Polls, Proles and Plato

There’s an interesting report out today from the House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee on engaging the public when defining the ‘national interest’. The actual report is wafer thin, but the YouGov polling is rather interesting. Naturally a report on a poll seeking the value of polling concludes that:

The polling we commissioned demonstrates the value of engaging the public in intelligent conversations about complex national strategic issues. The responses provided to the questions asked are nuanced and subject to subtle shifts depending on the information provided by the pollsters. This shows that such polling can provide a powerful insight into the values and attitudes that underlie the views held by the public on national strategic issues. This insight is a hitherto untapped resource for the Government, and one that could meaningfully be used in the formation of national strategic goals and priorities. We recommend that the Government begin to use iterative polling as a means of supporting the development of National Strategy.

Back-patting aside, the results are interesting. Depending on the question, between 56% and 66% of the country favour retaining trident in some form or other. When primed with information, roughly the same amount of people agree that:

Having nuclear weapons makes the world more dangerous, not less, because we encourage other countries to get them by having them ourselves

and:

Nuclear weapons are still necessary today because some countries are building new nuclear weapons systems and others are trying to get their own

The above is, I think, the classic dilemma that nuclear weapons (or any game-changing military technology) pose, handily reproduced by the public at large. But, lest we throw ourselves wholeheartedly over to the wisdom of crowds, other questions noted that 71% of the public over-estimate the cost of Trident (on average people thought it cost £17 billion per year). Furthermore, the schizophrenia of the general public towards foreign affairs is demonstrated by the ability in table 7 to want to decrease spending on the EU (roughly 2/3rds) alongside most spending on the outside world (Peacekeeping, international aid and the British Council don’t seem too popular) while in table 9 clearly listing leading roles in NATO, the EU and the UN as key to British interests.

In all, it’s an interesting report, which I think demonstrates the difficulty of engaging the public (except that when given information about relative spending, they tend to want the same or less, rather than increased spending). I’m not sold on the select committee’s conclusions: if anything, the report demonstrates that the public can hold two directly contrasting priorities at the same time (I think this is quite natural – we all want more for less etc etc) which is okay up until it comes to ‘national strategy’ and ‘national interest’ at which point decisions have to be made. As much as I’m a democrat and a liberal with Karl Popper close to my heart, the results of this survey seem to indicate that where hard choices have to be made, Platonic philosopher kings and elected elites would do a better job than polls.

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4 thoughts on “Polls, Proles and Plato

  1. Was exceptionally irritated by the back-patting. The authors spend a lot of the report’s length explaining how marvelous this ‘deliberative polling’ idea is, because it forces the public to make the difficult choices; indeed, in paragraph 3 they tellingly write ‘We wanted our poll to prove’ the method’s validity. But the results show roughly the same self-contradictory beliefs as all other polls produce! I think they would have done better to focus even more tightly on a single issue, and really force people to confront their contradictions. More evaluation of importance would also have been useful – they may want two contradictory things, but value one more than the other. That sort of stuff may be better done through a coded qual study, though that’s an expensive way of doing research.

  2. Chirality says:

    You may have a point on this report, however, at least they are discussing ‘national interest’ (or ‘grand strategy’ as it was before the management consultants invaded Whitehall).

    At this time any debate or questioning on this subject has to be welcomed and encouraged. There is precious little meaningful discussion and so needs to be nurtured to a fuller life – by policy makers and public alike.

  3. I’m just taking a glance at the tables and some of the questions are worded in a slightly surreal way, primarily by incorporating emotive prompts within statements. Its not universal throughout the study, in fact it’s only a few times, but sufficient to raise an eyebrow for me.

    That said, the data is pretty interesting. Going to try and do my own writeup later!

    (Note: I work for a competing market research firm)

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