Remember remember the 5th of November? Extreme political attitudes by age among the British Population.

Nov 5, 2015 | BLOG

By: Cesira Urzi Branca & George Holley-Moore

Our analysis of the British Election Study shows some interesting results; young people are more likely to hold extreme right-wing views, and the middle-aged (46-65 year-olds) are more likely to be extremely left-wing.

Since the year 1605, on the 5th of November, the British population has been commemorating the night in which Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament[1]. As the UK commemorates (or celebrates?) the failed night of gunpowder, treason and plot, we look at the relationship between extreme political belief and age in the UK today.

Guy Fawkes’ actions were motivated by religious beliefs and the desire to practise his creed – Roman Catholic – freely. However, over the years, this attempt to rebel against the king has come to denote the fight against a “tyrannical state” and the effigy of Guy Fawkes’ has seeped into popular culture – see V for Vendetta or the hacker group “Anonymous” – and has turned into the symbol of the Anti-state.

So, to mark this coming Bonfire Night, we asked ourselves the following question: If a novel Guy Fawkes conspired against the Government today, would he find sympathisers among the British population, and if so, are they more likely to be young or old?

To answer these questions we take a quick look at the British Election Study 2015.

First of all, we notice that the level of trust towards MPs is relatively low, with over 1 in 7 Brits having No trust at all and only 1 in 68 expressing a great deal of trust (see figure 1). Moreover, trust is higher among the oldest group (aged 75+) who are also more likely to vote, and lower among middle aged people (aged 36-65). Young people appear to be more trusting, even though they are less likely to turn up at the election ballot (see our previous blog).

Source: Own elaborations from BES2015.

The middle-aged radicals?

We then investigate where people are on a “left wing/right wing spectrum” on the basis of the answers to the following statements:

  1. Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off
  2. Big business takes advantage of ordinary people
  3. Ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth
  4. There is one law for the rich and one for the poor
  5. Management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance

A low score is associated with traditionally right wing views, while a high score is associated with the left.

Despite the most recent electoral results, the British population appears to be on the left part of the spectrum, with over 1 in 10 who could be considered “extreme lefty”. Surprisingly, young people are more likely to be on the extreme right of the spectrum, while people aged 46-65 are the most left wing.

Source: Own elaborations from BES2015.


So we have seen that levels of trust in our MPs are highest amongst the very youngest and the very oldest in society (although it has to be said the level of trust is still not very high). Hypothesising, this could be because those are the ages when a person is most in contact with state provision; education for young people, and health/social care and the state pension for the oldest. Working age people on the whole have less direct involvement with state provision and institutions, coinciding with the time when a person generally is paying the most in taxation – perhaps why there is lower trust at these ages.

Interestingly, the age group most likely to hold extreme right-wing views are, according to the BES 2015, people aged 18-25 (although it is still an extremely small percentage). And it seems the stereotype of the student Marxist, plotting the overthrow of the capitalist system from their student digs is wrong as well; indeed it is the 46-65 year olds who are considerably more likely to hold political views on the extreme left.

So if you are looking out for a modern day Guy Fawkes, keep an eye on the middle-aged…

Cesira Urzì Branca and George Holley-Moore