes of the 18–24 year old cohort in 2003 with those of the 25–34 year old cohort in 2011. In other words, we can see how the political attitudes of the generation who were aged 18-24 in 2003 have changed as they have aged. Figure 3 below does just this, using data from the Audit of Political Engagement.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

The figures show pretty definitively that the young people of 2003 did not have their confidence destroyed by the invasion of Iraq, or Tony Blair’s refusal to call off the invasion. The proportion who agreed that they could influence politics if they engaged rose by 3% between 2003 and 2011, and their likelihood to say that they will definitely vote in a general election rose by a similar amount. Their interest in politics fell slightly (by 2%), but certainly not to an extent that would suggest a collapse in democratic confidence.

There was a notable increase of 8% in the proportion who felt that the British political system needs to be improved, but before we read too much into that we should note that the equivalent figures for the entire electorate are very similar: 63% of Brits felt that the British political system needed to be improved in 2003, and this reached 74% by 2011. The generation of 18–24 year olds in 2003 are certainly not alone in becoming more likely to think that British politics needs reform, and following the expenses scandal of 2009 perhaps this is not surprising.

We can see that the invasion of Iraq, the government’s refusal to call off the war, the accusations that dossiers were ‘sexed up’, and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction, actually did very little to undermine the faith in politics of any generation of British voters. These things may well have contributed to a growing feeling that the British political system needs reform, and to the steady decline in political interest over the last decade. But it is clear that there was no collapse of faith in democracy amongst the young people who protested against the invasion of Iraq – or amongst today’s young. People looking to pin the blame for the low political engagement of young people with British politics will have to look beyond Iraq for their explanation.

Stuart Fox