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Public response and constitutional significance

By Patrick Dunleavy, Stuart Weir and Gita Subrahmanyam

Abstract

The unprecedented growth of public disquiet about sleaze in contemporary Britain can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Defenders of the status quo point to the relatively sudden and distinctive emergence of the sleaze issue as a concept in public debate, arguing that it is only (or primarily) a mass media creation, a spasm or temporary moral panic in which a small number of problems are overdramatized and ascribed implausible levels of significance. For this school of thought, sleaze is a minor issue or a non-issue for most of the public, and its sudden prominence has no lasting constitutional significance beyond perhaps triggering a few, incremental safeguards of the kind recommended in the first Nolan Committee report. By contrast, more critical voices suggest that the ‘sleaze’ furore is indicative of a substantial and recurring problem within the British polity, left unresolved by previous periods of reform, and now eliciting strong calls for fundamental constitutional change from the majority of citizens. In the past, the difficulties in deciding between these two views have been considerable for a number of reasons. First, it was hard to say anything very objective about the media’s behaviour. Second, the available survey information about public opinion on these issues was fragmentary and often seriously defective in terms of the questions asked or the methods used. Against a background where media influences and public attitudes could only be rather impressionistically described, it was much harder to determine the significance of problems with established institutional rules. Here we remedy these difficulties using two new data sources—information derived from a systematic analysis of mass media behaviour on the sleaze issue, discussed in our first section; and data from the comprehensive survey of public attitudes to constitutional reform questions contained in the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust’s State of the Nation surveys in 1991 and 1995, discussed in the second section. The conclusions show how these findings put the current sleaze furore into a different perspective. The media’s impact in creating an integrated issue is acknowledged. But the public’s response to the disparate concerns included in the overall issue reflects longer term and fundamental problems in traditional constitutional arrangements and with the dominant ‘self-regulation’ ethos of Britain’s governing elites

Topics: JN101 Great Britain
Publisher: Hansard Society
Year: 1995
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.lse.ac.uk:29115
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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