What does the public really think about democracy in Britain?

New data from the European Social Survey shows that while the British public value democracy many feel the UK government is failing to live up to its democratic ideals. Sarah Butt explores the key findings.

In response to the recent alleged “Trojan Horse” plot to radicalise pupils in Birmingham schools, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for British values including democracy and the rule of law to be placed at the heart of the National Curriculum.  But what does living in a liberal democracy actually involve? And how confident are we that democracy in Britain lives up to these ideals?  New findings from the European Social Survey (ESS) provide an in-depth look at how well the British public feel democracy in Britain delivers what they think matters most.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority of people in Britain think that it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically (average importance rating 8.4 out of 10).  However, people are more ambivalent about whether Britain is actually democratic (average importance rating 6.6 out of 10). A significant minority of people (26 %) do not rate Britain above five out of 10 on the democracy scale. There is evidence therefore of a democratic deficit.

High Expectations

The ESS reveals that people have high expectations of democracy.  The survey asked respondents to rate how important – on a scale from 0 to 10 – they considered a number of different attributes to be for democracy.   Most attributes received an average rating of at least eight out of 10 with people believing that democracy, in addition to guaranteeing free and fair elections and protecting civil liberties, should also protect people against poverty and involve citizens in decision-making.

There is widespread consensus among the public about what matters in a democracy.  The strength of people’s commitment to democracy increases with age and education and there are differences between those on the left and right of the political spectrum.  However, across all groups, there is a shared belief in the importance of government explaining its decisions to voters and that citizens should have the final say on key issues via referendums.

Let down by reality

However, the British public also thinks that the current political system fails to live up to these expectations, with a sizeable minority perceiving there to be a ‘democratic deficit’ in Britain. As well as asking people to rate different aspects of democracy in terms of importance, the ESS also asked people to rate – again on a scale from 0 to 10 – how far they think each feature of democracy applies in Britain.

On a positive note, people clearly see that some key features of democracy do apply in Britain, giving an average score of 8 out of 10 when asked whether elections are free and fair or whether opposition parties or the media are free to criticise the government. However, evaluations of other aspects of democracy are decidedly more mixed.  When asked to evaluate how far they think the courts treat everyone equally or that the media provide the public with reliable information, people give an average rating of just 6 out of 10.

The British public are especially sceptical with regards to the government’s ability to involve its citizens in decision making or protect people from poverty.  A quarter of people (24%) are dissatisfied with how well the government engages with the public, believing it to be extremely important that the government explain its decisions to voters but that this does not happen in Britain.  The same proportion believes it to be extremely important for the government to protect people against poverty but think that this does not happen.

What are the implications of this perceived democratic deficit for the long term health of democracy in Britain and, more immediately, the outcome of the 2015 election?  There is evidence that failing to deliver what people want in terms of material outcomes may contribute to political disengagement – our analysis of the ESS data for the 31st British Social Attitudes Report found that people who perceived a deficit as regards the government’s ability to protect its citizens against poverty were less likely to vote in the 2010 election.  The findings point to the need for all political parties to address the democratic deficit here at home as well as in Europe in order to revive and sustain British democracy – finding ways to restore the public’s confidence in the judicial system, protect all citizens from poverty  and communicate better with voters.

Read more about these findings in the 31st British Social Attitudes Report here.

More information about the European Social Survey can be found at www.europeansocialsurvey.org.

Sarah Butt is a Research Fellow at City University London. She is also a member of the Core Scientific Team for the European Social Survey and a contributor to the 31st British Social Attitudes Report. She was Co-director of the BSA survey from 2008-2010.

One Response to What does the public really think about democracy in Britain?

  1. Denis Latimer says:

    Is not “One person, one vote” an essential requirement of “Democracy”? If so, can the United Kingdom reasonably be declared a democracy? Does MPs’ authority depend solely upon the fact that they represent their constituents? If so,where matters have been devolved to another parliament or assembly and the UK Parliament no longer has responsibility for such matters, MPs elected in areas with responsibility for such matters can reasonably be regarded as representing their constituents only for reserved matters.

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