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.Continue reading