'Moral case for Iraq war' key to initial public support - research

09/03/04

Public support for the war in Iraq was strongest among those who felt that Britain had a moral case for taking part. But opposition was greatest where people felt the war would inflict long-term damage on Britain's interests.

These are among the findings of a detailed new study into attitudes towards democracy and participation in modern Britain, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Democracy and Participation programme.

The study found that there was also particularly strong support for the war among those who had a positive view of Tony Blair or who identified themselves as Conservative supporters.

"We found that nearly two thirds of the variation in the British public's approval or disapproval of the war in Iraq could be explained by three factors," explains Prof Paul Whiteley, from the University of Essex, who led the research. "These were a rational analysis of British interests, a moral judgement and their own political identity.

"The strongest of these factors seems to have been the moral one people were far more likely to support the war where they believed Britain had a moral case for participation. But opposition was strongest among those who felt the war would harm British interests.

"This dynamic may explain why support for Tony Blair and the war was initially boosted after the successful removal of Saddam Hussein, but that support has fallen during 2003 and 2004, when both the moral case and British interests are increasingly perceived to be challenged by the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the deteriorating security situation in post-war Iraq."

The research also finds that voters' economic perceptions play a crucial role in their attitudes towards protest and their participation in democracy. "The more positively that people see their economic circumstances, the less likely they are to engage in protest," says Prof Whiteley.

"Conversely, the more negative they feel about the economy, the lower their levels of democratic satisfaction, and the more likely they are to protest."

However, a 'copycat effect' may increase the likelihood of protest in the short-term: people are influenced by large scale protest that succeeds in capturing the public imagination. Both the September 2000 fuel protest and the Countryside Alliance protests of September 2002 temporarily raised the public willingness to protest.

"The fuel and Countryside Alliance protests both temporarily raised the potential of the British public to engage in protest," says Prof Whiteley. "But this was a very short lived effect, and it rapidly wore off."

Moreover, by monitoring public attitudes to protest between 2000 and 2002, the researchers found that people are less willing to protest in the lead up to a general election, at a time when their declared willingness to vote rises.

"This suggests that even a general election with a turnout as low as that in 2001 does help to legitimise the political system," says Prof Whiteley. "Not only does it reduce the pressures that stimulate protests, it also helps to refresh public satisfaction with the democratic process.

The researchers analysed the various factors that led people to engage in political protest. They concluded that there was no single factor at work, but that people were encouraged to protest through a combination of circumstances.

These were a sense of injustice, levels of education and political awareness, levels of involvement in workplace or voluntary organisations, community engagement and a calculation of the likely benefits to themselves and others of their involvement.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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