Today, the Unit published the 80th edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the lead article for Monitor 80, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on risks to democracy at home and the appalling invasion of a democratic nation, Ukraine, which could have long-term repercussions for the health of democracies across Europe.
Monitor has in recent years catalogued a succession of astonishing events in British constitutional politics: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; the 2016 Brexit referendum; the parliamentary battle that ensued under Theresa May’s divided minority government post-2017; Boris Johnson’s unlawful parliamentary prorogation of 2019; and the politics of COVID-19 lockdown post-2020.
The shock likely to dominate memories of 2022 – Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine – is of a different order. The war is a terrible tragedy for all those directly affected; on the world stage it is Europe’s darkest and potentially most dangerous moment at least since the Cold War standoff of the 1960s, and perhaps since 1945. In response, British constitutional politics has seen a suspension of normal working. Hostile exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions have been replaced by pledges of unity. The House of Commons has given standing ovations to Ukraine’s ambassador in London, and then to its President, Volodoymr Zelenskyy. A mutinous Conservative Party that had been gearing up, perhaps, to topple its leader now bides its time.
How Putin’s war might shift British politics beyond the short term remains to be seen. In this edition of Monitor, the developments discussed mostly predate the invasion. Some of these – notably, a raft of bills and consultations – have a momentum that will run on. As has been true for several years, these developments give some considerable cause for concern.
Last month the Constitution Unit published What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, the first report of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. To mark the report’s launch, a seminar was convened to discuss its findings, their implications, and possible future avenues of research. The project’s research assistant, James Cleaver, summarises the discussion.
A panel of three speakers was convened to discuss the report’s findings: Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, who is leading the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project; Paula Surridge, Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at the University of Bristol and Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe; and James Johnson, founder of J.L. Partners and former Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit and a Co-Investigator on the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. You can watch the event here.
Alan Renwick outlined the structure of the research project and summarised the report’s key results. He focused on three overarching findings: while there exists broad satisfaction with democracy, people have very little trust in politicians; most members of the public want politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules; and people generally prefer not to concentrate power in the hands of a few politicians, but rather to spread it to parliament, non-politicians, and the wider public. You can read more about the key findings of the report, and how they compare with other studies, in a recent post on this blog.
The Unit’s new report, What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, contains numerous important findings, many of which relate directly to current concerns about low political trust and standards in public life, and debates about the proper role of the courts. The report is based on a survey conducted in July 2021 in partnership with YouGov, with a sample size of almost 6,500 people who were representative of the UK’s voting age population.
When we asked respondents how satisfied they were with how democracy works in the UK, 54% said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly satisfied’, against 40% who were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all satisfied’.
But respondents had very little trust in politicians. Net trust in the Prime Minister was -31%, and that in the UK parliament was -19%. In contrast, attitudes towards the civil service were neutral (+1%), and they were positive towards the judiciary (+19%).
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK is sending a powerful message: people in the UK want their elected representatives to do better. The Assembly met over six weekends in the final months of 2021 to examine how the UK’s democratic system should work. Its full recommendations will be published in March. This post previews some of the key findings.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK comprises 67 members of the UK public who were carefully selected to be representative of the wider population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, educational background, location in the UK, and political attitudes. The members met over six weekends between September and December, hearing from experts, discussing among themselves, and drawing conclusions. They reached over 50 recommendations, covering many aspects of democracy in the UK, which will be published in full in March. They also crafted statements summing up their feelings about how democracy is working in the UK today. These statements – the focus of this post – send a powerful message that people in the UK want their representatives to do a better job.
The Assembly members began their final weekend of deliberations, on 11–12 December, by choosing words that summed up their feelings about current UK democracy. They could choose from a list of words provided, or add their own. The word cloud below shows how they responded. The most frequently chosen options were ‘dissatisfied’ and ‘frustrated’, followed by ‘concerned’, then ‘hopeful’ and ‘disappointed’.
The Constitution Unit is currently running a Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK as part of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. As the Assembly nears the halfway point in its deliberations, the project’s Research Assistant, James Cleaver, describes the principles that have shaped its design.
The first two weekends of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK – which met online on 18–19 September and 9–10 October – have concluded successfully. These initial weekends focused on introducing assembly members to the Assembly process, to the principles of democracy and to the operation of democracy in the UK today. This weekend it will start to focus in on more concrete institutional questions. So now is an appropriate time to review how the Assembly has been designed and how it is going so far.
As the project lead, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick, outlined in a previous post, we have recruited the Assembly’s 74 or so members to be representative of the UK population. That matters for two main reasons.
First, diversity of membership means that individuals from all walks of life across all parts of the UK are involved in the discussions. Such a broad range of personal perspectives should lead to more considered and holistic conclusions. Second, representativeness is essential to the legitimacy of the Assembly’s conclusions. The Assembly offers insight into what the country as a whole might think if all citizens could participate in this process.
Bringing together a representative sample of the UK population has not been without its challenges – we saw an unusually high number of individuals withdraw from the process between initial recruitment and the opening weekends. This likely reflects in part the circumstances of this moment in time: as society reopens following months of restrictions, many may find the prospect of spending six weekends on Zoom unappealing. It may also be an inherent feature of running an assembly online: members do not have to plan for a weekend away from home, so the exigencies of their personal lives may be more likely to intervene. In addition, this Assembly is not connected to an official implementing authority, such as government.