September 2, 2022 - 12:30pm

A new report from Onward provides fresh insight into a disturbing trend: the decline in support for democracy. Entitled The Kids Aren’t Alright, this isn’t the first study to raise the alarm (for earlier examples, see here and here). However, it does confirm that the slide towards authoritarianism is especially pronounced among young people. 

For instance, the following chart shows that the net level of support for democracy is much lower among 18-to-44 year olds than it is among the over-65s:

Net support for different forms of governance by age. Credit: Getty

Support for alternative ways of running the country — i.e. putting experts in charge, or the army, or a “strongman” leader — is correspondingly higher among the younger age groups. 

In a 2019 report, also from Onward, people were asked about “having a strong leader who does not have to bother about parliament”. The results revealed a spike in support for this option among all age groups. However, this was at a time when the Government was paralysed by the Brexit deadlock in the House of Commons. So perhaps the authoritarian surge was just a temporary reaction to the parliamentary chaos.  

Thanks to the new study, we can see what has happened since. Though support for the “strongman” solution has indeed subsided among the older age groups, it remains disturbingly high among the young and young-ish:

Agreement that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections” is a good way to run this country, by age group, 1999-2022 Credit: Onward

Is this a response to the 2019 general election? After all, older voters (who skew Conservative) got the result they wanted, while younger voters (who skew Labour) did not. On the other hand, we’re talking about a rally in support for “putting the army in charge”. I somehow doubt that a bunch of disappointed Corbyn-supporters were responsible for that.

The new report also shows that the anti-democratic trend is strongest among non-university educated young people and those with the most socially conservative views. Though there may be a fashion for finger-wagging wokery among some students, it is not this that’s driving the authoritarian drift.

For liberals of all kinds, there’s a lot to worry about here. There’s clearly a growing demand for radical change, one that could be exploited by anti-liberals of the Right or Left. For an example of what might happen, just look to France where politicians like Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon owe their success to the votes of the young. 

However, populism in British politics has so far been shaped by politicians of a rather different sort. The likes of Nigel Farage, Richard Tice and Laurence Fox are libertarians by instinct. During the pandemic they stood in opposition to lockdown — even though the weight of public opinion was for much stricter measures than those imposed by the government. 

Furthermore, British populism has appealed much more to grumpy old men than to angry young men — as can be seen by the breakdown in support for UKIP at its 2015 electoral zenith. As UKIP leader, Farage’s saloon bar persona was ideally suited to these demographic contours. 

Much the same could be said of the parties, personalities and media outlets that constitute British populism in 2022. As a package it’s not compelling. Therefore, even if they wanted to mobilise the UK’s young authoritarians, our populist leaders are facing in entirely the wrong direction. And for that, British liberals should be truly grateful.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.