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Matthew Parris

I do not believe last week’s Spectator poll. It’s not what people think

I do not believe last week’s Spectator poll. It’s not what people think

23 August 2006

4:20 PM

23 August 2006

4:20 PM

Crikey, this really will have to be another voice. Has The Spectator taken leave of its senses? I could hardly bring myself to take last week’s edition out of its see-through plastic wrapping when, pictured on the cover, I saw a huge cartoon bulldog being walked on by a Muslim terrorist, and beside it four bald statements in big blue capital letters with a scarlet tick placed against each:

THIS IS WAR
WE ARE LOSING
WE NEED TOUGHER POLICIES
WE WILL BE ATTACKED

and, underneath, ‘The view of the British: exclusive poll’.

To my certain knowledge this is not the view of the British. I understand my countrymen well enough, and they are neither as hawkish as some at The Spectator would like them to be, nor as dovish as I could wish. So far as the view of the British on terrorism can be summarised at all (I thought) that view is doubtful, nervous, and a little sceptical of the certainties and enthusiasms of either side. It followed that those stentorian cover lines must prove a crude distortion of the findings of any self-respecting poll. Anyone on a bus expressing himself in such terms would find fellow-passengers edging away from an obvious nutter. I hardly wanted to read on.

I forced myself. First I read the poll itself. It was immediately apparent that questions had been devised in order to encourage the answers The Spectator wanted to hear; and secondly that, even then, those polled had proved reluctant to give them.


The omission from the detailed table of any figures for the often stubbornly large chunks of ‘don’t knows’ rather gave the game away. Let me give one pregnant little example. Nineteen per cent of respondents had felt unable to choose (as the question tried to force them to) between either the statement ‘The West is in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten our way of life’ or the statement ‘Islamic terrorism is a regional problem that poses no real threat to the West’.

But that second statement is a dummy option. In the face of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, 7/7 and the latest allegations, how many of us are seriously going to say there is no real threat? That more than a quarter of respondents either declined to tick either box, or felt pushed into the absurd statement that terrorism poses no threat to the West, shows how presenting people with a false dichotomy can distort a poll’s results. Of the 73 per cent who (unwilling to say there is no problem for us at all) ticked the ‘world war’ box, how many would themselves have chosen such terms? Why were respondents not permitted to answer ‘neither’ or ‘something in between’? Or offered a third option like ‘the West is plagued by a dangerous ragbag of Islamic fanatics who may not all be in league but who want to undermine our way of life’?

But in his accompanying ‘analysis’, Allister Heath then pounces on that 73 per cent and declares, ‘Almost three quarters of the British public are now convinced [my italics] that we are fighting a new world war against extremist Islamic terrorists.’ A more dispassionate analysis is that, asked to choose between saying that there is a world war and saying that there is no problem for the West, 73 per cent are prepared to assent to the former proposition.

Or take this sneaky question: ‘Passenger profiling is a recent term used to describe the process of selecting passengers on the basis of their background or [my emphasis] appearance. Would you like to see “passenger profiling” introduced?’ Fully 16 per cent declined to say Yes or No to this. Among the reasons must surely be the insertion (as, note, the first of two methods of profiling) of those words ‘their background or’. Forgive me, but this is about airport scanning, isn’t it? Does anyone really think the search operatives at passenger-scanning points are likely to be supplied with information about the ‘background’ of each passenger? Of course not. On the other hand, could anybody seriously object to singling out people on whose backgrounds we did have worrying information? Of course not: about 100 per cent of us must be in favour of that. It’s just that we don’t really think this is what’s under consideration. What’s under consideration, we think, is the singling out of young males of Asian appearance.

Even as (misleadingly) described, only 55 per cent of respondents supported ‘profiling’. I think it doubtful whether a majority could have been found for profiling on appearance alone. Nevertheless Allister Heath in his accompanying commentary managed to spin precisely that implication into the result by remarking that the profiling for which there was a (slim) majority ‘would inevitably mean …singling out’ by appearance. Brilliant. Ask one question; get assent to it; then explain that it ‘inevitably means’ an assent to a different question. Why not ask the different question, then?

I was disturbed by Allister Heath’s analysis. He manages to conclude that on this issue the British public ‘are in the same camp as leading US conservatives such as Eliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz and Newt Gingrich …’, noting, however, that ‘they might not recognise the names’.

The difficulty for this analysis is that the moment the British public are asked if that is indeed the camp they want to be in, they run a mile. By far the most interesting item in this poll was one which, sadly, was not chosen for the cover. Asked if our foreign policy should be closer to the EU, the USA or neither, 14 per cent didn’t know, 27 per cent said ‘neither’, 14 per cent said ‘the USA’ and (to my surprise) 45 per cent said ‘the EU’. Allister Heath’s analysis is that, regrettably, the British public’s choice is not an available option because the EU is incapable of developing robust policies on terrorism. If only the public knew it, he suggests, they would understand that they actually see things as America does, even if (‘unfortunately’) they dislike George W. Bush.

It is instructive how neocons, just like classical Marxists, retreat into the doctrine of the ‘false consciousness’ of the masses in order to square their professed devotion to democracy with the public’s annoying refusal to reach the right conclusions. I hate to see The Spectator worshipping at the shrine of public opinion, not because public opinion doesn’t matter, but because I think this magazine’s interest in it last week was opportunistic. Trumpeting that the mob is with you depends for its potency, first, on whether you really do care what the public thinks and, second, on reading the public mind aright.

That poll read the public wrongly. More important, this magazine doesn’t really — and shouldn’t — care greatly about public opinion. Otherwise we are in danger of embracing a manifesto which has — in a phrase of the great Bruce Anderson — ‘all th
e characteristics of populism, except popularity’. And that would be not only vulgar, but futile.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist for the Times.


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