Differences in mass and elite attitudes to the constitutional change process after the Scottish referendum and before the 2015 Westminster elections

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science

Abstract

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that there will be a rapid transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament and fundamental changes to the operation of Westminster. Cameron's establishing of the Smith Commission to consider the former, and tasking William Hague (Leader of the Commons) to consider the latter, were triggered by Scotland's independence referendum. Specifically they build on commitments made by the leaders of the three parties opposed to independence in the closing days of that campaign. Current plans include the UK Government's publication of a Command Paper (published on 13 October) and of draft legislation by 25 January 2015, as well as a possible vote in the House of Commons on the issue of "English votes for English laws" by the end of December.

The timetable is tight. Developments are also taking place in a context where public awareness of constitutional issues has been heightened by the referendum debates. The proposed research would help to ensure both that the process is empirically informed and that public attitudes to these issues are accurately captured and reported.

The research will involve two coordinated sets of data collection. The first entails elite interviews with political decision makers, civil servants and campaigners who shape public debate, establishing their aims for constitutional change. The second entails a representative survey of c.7500 respondents - through an online panel - to establish what the key concerns of the public are with respect to constitutional change.

By combining the two research strands we will identify key differences and similarities between elite and public attitudes. The research will be crucial in helping to overcome the tendency of rapid political processes to be driven by elite decision makers with little space for public engagement. Our research will therefore be used to inform the debate several months in advance of the 2015 Westminster election and to influence the public and media discourse with empirical facts about divergences and similarities between elite framing of the issue of constitutional change and the issues that most people consider important.

In order to compare elite and public attitudes robustly we will first conduct initial elite interviews to identify dominant ideas on constitutional change amongst such actors. These will be used to formulate questions in the mass survey, ensuring that survey respondents will engage with the views of elite interviewees. Subsequently we will do the reverse and present elites, in further interviews, with the findings from the survey to explicitly investigate their responses to differences and similarities between their own attitudes and those of the public.

The survey is designed in such a way as to ensure sufficient data to compare attitudes across the UK. This will allow distinctions to be drawn among attitudes in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the different regions of England. Doing so will allow us to point out how political attitudes in particular areas may differ from others, and also how they may have a different emphasis to the dominant framing of the issue in elite discourse.

We will include a larger sample of 16-17-year-olds to investigate their political attitudes to contribute to the debate on extending the voting franchise. Research in the context of the Scottish independence referendum has shown that young people were very interested to engage in politics after allowing them to vote. We will investigate whether the findings about young people's political interest and engagement can be replicated across the UK and prior to a general election rather than in a special situation such as a referendum. With this information we will be able to make a contribution to the debate about the lowering of the voting age, a move that Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party) and the SNP (amongst others), have signalled their support for.

Planned Impact

This project's urgency lies not only in the need to collect data during the constitutional change process, but also in our core ambition to contribute to the debates preceding the 2015 Westminster election. Specifically we wish to identify gaps and congruence between public and elite ideas, and to bring to the forefront underrepresented views from particular groups of people and regions.

In order to do this we plan a range of activities to maximise the impact of our research:

1. Dialogue-based knowledge exchange events
We will disseminate our research findings as soon as we are able to obtain a significant amount of our data (beginning in February 2015), allowing for several months of intensive engagement with the public debate. Instead of merely running standard academic events to present and discuss our results, we will be integrating partners who our research suggests should be engaged in more extensive dialogue with each other. Where we identify significant gaps between elite and mass attitudes we will invite relevant representatives from both groups that work on the issue in question, or who are representative of groups that are not gaining appropriate levels of access to, or exposure in, the public debate. Beyond merely transmitting and presenting our research findings, these public dissemination events will create settings in which, as a starting point, debate will be stimulated and then taken up by relevant interest groups, media representatives, or decision makers to support further engagement.

2. Intensive media work
Building on the extensive joint experience that the team members have, we will be engaging with online, broadcast and print media outlets to disseminate our research widely. We will use a combination of utilising our own extensive journalist networks across the UK and working together with our university's press office and ESRC support structures to ensure maximum reach. We will begin this process by informing journalists early about the planned activities. We will disseminate research results early in 2015 once they become available and engage journalists further in our knowledge exchange and interaction events throughout the period leading up to the 2015 general election.

One example of our initiative in this regard is the coordination we have begun with David Stenhouse (BBC producer and presenter) and Dave Howard (responsible for several BBC youth politics programmes). Both have expressed a very strong interest in this proposal and both would like to cooperate on using some of our results and expertise for the programmes they are planning throughout the campaign period.

3. Cooperation with external partners
We will actively engage with external organisations relevant to our research focus. We will target organisations that may be able to use our findings to inform their own work, and organisations whose activities and research may be able to inform our work. Such engagement activities would include government (central, devolved and local) where we would offer briefings on the gaps and similarities between elite and public attitudes and discourses. We will also engage with campaigning institutes and organisations, building on the extensive experience all team members have from previous projects and their regular work. For example, we have already engaged in talks with the Electoral Reform Society who would find the research results highly valuable, are keen to contribute to our research design on addressing underrepresented groups and who are willing to contribute to our dissemination events.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description There have been five significant achievements of the research:

(1) It surveyed the views of citizens at a key moment in the process of constitutional change, in the months after the Scottish referendum of 2014 and before the UK general election of 2015. That period would have been irrecoverable in retrospect, because the outcome of the election inevitably changed perceptions, for example because of the unexpected coming to power of a single-party Conservative government and because of the Scottish National Party's winning of all but three of the Scottish seats. Only timely funding of the kind offered by the ESRC's urgency grant scheme enabled the work to be done in that short window of time.

(2) It captured the views of influential participants in the discussion of constitutional change. As with the survey, this could only be done during the period when these debates were under way, following the tight timetable for the presentation of reform proposals promised during the final days of the referendum campaigning. The capacity to draw on the views of these elite policy makers in the design of the survey questionnaire, and then the opportunity to discuss the results of the survey with some of these same elite opinion-formers, was a consequence of the design of the project, and again was facilitated by the timely availability of the urgency grant.

(3) The survey of 16-17-year-olds has contributed to extensive debate about lowering the voting ages, and built upon previous (ESRC-funded) research on this age group during the Scottish referendum campaign. Both this and that previous research with this age group has almost certainly been a key influence on the Scottish Parliament's decision to lower the voting age for the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016, and on the UK government's agreement to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to do so in advance of the wider range of new constitutional powers that will be transferred over the next few years.

(4) The inclusion of questions in the interviews and in the survey on devolution of power to the regions of England anticipated important political developments in that respect, with the UK Government's 'northern powerhouse' proposals and responses from other political parties. The research enabled us to contributed evidence to these debates in a very timely way.

(5) Likewise, our research questions on proposals for reform of the role of MPs at Westminster (often referred to in public debate as 'English votes for English laws') has enabled us to contribute impartial evidence on public opinion relevant to these controversial topics.

(6) The study gave insight into public and elite views in all the constituent parts of the UK. Views in Wales and Northern Ireland about the constitutional change process are often overlooked in current debates, and the evidence reported here allows these to be taken into account in developing an understanding of the ways in which the UK as a whole might be developing.

It is thus expected that the research will continue to contribute to debates about the UK constitution, not only in relation to the governing systems of Scotland and of the English regions, but also in connection with developments in all parts of the UK and in connection with the forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU.
Exploitation Route The likely future impact is indicated in the summary of findings in the first box above: it is most likely that the continuing impact will be an extension of the impact which has happened already. One path forward has already won funding from the ESRC, led by Dr Eichhorn - survey research on the views of citizens in several EU countries of the UK's role in the EU and of the debate in the UK in connection with the forthcoming referendum.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/news/last_3_months6/presentations_and_briefings_from_new_research
 
Description The whole project was designed with a view to achieving impact: that was the very reason to apply for an urgency grant, for which impact would tend to come first and academic writing later. Thus the Key Findings (elsewhere on this reporting page) are all about impact. The impact may be divided into two phases: (1) Our initial public briefings in late March and early April 2015 captured a moment in the very fluid current debate about UK constitutional change. As noted elsewhere in this reporting page, we held public seminars (and issued summary briefings of various aspects of the research) in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast, and attracted significant news-media coverage and public discussion arising from each. Well before the 2015 election, but also well after the 2014 Scottish referendum, the research showed that people in Scotland continued to be closely engaged with debates about how the UK is governed. The main difference between Scotland and the other parts of the UK was the extent of that interest, and also the extent to which these debates were political. In that sense, the legacy of the referendum in Scotland persists, and at that stage already indicated one likely effect throughout the UK of the then forthcoming referendum debate about the UK membership of the EU. The different result of that referendum in Scotland compared to England and Wales perhaps also reflected this longer-term legacy of participation in the 2014 independence referendum. (2) The slightly later impact was through being invited to give evidence relating to constitutional change, for example on English Votes for English Laws to the UK Parliament, and on reducing the voting age to the Scottish Parliament. (3) Since the end of the grant period, we have concentrated on writing from the project. We have been successful in securing a contract with Palgrave for a synoptic book based on the project that is scheduled for publication late in 2016 (with manuscript submitted in September). The book is aimed at a general audience, and thus is likely to have significant public impact. It will have chapters on: a general introduction to the debate about the constitution, public attitudes to constitutional change, the policy debate in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum (embodied especially in the Smith Commission), the 'English Question' - both for England as a whole and for its regions, votes at age 16 (which are now in place for all Scottish elections), and the future of the UK constitution. Although the project was completed well before the EU referendum in 2016, we will reflect in that final chapter on the implications of the results of the EU referendum for public attitudes to the UK governing system. Because of the different outcome of the referendum in Scotland compared to England and Wales, and because the Scottish National Party won a third term in government in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, it may be that one such implication will be a second referendum on Scottish independence. The timeliness of our project will allow us to contribute to the debate about the likely impact of any such future referendum.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Citation in Scottish Parliament Further Powers Committee Report
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact Regarding public attitudes: The reduced voting age in Scotland has been developed with extensive reference to our evidence based on our unique research insights from representative data on 16-17 year olds. Now public opinion in Scotland has changed and it is the only part of the UK where at least a plurality of people favours the reduction of the voting age. The evidence was cited extensively and has been taken up by several political parties, MSPs as well as interest groups who cited our evidence in their own submissions to the Further Powers Committee of the Scottish Government and in citing our research advocate a reduction of the voting age and a change in civic education and classroom political discussions in school.
URL http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/89684.aspx#a26
 
Description Citation of research on 16-17 year olds in UK House of Commons debates
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/business-papers/commons/early-day-motions/edm-detail1...
 
Description Article for the New Statesman online 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact There was discussion about the article on comments forums as well as social media (such as Twitter)

Further journalists contacted the authors (Dan Kenealy and Jan Eichhorn to ask about the research)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/03/ed-milibands-constitutional-proposals-are-more-popular-...
 
Description Article on Manchester Devolution for New Statesman 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Discussion created on social media outlets

Further requests for information
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/06/there-are-big-questions-answer-manchesters-new-mayor
 
Description Event on 16-year old voting and civic education 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We had several members of the Scottish Parliament in attendance and discussed the role of civic education in political participation of young people and had in particular educational spokespeople of the parties engage with the policy issues around civic education provisions.

Further requests for information and evidence from political and professional actors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/175567/Presentation_Voting_at_16,_what_next.pdf
 
Description LSE Public Policy blog contribution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Discussion sparked

Requests for further information/written pieces
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-people-think-its-good-to-talk-about-how-were-governed/
 
Description Presentation of findings and open discussion about research results in Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event created awareness of findings and resulted in invitations to further talks in other contexts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/172006/EDINBURGH_presentation.pdf
 
Description Presentation of findings from project in London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Further information requests and participation invitations
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/172007/LONDON_presentation.pdf
 
Description Presentation of research findings and discussion in Cardiff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Requests for further information

Ideas for future collaborations on research developed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/172008/CARDIFF_presentation.pdf
 
Description Presentation on results and subsequent discussion in Belfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Further discussions with researchers in Northern Ireland

Ideas for further collaboration
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.aog.ed.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/172009/BELFAST_presentation.pdf