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New ESRC-funded project on post-referendum changes

Staff from Social Policy have been funded to run a research project into assessing how masses and elites differ in their attitudes towards the constitutional change process following the referendum on Scottish independence and ahead of the next general elections.


Public and elite engagement with how the UK is governed

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

Jan Eichhorn (Co-I), Daniel Kenealy (Co-I), Richard Parry (Co-I), Lindsay Paterson (PI)


We have been funded by the ESRC under its Urgent Grant Scheme to conduct research into the process of constitutional change following the Scottish independence referendum and leading to the 2015 Westminster elections. Our aim is to systematically explore not simply what constitutional options different parts of the population favour, but rather to deepen our understanding of how citizens engage with this process of heightened political debate and whether they feel that their concerns are accurately reflected in debate. Our approach will therefore engage with both mass and elite attitudes to the constitutional change process to identify similarities and divergences and to establish which population groups may be best and worst represented by elite attitudes and the results of the process.

The research will involve two coordinated sets of data collection. The first entails elite interviews with political decision makers, civil servants and political campaigners who shape public debate, establishing their aims for constitutional change. The second entails a representative survey of c.7500 respondents from across the UK - 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 considered important by most people.

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 influence the formulation of 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. In particular, the potential contrasts between Scotland, with its recent experience of very high levels of public engagement in the referendum debate, and the rest of the UK will be examined. 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 the decision had been taken to allow 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.

We will run a set of dissemination events in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast prior to the May 2015 election in which we will engage elites with representatives of certain sections of the public for whom we find the greatest gaps between elite and mass attitudes.

You can find an overview of our dissemination events in March 2015 which will take place in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast betwee 18 and 26 March and links to the registration sites here: http://www.socialpolicy.ed.ac.uk/news/2015/events_on_westminster_election_research