Heart beat of the body politic

Political Culture in Contemporary Britain
January 31, 1997

It may well be that this book will become a landmark in British political science. Its importance is threefold. First, its multi-dimensional approach seeks to link a variety of salient factors, in a way that constitutes a major conceptual step forward. Second, considerable methodological ingenuity is displayed both as regards statistical manipulation and in the telephonic fieldwork. Third, the substantive results add significantly to our understanding of contemporary Britain.

The book will appeal to the cognoscenti, but its main impact will be on the next generation of textbooks. It is essentially a composite of three surveys undertaken by the authors during the British Rights Survey, conducted in 1992-93. One sample of 2,060 respondents covered the electorate in Great Britain (ie England. Wales and Scotland), another of 1,244 surveyed a sample of leading councillors in the same territories, while a third survey of 1,255 people was a "booster" sample of the Scottish electorate: the three are referred to as "the British public", "the politicians" and the "Scottish". Towards the end of the book the GB findings are compared with the 1987 Canadian Charter Study Survey by Paul Sniderman et al, which inspired this study.

The study of political behaviour in Britain began in the late 1940s with the development of opinion polling, with social class being identified as the main determinant of voting behaviour. The 1959 general election, giving the Conservatives a third consecutive victory, provoked new research into working-class Tories, the effects of embourgeoisement, and later "partisan dealignment". Social class was fast losing its position as the main reason for voters' intentions in favour of the more encompassing, though somewhat elusive concept of political culture as an analytical technique.

The great merit of this book lies in its attempt to delineate not only the ingredients that comprise political culture but also their relative strengths and, most ambitious of all, how they react and inter-relate, thus strengthening the definition of political culture.

The authors begin with 13 "microprinciples" ranging from respect for authority, rights regarding free speech and protest, to tradition, tolerance, wealth creation and so on - attitudes to which were elicited from a barrage of 50-plus questions. These are then mapped alongside six "microsympathies": attitudes to different citizen groups, social prejudice, confidence in the system, civil institutions, the judiciary and enforcers of rights, garnered from some 30 questions. The results are then re-examined to discover how far the principles and sympathies expressed by the public and the politicians hang together. At this point the notions of liberty and equality, as "broad macroprinciples" come into their own as explanatory variables. Liberty and equality are often seen as antithetical and indeed among their adherents in the public they were uncorrelated; among the politicians, however, they were correlated so that "the principles of politicians were much more coherent than those of the public".

Next they explore the relationships between principles and practice and found that "those who were more committed to liberty or equality in principle were indeed more committed to it in practice". They then focus on "means and mechanisms" where at the outset they note that "egalitarians may not care too much about the mechanisms by which they achieve their goals.

But liberals care intensely. Their philosophy is at least as much a philosophy of means as of ends, if not more so''. To explore matters further they contrast attitudes towards three "Charter 88 mechanisms" - Bill of Rights, Freedom of Information Act and House of Lords reform - with four Thatcherite reforms - sale of council houses, privatisation of state industries, changes in the National Health Service and elected school governors.

Among both the public and the politicians the Charter 88 proposals averaged a score of seven out of ten as against 5.2 for the new-right Thatcher proposals. Even more interesting was the issue of Scottish devolution which found more favour with the British public at 81 per cent than with the Scots themselves at 78 per cent, while the politicians too were strongly supportive at 75 per cent. The Scots more strongly endorsed devolution for Wales and Northern Ireland, than did the other two groups and were much more in favour of devolved English regions at 54 per cent than was the public at 41 per cent. It is fascinating that throughout Scotland seems little different from the rest of Britain in its political culture; a different set of institutional arrangements including the education and legal systems is not, on this exhaustive evidence, reflected in a distinctive political culture save for the relatively minor differences that the Scots are stronger on equality, slightly more leftwing and slightly more anti-Westminster than everyone else.

In addition, Miller et al used ten tests to discover how tenaciously opinions were held when "placed in a context that contradicted, varied or challenged the way in which they had framed their initial declaration of opinion". This kind of investigation is still in its infancy and needs to have more small-scale studies to inform the construction of national surveys. As it is, the results were not commensurate with the analytical ingenuity applied. The public were shown to be more likely to agree with a statement as put to them than were politicians but that the more educated, whether members of the public or politicians, were more likely to disagree. The authors conclude, "active debate is worthwhile because people are open to rational argument".

In the chapter on social background, ie social class, age, religion, gender, urban-rural location etc, we return to terrain fairly well tilled by the postwar pioneers. It is revealed that religion, age and education correlate strongly with liberty, while social class correlates most with equality. In the next chapter on partisanship and ideology, politicians were more partisan than their electoral supporters, but somewhat more surprisingly they were more left-wing than their supporters.

One of the most rewarding and innovative chapters is that which examines the influence of personal experience on the individual's outlook. Three topics were investigated: discrimination, consumption of government services, and participation in varied aspects of social and political life (largely as spectators via the media). Discrimination mostly affected the public on grounds of gender and age, while for politicians it was because of their political beliefs. Interaction with the NHS, the police, MPs or local government showed high levels of satisfaction, with the public being slightly more dissatisfied than the politicians.

In their concluding "overview model" the authors quite daringly attempt to bring together their earlier findings. Attachment to principles emerges as the most important factor determining attitudes to rights and duties. They can be mediated and moderated by others such as social background or practical experiences. Ideological self-image, rather than mere partisanship, is a major influence not least because of the recent fickleness with which parties have adopted or abandoned particular policies. This is particularly relevant in the run-up to the forthcoming general election and merits further attention.

Sir Trevor Smith is vice chancellor, University of Ulster.

Political Culture in Contemporary Britain: People and Politicians, Principles and Practice

Author - William L. Miller, Annis May Timpson and Michael Lessnoff
ISBN - 0 19 8984 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 525

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