Is British democracy facing a legitimacy crisis? It depends what you ask.

By Daniel Devine and Viktor Valgardsson


One of the biggest and most debated questions in political science is whether there is a legitimacy crisis. Seminal, widely-cited texts explore the causes and consequences of this apparent crisis, but there is still little agreement on whether there even is a crisis of legitimacy. [1]


Such a question should, on first blush, be relatively easy to answer: just collect the responses to surveys and graph the averages over time. And still, there is little agreement over whether there is any decline in perceived legitimacy. What if this is perfectly reasonable: what if the data are actually showing you different answers, despite using essentially the same survey items?


Perceptions of democratic legitimacy are usually measured through surveys, primarily using questions measuring items such as ‘satisfaction with democracy’ or ‘trust in parliament’. These ask the respondent, in various ways, to rate how satisfied they are with how democracy works in their country or how much they trust their country’s various political institutions, especially their parliament. Respondents are usually given either a binary or four/five-category response scales, such as ‘trust or do not trust’ or ‘very, fairly, not very, or not at all satisfied’. Almost all existing research on citizens’ attitudes towards their domestic system is measured like this.


In this post, we compare two highly respected, high quality, and regularly used surveys that use almost identical survey items to measure democratic satisfaction, a common indicator for democratic legitimacy. We show how the surveys show not only provide different absolute levels, but contradictory trends in democratic satisfaction in Britain. We also show how the likely source is a rather innocuous change in wording.


The surveys 

We use the British Election Study (BES) 1997-2017 and the Eurobarometer (EB) 1973-2017. The BES is fielded after every election, whilst the Eurobarometer is fielded every 6 months and within some ad hoc surveys (the ‘special Eurobarometers’). Each BES wave contains a sample size of approximately 3000, and the EB sample size is approximately 1000 per wave. Both surveys are restricted to England, Scotland and Wales.


Whilst the BES has six waves (years), coinciding with British general elections, the EB runs almost every year from 1973, excluding 1974, 1975, 1996 and 2008. Although there are often multiple waves in each year, we aggregate the responses according to year.


The survey items for democratic satisfaction are presented below and are very similar, particularly in the 1997 BES. Logically, these are identical survey questions and responses. Both the EB and BES are asking whether the respondent is satisfied with the way democracy works in Britain on a scale of 1-4. The main difference is that, in BES 2001-2017, the response is ‘a little/very dissatisfied’ rather than ‘not very/not at all’ satisfied.


Survey Question wording Response Categories
BES 1997 On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Britain? Are you … 1. Satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. not very satisfied;

4. or not at all satisfied?

BES 2001-2017 On the whole, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way that democracy works in this country? 1. Very satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. a little dissatisfied;

4. or very dissatisfied?

Eurobarometer 1973-2017 On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in Britain? 1. very satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. not very satisfied;

4. or not at all satisfied?


Is there a legitimacy crisis in Britain?

How do these look over time? For simplicity, we collapse them into binary indicators, where 1 equals ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied, and 0 equals dissatisfied/not very or not at all satisfied. The trends are the same with the original response categories. We then plot the percentage of respondents satisfied within a given year.


The two graphs lead to the opposite conclusion. If one were to rely on the BES data, one would indeed find a relatively slow, linear decline in democratic satisfaction. On the other hand, using the Eurobarometer data, one would conclude that there’s been the opposite trend: increasing satisfaction with the way democracy works in Britain.



It may, however, be misleading since the Eurobarometer is asked so regularly relative to the BES. So, we create mean averages for each year in line with the BES. Even in the year with an essentially identical question and identical response categories (1997), there is a 13-percentage point difference in the absolute levels of democratic satisfaction. This may be down to when the BES is asked – just after an election, and a particularly emphatic one in 1997. More worrying, however, is the continuing divergence in the trends.


Year Mean (BES) Mean (EB)
1997 0.74 0.61
2001 0.66 0.61
2005 0.7 0.62
2010 0.62 0.64
2015 0.58 0.65
2017 0.53 0.66


Of course, there are other potential measures for democratic legitimacy that we do not look at here and which could present clearer and more consistent pictures of levels and trends of legitimacy in Britain in recent decades (it seems, for instance, political trust shows a steady downward trend in both). However, satisfaction with democracy is a very commonly used measure of democratic support and legitimacy, and these stark discrepancies between reliable sources that survey nationally representative samples in the same country and across overlapping periods is a serious cause for concern. [2]


Question wording effects

What could this be down to? It’s well known how seemingly innocuous wording changes in surveys (either in the question or response scale) can drastically alter the responses. Given this, the slight discrepancy in questions might offer one reason for the different trends.


Fortunately, the British Election Study 2015 fielded both types of questions, with a self-completion questionnaire complementing the face-to-face interviewing. The self-completion questionnaire contains a question from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems survey which is identical to the Eurobarometer question used above, while the interview includes the original BES question. This provides the best opportunity to take a look at the potential discrepancy in question wording.


The table below provides a tabulation of the two questions, with the (rounded) percentages of respondents falling into the different cells. 40% of those who respond they are a ‘little dissatisfied’ in the BES version of the question answered ‘fairly satisfied’ in the Eurobarometer version. More alarmingly, a full 18% of those who say they are ‘very dissatisfied’ answered either fairly or very satisfied. This becomes starker if, as we do in the above graphs, make the variable binary. Approximately a third (34%) of those who are coded as dissatisfied in the BES version are indeed coded as satisfied in the Eurobarometer version of the question. Overall, whilst the correlation between the two is statistically significant, they are only correlated at 55% – lower than would be expected from questions that are intended to measure an identical attitude.


BES/CSES Very satisfied Fairly satisfied Not very satisfied Not at all satisfied
Very satisfied 45% 45% 6% 4%
Fairly satisfied 9% 73% 15% 2%
A little dissatisfied 2% 40% 43% 15%
Very dissatisfied 3% 15% 37% 45%


Whilst we can’t say for sure, these discrepancies appear to be more than large enough to explain the divergent trends between the two data sets – although can’t explain the large difference in 1997. The question nonetheless remains about why such similar questions, aimed at the same underlying attitude, get significantly different results.


What we do know, however, is that the answer to whether there a growing democratic legitimacy crisis in Britain depends on which data you are looking at. This post shows the importance of using multiple indicators and data sets in this type of research and highlights the caution with which we should interpret any findings using any particular measure of satisfaction with democracy.



Dalton, Russell J. Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Newton, Ken. “Trust and Political Disenchantment.” In Political Trust and Disenchantment with Politics: International Perspectives, edited by Christina Eder, Ingvill C. Mochmann, and Markus Quandt, 19–31. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Norris, Pippa. Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.



Anderson, Christopher J, and Christine a Guillory. “Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy: A Cross-National Analysis of Consensus and Majoritarian Systems.” The American Political Science Review 91, no. 1 (1997): 66–81.

Grönlund, Kimmo, and Maija Setaïa. “Political Trust, Satisfaction and Voter Turnout.” Comparative European Politics 5 (2007): 400–422.

Linde, Jonas, and Joakim Ekman. “Satisfaction with democracy: A note on a frequently used indicator in comparative politics.” European Journal of Political Research 42, no. 3 (May 2003): 391–408.

Quaranta, Mario, and Sergio Martini. “Does the economy really matter for satisfaction with democracy? Longitudinal and cross-country evidence from the European Union.” Electoral Studies 42 (2016): 164–74.


Daniel Devine and Viktor Valgardsson are Ph.D. students at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton. Their doctoral research focuses on voting behaviour and public opinion in Europe.



Does the personalisation of politics have any benefits for democracy?


Democracy in the twenty-first century appears to have reached a fork in the road. On the one hand, over recent decades we have witnessed an explosion in the popularity of democratic norms and values around the globe to the extent that all but two countries label themselves as democracies, which if nothing else indicates how dominant this norm has become. On the other hand, particularly in those states where it is the long-established mode of political decision-making, citizens appear to be deeply disaffected with how democracy is practised. Even putting the election of Donald Trump and the recent Brexit referendum to one side, the long-term trend across Europe and America sees voter turnout declining, political parties struggling to retain members, and professional politicians increasingly despised or deemed untrustworthy. Outside these regions, in new or transitioning democracies, democratization scholars fear that progress has stalled, and that in the absence of strong structural bulwarks against authoritarian rule the triumphant march of democratization may have halted.
The tendency for politics to become dominated by the personalities of its leaders rather than ideology or policy programme is a key theme in this discussion. Most scholars argue it is a rising feature of political life that produces negative effects (see Poguntke & Webb 2005; McAllister 2007; Balmas et al. 2014). In particular, personalization is assumed to negatively affect political representation, because the limited relevance of political ideologies and platforms makes politicians less accountable to their voters. In this view, democracy has arrived at a significant fork in the road. And, worryingly, we don’t appear to know which way to go.

We have been fascinated by these themes because we study very small states (they have population of less than 1 million). As our forthcoming book Democracy in Small States: Persisting Against All Odds shows, personalism is and always has been ubiquitous in societies where citizens and politicians meet and engage with each other on a day-to-day basis. As a result, if personalization is global trend then we have a lot to learn about its effects, negative or otherwise, by studying the way politics works in micro cases. In particular, because small states are, statistically speaking, much more likely to be democratic than large states, personalisation may have unanticipated benefits for the resilience of democratic governance. To explain this resilience, one of the questions we sought to answer in the book is how does domestic politics actually work in small states? And, having established this, does it conform to the negative depiction of personalisation or does the statistical correlation between country size and democratization point to hidden benefits? We studied 39 small states with populations of less than 1 million to answer these questions, conducting over 250 interviews with elite actors in the process. Despite the incredible diversity of these states (they come from five world regions and vary in terms of all the standard variables political scientists use to compare democracies, including levels of economic growth, colonial legacy, institutional design, party system etc.), we found that the practice of politics is remarkably similar. Key characteristics include:
Strong connections between individual leaders and constituents. Rather than being mediated by party systems, in small states voters and politicians have considerable opportunities for direct, personal contact. This tendency is amplified by the overlapping private and professional roles that politicians undertake. Politicians are more than just legislators: they are family or clan members, friends, neighbours, or colleagues.
A limited private sphere. Contemporary democratic politics in large states is characterized by a distinction between public and private, with the institutions that define the former regulating conduct in the latter. In small states, the private sphere is dramatically reduced while the public sphere is expanded beyond the narrow confines of formal institutions. The result is a remarkably transparent political system but also one in which clear lines of accountability are blurred and concern with corruption is magnified.
The limited role of ideology and programmatic policy debate. Leaders are largely elected because of who they are rather than what they stand for. As a result, political contestation focuses on the qualities and characteristics of individual politicians rather than party manifestos. Indeed, a number of Pacific Island states, such as Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia, do not have political parties at all.
Strong political polarization. The absence of ideological difference should theoretically breed consensus but in fact, small state politics is often characterized by extreme polarization. Political competition between personalities is often fiercely antagonistic precisely because they have few ideological differences, and therefore politicians have to focus on personal disagreements to differentiate themselves. In combination with the limited role of parties, this also potentially creates political instability, as political alliances are regularly broken.
The ubiquity of patronage. In small states nobody is faceless. Relatives and friends stick together in more visible and unavoidable ways. This leads to political dynasties and various other types of collusion. It also means that politicians in small states typically experience considerable pressure from constituents, who are often the same relatives and friends, to personally provide material largesse. Failure to do so can lead to electoral defeat. Patronage in the public sector is also common in small states, and public sector appointments are often made on the basis of political loyalties.
The capacity to dominate all aspects of public life. An expanded public sphere and the absence of specialist roles create opportunities for individuals to dominate politics in a manner that is virtually impossible in large states. Pluralism is uncomfortable and dissent is often stifled while dependent constituents can be easily bought off.
Based on these similarities, we argue that hyper-personal politics has both the democracy-stimulating and repressive characteristics. For example, the familiarity between citizens and politicians is often regarded as democracy-enhancing, as it creates better opportunities for political representation and responsiveness. In addition, this closeness can foster political awareness, efficacy, and participation among citizens because political decisions often have a direct impact on their personal lives. Moreover, the close connections between citizens and politicians provide a formidable obstacle to executive domination, as their extensive social connections prevent politicians from resorting to full-blown oppression or violence.
But, it is clear that personalism simultaneously presents obstacles. The relative absence of ideology and the focus on political individuals undermines substantive representation. Patron–client linkages create social and economic dependency and unequal access to public resources and strong polarization and personality clashes can breed political instability and turmoil. Moreover, the opportunities for political leaders to accumulate untrammeled powers without the customary ‘checks and balances’ carries the risk of executive domination or dictatorial politics.
Hyper-personalism, it seems, provides mixed blessings for democratic governance, at least in small states. Certainly, not all of the six characteristics we identify are relevant for large states; the benefits of smallness both exacerbate and offset the consequences of personalism. In which case, the hyper-personal politics of small states might prove to be a better outcome than the combination of limited ideology, polarization, and leader dominance increasingly common to large and wealthy western democracies. Either way, these extreme cases highlight that hyper-personal democracy is both possible and yet very different to the experience of North America and much of Europe. The lesson is that rather than personalization precipitating a crisis of democracy, it presents as a crisis for a particular type of democratic politics common to a handful of large and rich states.

Jack Corbett is Professor of Politics at the University of Southampton.

Wouter Veenendaal is Assistant Professor at Leiden University.

A version of this article was originally published on the OUPblog. The original article is available at this link:

New Book, Shaping Migration between Europe and Latin America: New Perspectives and Challenges, and Upcoming Book Launch on 16 Nov. 2018

A new book, edited by Ana Margheritis, is out. This volume is the result of an international conference organised by Ana at University of London in 2015, featuring top specialists from both regions. The book is entitled Shaping Migration between Europe and Latin America: New Perspectives and Challenges and offers an interdisciplinary and timely examination of changing international migration patterns between Latin America and Europe. It focuses on two world regions historically linked by human mobility and cultural exchange but now responding to significant demographic changes and new migration trends. It examines strategies pursued by state and non-state actors to address the political and policy implications of mobility, and asks to what extent is cross-regional migration effectively managed today, and how could it be improved? Essays provide an integrated and comparative view of the links between the two regions and highlight the formal and informal interstices through which migration journeys are negotiated and shaped.

Publication details and table of context can be found here:

The next book launch will take place at ILAS, University of London on 16 November 2018 (Room G12, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU).