The British electorate is likely to become only more so
The future British electorate will be less white, and shaped more by Millennials and Gen-Z than today’s elderly Boomers. Since both minorities and young people are more likely to believe in a global conspiracy, this could fundamentally alter the character of British politics.
Freddie Sayers, drawing on UnHerd’s massive Focaldata survey, writes that more British people agree with the statement, ‘The world is controlled by a secretive elite,’ than disagree. Results show that Labour constituencies are somewhat more likely than Conservative ones to back this sentiment, but the strongest support for the statement, at 54%, is among 2019 Brexit Party supporters.
The results comport with British Election Study questions tapping populism such as ‘the people, not politicians’ should make decisions, or questions about trust in the system. This kind of sentiment bulks largest among supporters of outsider parties such as UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, reflecting the sentiment of those who feel alienated from mainstream parties.
Perhaps the most interesting finding, though, is that ethnic minorities in Britain are more likely to engage in conspiratorial thinking. Drilling down into the demographics of the 1,250 non-white Britons polled, Figure one shows that it is clear that ethnicity matters for conspiracy-mindedness. 54% of minorities sampled agree with the conspiratorial statement compared to 36% of white respondents.
Why might this be the case? One possible answer is age. The recently released 2021 census data show that the median age of white people in Britain is 43, compared to 32 for black people and Asians. Figure 2 reveals that Focaldata respondents under 25 are more likely to believe the world is run by a secretive elite than those over 55. But the age effect is strongest among white people, where young adults are almost twice as likely to hold quasi-conspiratorial beliefs as older adults.
Among minorities, there is less of an age gap, with even older minorities more likely than the average Briton to hold these beliefs. Statistical models which account for occupation, housing status, education level, region, voting behaviour and numerous attitudes do not change the fact that minorities are significantly more likely to hold the belief that a secretive elite controls the world. This may relate to lower political trust in the countries from which their grandparents arrived, or may stem from their group’s early history of interaction with the British state. Either way, it likely shapes their outlook on this question.
What explains this sentiment among younger people? Young adults are much less likely to have voted in 2019, of course, as many were too young. In addition, young people lean heavily Left and have grown up under successive Tory governments. Focaldata shows that 71% think Brexit was a mistake, with just 8% saying it wasn’t.
However, conspiratorial beliefs are no less prevalent among Tory and Brexit-supporting young people compared to the majority of their peers who are Left-leaning Remainers.
The impact of material deprivation should not be overstated. Even when concern over the basics and housing are taken into account, most of the age gap in conspiracy beliefs remains. Education level, renting vs. owning, occupational class, voting, Brexit support and other issue dimensions do not alter the finding that young people lend significantly more credence to conspiracy theories than their parents.
Whether a change of government or growing up will alter their views is an open question. But the fact that young people who own their own homes, have high-class occupations and vote Conservative do not differ much from their cohort suggests at least some of them could carry conspiratorial orientations with them through life. As the electorate becomes more diverse and higher-trust generations die off, a more conspiratorial, US-style strain in our politics may emerge.