What are people’s specific expectations of democracy?
Democracy can mean different things to different people (Dahl, 1998; Diamond, 2003). It is generally accepted that free and fair competitive elections which can be used to hold the government accountable are an essential feature of any democratic system (Schumpeter, 1976). In addition, established European democracies are assumed to be ‘liberal’ democracies based on the rule of law and which guarantee certain rights and freedoms for their citizens such as free expression and the protection of minority groups (Dalton et al., 2007). However, there are other aspects of democracy over which there is more debate. For example, to what extent should democracy be required to achieve certain material outcomes for its citizens? People also hold differing opinions over the public’s role in a representative democracy – i.e. how far policy should be responsive to public opinion and/or whether the public should have a say in important political decisions – and the extent to which there should be a more participatory model of direct democracy (Webb, 2013).
We can use the European Social Survey to identify how far the British public shares a particular liberal democratic view of democracy. We can also assess the extent of public support for other potential features of democracy including the achievement of certain social outcomes or the wider involvement of members of the public in political decision-making. Respondents were asked to say how important they thought different things were “for democracy in general” (original emphasis). (They were told that they would be asked later about their views on how democracy was working in Britain.) They answered using an 11-point scale, where 0 signified that they thought something was “not at all important for democracy in general” and 10 signified they thought it was “extremely important for democracy in general”.
Table 1.2 summarises people’s expectations of what democracy should deliver. In the first column, we show the average (mean) importance assigned to each aspect of democracy (from a maximum score of 10). The second column shows the variance in these averages. This provides a measure of how much agreement there is among the population as to whether or not something is important for democracy: the lower the variance the greater the degree of consensus. The third column shows the percentage of people who consider each aspect as being extremely important for democracy i.e. rate it nine or ten on a 0 to 10 scale. The items in the table have been organised into four groups according to whether they are associated primarily with the electoral component of democracy, principles of liberal democracy, outcomes associated with social democracy or features of a participatory democracy.
It is clear that the British public demands a lot of different things from democracy. All of the aspects of democracy asked about are considered important and given an average rating of between seven and nine out of ten on the original 11-point scale. People attach importance to essential procedural features of democracy such as national elections which are free and fair (average importance rating 8.8) as well as equal treatment by the courts (8.9) and legal constraints on government authority (8.6). However, there is also widespread support for the idea that any democracy has a commitment to achieve certain outcomes for its citizens; including the government protecting all its citizens against poverty (an average score of 8.4). People also strongly believe that they should be involved in the political process; with people considering it important that the government explains its decisions to voters (average score 8.7) and that citizens should have the final say in important decisions via referendums (8.1). This evidence is consistent with previous analysis of British Social Attitudes data which found strong support for constitutional reforms which would provide for more direct democracy (Curtice and Seyd, 2012).
The variance levels in the second column of Table 1.2 show that there is most public consensus around the importance of key procedural aspects of democracy such as there being free and fair elections (variance = 3.1) or the courts treating everyone equally (3.2). There is also widespread support for the importance of governments explaining decisions to voters (3.6). Opinion is more divided on other things including whether the government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels (variance = 5.8) reflecting ongoing political divisions between those on the left and the right regarding the importance of redistribution as a means of promoting prosperity.
Table 1.2 also indicates that, while the public generally recognise that liberal democratic ideals such as freedom of speech are important for democracy; absolute commitment to these ideals is not universal. For example, fewer than half of people (44 per cent) think that it is extremely important for democracy that the media is free to criticise the government or that the rights of minorities are protected. This may in part reflect the fact that many people in Britain today take these basic rights for granted. However, in the absence of strong public support, such values remain vulnerable to being undermined even in an established democracy such as Britain.
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- Blair, T. (2000), speech on Britishness, London, Mar 28. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,2763,184950,00.html. Brown, G. (2006), “The Future of Britishness”, speech presented to the Fabian Society’s New Year Conference, London, 14 January. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.fabians.org.uk. Cameron, D. (2011), speech on radicalization and Islamic extremism, speech presented at the Munich Security Conference, Munich, 5 February. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=329.
- The European Social Survey provides nationally representative probability samples of all residents aged 15 and over in a number of European countries and covers a wide range of social and political topics. Six rounds of the survey have been carried out to date. Unlike the British Social Attitudes survey, the European Social Survey collects data for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. However, NI cases are excluded from the analysis presented here and the remaining respondents were asked to evaluate democracy in Britain. The data for this chapter are from Round 6 of the survey conducted in the UK between September 2012 and January 2013. European Social Survey Round 6: European Social Survey Round 6 Data (2012/13). Data file edition 1.2. Design weights were applied in all analyses. Post-stratification weights were not available at the time of analysis but have since been added to the data file (Edition 2.0). Further information about the survey can be found at: www.europeansocialsurvey.org.
- European Values Study (2011): European Values Study 2008: Integrated Dataset (European Values Study 2008). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA4800 Data file Version 3.0.0, doi:10.4232/1.11004.
- European Social Survey Round 6 data were available for 24 countries. A second data release in May 2014 included data from further countries.
- The full question wording was:
Now some questions about democracy. Later on I will ask you about how democracy is working in Britain. First, however, I want you to think instead about how important you think different things are for democracy in general. There are no right or wrong answers so please just tell me what you think
- The four groupings are informed by theory and have been shown to work well empirically, producing high Cronbach’s alpha scores. Electoral dimension α = 0.80. Liberal dimension α = 0.82. Social dimension α = 0.74. Participatory dimension α = 0.71.
- Bases for Table 1.2 are as follows:
Mean scores are based on the average response given by all those expressing an opinion. There is obviously a question regarding how reasonable it is to expect people to have thought about and formed meaningful opinions about all of the specific aspects of democracy asked about in the European Social Survey questionnaire. However, although around 5 per cent of respondents did answer “don’t know”, the vast majority of respondents were able to give an answer European Social Survey data showed.
Respondents with no educational qualifications are also less likely to hold an opinion about the requirements of democracy – with levels of “don’t knows” ranging from 9 per cent to 15 per cent across items – as are young people under 25 (7 per cent to 14 per cent “don’t knows”).
Whether people would actually participate in a referendum is another matter. Support for direct democracy in principle is not always matched by high turnout in practice. In the 2011 referendum regarding the electoral system used to elect MPs, for example, turnout was just 42 per cent nationally (www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/journalist/electoral-commission-media-centre/news-releases-referendums/Complete-set-of-provisional-turn-out-figures-for-referendum-now-published). Turnout in the 2012 elections to elect local police commissioners was even lower.
European Social Survey respondents are asked:
In politics people sometimes talk of “left” and “right”. Using this card, where would you place yourself on this scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?
Responses 0 to 4 on the scale are categorised as being on the political left, 5 is categorised as centrist (group not shown in analysis) and responses 6 to 10 are categorised as being on the political right.
The items were the same as in Table 1.2 with one exception. Respondents were not asked to evaluate whether “… the courts are able to stop the government acting beyond its authority” applies in Britain. This item is not therefore included in any subsequent analysis.
The full question wording was:
Now some questions about the same topics, but this time about how you think democracy is working in Britain today. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, so please just tell me what you think
Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
Responses on the importance and evaluation scales were rescaled to be between 0 and 1 rather than 0 and 10. The democratic deficit measure for each item, y, was then calculated as follows: (Importance of y (0 to 1) – Evaluation of whether y applies in Britain (0 to 1)) x Importance (0–1).
Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows:
European Social Survey data collected in 2010/11 as part of a module of questions on Trust in Justice provide further insights on this topic (Jackson et al., 2010). As many as 50 per cent of people in the UK think that a poor person is more likely than a rich person to be found guilty of an identical crime they did not commit while 30 per cent of respondents feel that someone of a different race or ethnic group from the majority would be more likely to be found guilty. (European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 3.0.)
The average deficit on the social democracy dimension was -0.35 among those placing themselves on the left of the political spectrum, -0.25 among those in the centre and -0.20 among those on the right.
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