What do British people think of democracy?
The prevailing wisdom regarding public attitudes to democracy is that the public are committed to the ideal of democracy and consider it important to live in a democracy, even though they may be dissatisfied with the way democracy works in practice (Dalton, 2004; Norris, 2011). The 2008 European Values Study found that 88 per cent of people in Britain agreed that “A democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government”. European Social Survey data support this picture. Respondents were asked to respond to the following questions, each time using an 11-point scale from 0 to 10, shown to them on a card:
How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically? (0 was labelled ‘not at all important’ and 10 as ‘extremely important’)
How democratic do you think Britain is overall? (0 was labelled ‘not at all democratic’
and 10 as ‘completely democratic’)
Figure 1.1 below clearly shows that the vast majority of people in Britain think that it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically. Over four out of five people (84 per cent) give an answer of six out of 10 or above, and three in five people (57 per cent) give an answer of nine or ten i.e. they rate living in a democracy as being extremely important. The average (mean) score across all the responses is 8.4 out of 10. However, people are more ambivalent in their assessment of whether Britain is democratic. Britain may officially be recognised as a democracy according to objective measures such as the Freedom House Index (Freedom House, 2014). However, a significant minority of people (26 per cent) do not rate Britain higher than the mid-point of five on the democracy scale and the average rating is only 6.6 out of 10.
This picture is mirrored across the European countries for which European Social Survey data are available. In all countries shown in Table 1.1 – with the important exception of Russia – people living in each country consider it very important to live in a democracy, assigning an average score greater than seven out of 10. However, in many cases, people provide more lukewarm evaluations of how democratic their country is. The importance attached to living in a democracy – and evaluations of the current system – are highest in Scandinavia. The mismatch between how important it is to live in a democracy and how democratic the country actually is is greatest in some of the newer democracies of central and eastern Europe such as Slovenia and Bulgaria. Britain is somewhere in the middle, rating democracy lower on average than Scandinavia and Germany but higher than much of southern and eastern Europe.
Examining responses to these two broad questions however can tell us only so much about public attitudes to democracy. It is relatively easy for people to give the socially desirable positive response to a one-off survey question asking whether they consider it important to live in a democracy. But what does this tell us about the extent of their commitment to democracy in practice? Just because people say that it is important to them to live in a democracy, it does not necessarily guarantee their acceptance of liberal democratic values (Welzel and Klingemann, 2007) or provide an insight into what they expect their role as citizens in a democracy to be (Webb, 2013). Similarly, knowing that people are dissatisfied with the political system is not particularly informative in the absence of
information about why they are dissatisfied or how they think the situation might be improved. The remainder of this chapter provides a more detailed look at attitudes to democracy
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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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