The Constitution Unit’s new ‘Democracy in the UK after Brexit’ project will examine citizens’ various conceptions of democracy. At the Unit’s February webinar, three experts explored what is known about attitudes towards democracy in the UK and what still remains to be clarified. James Cleaver summarises the discussion.
In January 2021, the Constitution Unit announced a new ESRC-funded project, ‘Democracy in the UK after Brexit’. On 25 February, a launch webinar was held, with the intention of examining the state of knowledge about attitudes towards democracy and identifying potential areas for future research. The panel comprised three speakers: Professor Jane Green, Professor of Political Science and British Politics and Director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre at the University of Oxford; Deborah Mattinson, Co-founder and Joint Chair of the opinion research agency BritainThinks; and Professor Claudia Landwehr, Professor of Public Policy at the Johannes Gutenburg University Mainz. The event was chaired by Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, who is leading the new project. The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions.
Professor Jane Green
Professor Green raised four key questions, each with an associated word, that were pertinent to the topic and to the Unit’s future research. The first word was ‘satisfaction’. Despite the weakening of party political allegiances and declining trust in institutions and government, satisfaction with democracy in the United Kingdom has remained relatively stable over recent decades. This raises the question of what democracy actually means to citizens of the United Kingdom, and should encourage researchers to examine whether people view democracy symbolically – for example, as connected to nationhood – rather than just substantively, in terms of its representative and constitutional functions.
The second concept was ‘motivation’. In order to understand whether citizens have ‘real attitudes’ about the constitution and the relationships between democratic institutions, it is important to learn how informed people are about the roles of institutions. This step should take place before asking people about their preferred roles for institutions, and represents a relative gap in existing surveys.
The third word was ‘generation’ – specifically, generational differences in conceptions of democracy. Although younger adults have high levels of interest in politics, they have the lowest rates of participation, possibly as a result of this group being unwilling to participate without feeling fully informed. In addition to examining inter-generational differences in conceptions of democracy, further research could examine whether these different conceptions of democracy create barriers to electoral participation.
Finally, Professor Green encouraged the webinar’s attendees to consider ‘prioritisation’. This entails understanding whether, when citizens think about democracy, they prioritise its more intrinsic aspects, including institutions’ accountability and representativeness, or are more concerned with instrumental outputs such as governmental competence. The politicisation of issues surrounding debates on Scottish independence makes this question especially apposite for subnational examination.
Deborah Mattinson provided a brief and comprehensive summary of people’s attitudes towards democracy and politics. Despite agreeing with Professor Green about the powerful symbolism of British nationhood and how this engendered pride in Britain’s democratic tradition, she noted that what is known presently is generally quite ‘gloomy and negative’. Mattinson pointed to a recent Pew survey which found that almost seven citizens in ten in the United Kingdom were dissatisfied with the way democracy works.
This dissatisfaction stems from distrust in and distance from politicians. Mattinson cited a BritainThinks poll which found that only 6% of respondents felt politicians understood them. Indeed, her own research using focus groups in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies – reported in her recent book on the 2019 general election – revealed that many people see all MPs as ‘posh’, and do not differentiate between those with different backgrounds. For many, what they perceive as the increasing unrepresentativeness and irrelevance of politics has contributed to low levels of knowledge about how democracy works and little interest in addressing this lack of understanding.
Although Brexit acted as an exception to this trend of disfranchisement, people still remain unclear about just how they would like things to be different. In this respect, the Constitution Unit’s project was cited as a useful means to improving these concerning findings. Empowering people by involving them and enabling them to feel more influential is essential to fostering an appreciation for the benefits of democracy.
Professor Claudia Landwehr
Professor Landwehr opened her remarks by drawing attention to the United Kingdom’s historical tradition of political constitutionalism, in which the constitution, democratic rules and democratic procedures have generally been regarded as the product of democratic decision-making processes. This tradition means that, beyond the opportunities Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic may offer for major reform, the United Kingdom possesses some advantages in pursuing large-scale constitutional and institutional change.
Professor Landwehr set out her own findings regarding people’s conceptions of democracy, based on survey research in Germany. That survey listed a series of statements about democracy in order to track attitudinal patterns. Examples of these statements included ‘Sometimes it is better when political decisions are taken behind closed doors’ and ‘If there is a large majority in the population for a political decision, this indicates that the decision is correct’. The analysis of the responses uncovered four different conceptions of democracy, all of which condition electoral behaviour.
Those whose attitudinal patterns align with a trustee conception of democracy support representative democracy and the autonomy of representatives. This group is characterised by high levels of trust and satisfaction with democracy. The second conception is deliberative proceduralism. Like the trustee conception, its adherents have high levels of trust and satisfaction with democracy, but they perceive their ability to influence politics to be limited and consequently demand democratic innovations.
A third conception is populist majoritarianism. This is based on the ideas that politics should be responsive to the people and the will of majorities should always overrule that of minorities. This conception’s supporters exhibit low levels of trust and satisfaction with democracy. The final conception of democracy, described by Professor Landwehr as ‘internally less coherent’ than the other three, is anti-pluralist scepticism. While citizens in this category tend to be abstentionists due to low levels of trust and satisfaction with democracy, they support expert rule, deliberation and the principle of obtaining consent from all affected groups.
In addition to providing a framework for thinking about different conceptions of democracy, Professor Landwehr also recommended that the Constitution Unit undertake qualitative interviews with its project’s participants. This will enable researchers to interrogate how conceptions of democracy evolve over time and allow for the articulation of new conceptions of democracy in the United Kingdom.
Following these initial contributions, a panel discussion gave the opportunity for the speakers to expand on their original remarks and respond to each other. Building on her initial comments, Professor Green noted that although satisfaction with democracy is often conceived as a bottom-up phenomenon, grievances and concerns can also be manufactured by political actors in a top-down process. Deborah Mattinson explained that creating opportunities for people to participate in deliberative democracy is absolutely crucial, both in convincing people that democracy matters and in increasing their interest in politics. Professor Landwehr raised some methodological issues with survey data, namely the difficulty of surveys – particularly those conducted online – reaching respondents of lower socio-economic status, and the tendency of respondents to negatively rate their satisfaction with governmental performance in full knowledge of how the survey data is going to be used.
The webinar confirmed that much is known about how people think about democracy in the United Kingdom and beyond, but that a great deal remains to be discovered. The Constitution Unit’s project has an important gap to fill, and we hope that early analysis of some initial findings might be available by the late summer.
This post is a summary of the main contributions of the three speakers, and includes only a very brief summary of the interesting discussion and Q&A session that followed. You can watch the complete event here, or listen to a podcast version here. Recordings of previous events are available on our YouTube and podcast pages. We also recommend that you join our mailing list to be notified about future events, which are free and open to all.
About the author
James Cleaver is a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit.