Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain: Security in an Age of Austerity

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Politics


The international political landscape in which Britain operates has been transformed dramatically since the Cold War as a result of increased interconnectedness arising from globalisation, according to recent National Security Strategies published in 2008 and 2010. No longer are British interests at home and abroad considered to be under threat from one particular state, but rather from a complex web of threats said to include: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflict and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime. Successive Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democratic governments have pledged not only to develop a resilient security architecture designed to identify and mitigate against the effects of these threats. One of their key objectives has also been to reassure the British public, to heighten collective levels of security among the population, and to reduce subjective feelings of being "threatened". Yet, despite a tripling of the security budget since 2001 to just over £3.5 billion by 2011, little is known about public attitudes towards security threats, what sorts of issues ordinary people find threatening, whether they agree with -- or indeed are aware of -- governments' attempts to make them feel more "secure", and whether these attempts have any impact. This lack of information about public perceptions of security threats in Britain is made all the more serious in view of the need for reductions in the fiscal deficit and tough decisions about public spending in all areas of government including National Security.

The aim of our project, therefore, is to address this gap by launching an innovative and timely pilot investigation into a) how members of the public understand the related concepts of "threat" and "security", b) what they consider to be the most pressing threats to their security in contemporary political life, c) how and whether perceived threats to security influence other political attitudes such as toleranceof outgroups, and d) whether their views coincide or diverge from what the government's National Security Strategy presents as the greatest threats to British security and effective ways to respond to and mitigate them. Our programme of research seeks to gather views from across the main regions of the British Isles, including people of varying lifestage from different socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds. As well as a large-scale survey involving 2000 respondents, we shall conduct "mini groups" of 3-4 respondents in order to obtain views from individuals in-depth but also to examine group interactions. Our results will then be compared and contrasted with elite representations of threat, as found in, inter alia, the National Security Strategies, to build a picture of the congruence between "official" and "everyday" attitudes towards security. In keeping with the present government's 'Big Society' approach, the findings of the study will feed the attitudes and opinions of members of the public into substantive policy debates, such as those pertaining to the 2010 Security Defence and Security Review. We shall achieve this feed-back to key stakeholders through a series of policy papers to be presented at briefings with key organisations and end-users (Cabinet Office, National Security Council, Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism). Additionally, the project will open up new and innovative avenues for future academic research into public perceptions of threat in comparative contexts and cognitive and affective influences on threat definition more generally in the sub-disciplines of security studies and political psychology, respectively.

Planned Impact

In the 2008 National Security Strategy the then Labour government made a commitment to furthering dialogue with, inter alia, the public and academia in order to build a shared understanding of the security threats facing Britain today:

'We encourage interested parties to contribute to the debate on strategy, and will seek to encourage the participation of a much wider circle of expertise in addressing national security issues. [...] We will also look for new opportunities to seek views from members of the public. This strategy marks the next step in a process of engagement designed to ensure that government thinking on national security constantly keeps pace with the rapidly evolving global security environment' (HMSO, 2008: 61).

The subsequent 2010 National Security Strategy reaffirmed this commitment to recognise the contribution of individuals and communities to national security. Such an approach is also reflected in the aims of the coalition government's 'Big Society' agenda, which, indeed, paved the way for the establishment of the new National Security Council.

This project will contribute to the goal of widening public and academic engagement in the formulation and review of British security policy by gathering valuable qualitative and quantitative data about how different groups in the British public understand the concept of security threat, what they consider the greatest security threats to be, and whether or not they are aware of, agree with and/or respond in the intended direction to existing government strategies to deal with those threats.

The findings of the research have the potential to impact on contemporary security policy by providing key government departments and agencies with a more in-depth understanding of threat perception among the British public. Because the study stratifies its respondents in terms of gender, age, region, socio-economic background, and religious beliefs, our results will offer a more nuanced understanding of public perceptions of threat than currently exists.

The data collected and analysed will have particular benefits for key stakeholders in local and central government departments and agencies tasked with the formulation and review of security policy (e.g. Home Office, Cabinet Office, National Security Council), threat analysis and management (e.g. Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Joint-Terrorism Analysis Centre) and public liaison (e.g. Department for Communities and Local Government, Association of Chief Police Officers, National Policing Improvement Agency). Briefings will be held in conjunction with the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House where the main findings of the project will be presented to representatives of the above user-groups. A policy paper will also be launched for wider dissemination.

In addition to these benefits, the project will also engage with various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that represent the interests of certain sectors of society whose perceptions of threat we seek to investigate (e.g. the Muslim Council of Britain, Age Concern). Other NGOs whose work intersects with the politics of threat-management and perception will also benefit from our results (e.g. Liberty, Statewatch, Human Rights Watch). Our findings will be fed to these NGOs via briefing papers and meetings on request.

A website hosted by the Universities of Exeter and Warwick will enable broader public access to the outputs of the research programme. Short presentations given by the PI and Co-I will be recorded and uploaded to our respective University's 'youtube' site. Comment pieces will also be published via the Guardian Online.
Title Film based on qualitative research. 
Description Engagement with Michael Bluett, an independent Audio-Visual artist, arose as a result of discussions held at the 'Security and the Everyday' workshop, University of Warwick, November 2013. These discussions led to the production of a short pilot film designed to communicate some of the findings from our qualitative focus group work. It uses AV techniques to experiment with ways of presenting direct quotations from otherwise marginalised voices in society. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact The film has been viewed 30 times. 
Description Empirical:
• People tend not to think of security threats in national or international terms unless prompted: if elites are to take citizens' views on security threats seriously different starting points are required.
• Individuals identify different kinds of threats at the global, national, community and personal levels. This has implications for government initiatives designed to shape perceptions of security threats.
• Individuals are much more concerned with online banking and cyber-bullying than the National Security Strategy's (NSS)Tier One issue of 'hostile attacks on UK cyber space by other states and large scale cyber crime.' Other priority issues not mentioned in the NSS are financial insecurity and Islamaphobia among Muslims, which illustrates the gulf between 'official' and 'lay' knowledge of threat.
• Perceptions of more security threats tend to increase hostility towards immigrants and minorities, but perceptions of more global threats do not.
• Awareness of government messages about security threats is low and does not lessen perceptions of threats.
• Despite the 2010 NSS' commitment to building a 'much closer relationship with the public' minority groups feel powerless in the formulation of national security policy. This is potentially significant ahead of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

• The mixed methods research design we used provides a new paradigm for future projects on security threats and other related issues.
• This is the first project that has examined perceptions of the breadth of security threats as well as of perceptions of specific threats such as terrorism and immigration.

• The theories developed in our articles and forthcoming book are likely to influence future theoretical progress in the field.
• The qualitative work we conducted explores what is at stake in attempting to understand the contemporary politics of threat and insecurity from the perspective of ordinary citizens rather than elites.
• The quantitative work we conducted theorizes a range of different threats, their origins and effects.
Exploitation Route Non academic: Our findings could be used by policy makers as they consider the next National Security Strategy and how to work and communicate with the public as it is developed. They might also influence the ways in which politicians frame threats because framing a threat as 'global' often has different effects from framing the same threat at 'national.'
Academic: Other researchers may well replicate and extend our work using the data we have deposited with UKDS. But the findings might also be taken forward with additional multi-country research on these themes and/or additional research in the UK to examine whether they hold up three years on.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description Policy debates on EU border security: We presented the implications of the research for understanding contemporary attitudes towards airport border controls at the 2nd Global Automated Border Control Conference, hosted by Frontex and the EU Commission in Warsaw. Conventionally key stakeholders in EU border security have paid little attention to the differential effects of new security technologies on different groups - particularly minorities - within the travelling public. Our proposal went through a rigorous and competitive peer-review process before being accepted. A summary of our evidence was published in the final conference programme report. Media and civil society groups: An initial press release summarising our key findings attracted attention from several civil society groups representing Muslim communities. In particular, they were interested in our finding that terrorism is not considered to be one of the main security threats facing the British public at the community or personal levels, because the communities they represent often feel victimised as a result of latent forms of Islamaphobia being connected with the contemporary terrorist threat. Publication of an article from your research in the British Journal of Political Science also resulted in our being invited to write a short piece for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage, which appeared in January 2016. Public engagement: Focus groups allow participants to express views that might not be otherwise heard and in this context they are recognised as a mechanism not only for empowering individuals, but also for new possibilities in democratising research and public engagement in policy-making. Engaging with our programme of research offered an alternative forum for members of minority groups who often feel that they are unfairly targeted by a culture of suspicion and surveillance in public spaces yet unable to voice their concerns.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Societal

Description Citation in openDemocracy report
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Description Evidence submitted to UK Joint Committee on National Security Strategy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Title Focus group transcripts 
Description 20 transcripts from focus groups conducted by TNS/BMRB as part of the project from April-September 2012. Deposited with UKDS. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The UKDS does not provide details of download statistics. To our knowledge, the data have not yet been used in other published research. We have received inquiries from other researchers at Harvard University and the University of Queensland who are interested in conducting similar projects. 
Title Survey data deposited at UKDS 
Description Survey data from ICM online panel conducted in June 2012 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The UKDS does not provide details of download statistics. To our knowledge, the data have not yet been used in other published research. We have received inquiries from other researchers at Harvard University and the University of Queensland who are interested in conducting similar projects. 
Description Media interest 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Media attention to the results of our research including:
The Sunday Politics South West (Stevens on 11/11/12), Free Radio Birmingham (Vaughan-Williams on 29/11/12). Additional coverage in newspapers such as Muslim News.,, and
The Guardian (5/2/15).

Requests such as Sunday Politics South West led to interest from other media outlets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2015
Description Monkey Cage blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The British Journal of Political Science asked us to write a blog post for the Monkey Cage to coincide with publication of our article, 'Citizens and Security Threats: Issues, Perceptions, and Consequences Beyond the National Frame.' The blog also allowed free access to the article until June 2016. The Altmetric statistics for activity around the article (e.g., Tweets and blogs) put it in the top 5% of research outputs for its age.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Position paper for 'Strategizing British Foreign Policy' conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We were invited to present a paper at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office conference on 'Strategizing British Foreign Policy'. The event wasesigned to be in the form of an academic-Whitehall brainstorming session. Our paper was part of panel on the links between public opinion and foreign policy in Britain.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Stakeholder conference (Frontex) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We presented a poster, which prompted questions and discussion from interested participants, including policy-makers and industry representatives, such as the Director of Schengen, the Sales Director of Safran Morpho, the Director of Research and Development, Frontex, and colleagues at the Centre for Irish and European Security.

A summary of our evidence was published in the final conference programme, available on-line at:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013