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How Much ‘Diffuse Support’ does the National Assembly for Wales Enjoy?

 

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Blog, across various posts, exploring public attitudes to devolution. Although the Blog is entitled Elections in Wales, I think this attention to devolution is justifiable, for several reasons:

  • First, as indicated when the Blog was founded, I define its remit to include not just elections but also broader issues of political representation in Wales
  • Second, the nature of the devolution settlement in Wales does, to at least some extent, shape what elections here are about and what is at stake
  • Finally, for at least some voters, devolution itself may be an issue shaping how they vote in some elections.

As we have discussed, there are a number of ways of trying to assess public attitudes. There are a variety of ‘constitutional preference’ questions; questions asking people whether particular policy issues should be devolved; questions asking people about both their perceptions of how far devolution has gone and how far they would like it to go; and questions about the policy record of the Welsh government.(I have discussed many of these in previous Blog Posts). However, in this and a following post, I’d like to explore aspects of public attitudes that have received less attention thus far.

In this post, I’d like to discuss findings from a question used in the 2011 Welsh Referendum Study (WRS) which sought to probe further into the public legitimacy of the National Assembly for Wales. This question self-consciously borrowed (I know, because I wrote it) from academic literature developed mainly in the USA that has sought to investigate the degree of ‘diffuse support’ that different political institutions enjoy.

The idea of diffuse support is generally attributed to the political scientist David Easton, who sought to distinguish between ‘diffuse’ and ‘specific’ support. Specific support concerns the immediate approval or current popularity of particular actions, policies or office-holders. Diffuse support is something different: it concerns a deeply-rooted loyalty to particular institutions or towards an entire political system. Scholars interested in researching this therefore try to distinguish it from immediate approval; to probe the degree to which “[c]itizens may disagree with what an institution does but nevertheless continue to concede its authority as a political decision maker” (Caldeira and Gibson 1995: 357).

To investigate this, the 2011 WRS adapted a survey question used by much previous empirical research in the USA on diffuse support. The question tries to separate specific from diffuse support by putting survey respondents in a hypothetical context in which specific support for an institution would necessarily be low. The Welsh version of this question asked WRS respondents to indicate their extent of agreement or disagreement with the following statement:

 ‘If the National Assembly for Wales started making lots of decisions that most people disagreed with, it might be better to do away with the National Assembly for Wales altogether.’

This question probes the essence of diffuse support for an institution: does you support its continued existence even while opposing its current actions?

To help contextualise the extent of diffuse support for the Assembly revealed by responses to this question – how much diffuse support is a lot? – respondents were also asked equivalent questions about their local authority, the UK Parliament, and the European Union. The table below presents the responses obtained.

 

‘If [X] started making lots of decisions that most people disagreed with, it might be better to do away with the [X] altogether’

 

Strongly Agree / Agree

Neither / Don’t Know

Strongly Disagree /

Disagree

My local council

36

29

35

National  Assembly for Wales

41

30

29

UK Parliament at Westminster

21

31

48

European Union

55

24

20

Number of respondents = 3029; Source: 2011 Welsh Referendum Study (pre-referendum wave)

The results suggest that diffuse support for the National Assembly is, unsurprisingly, much greater than for the European Union. More interestingly, however, it is rather weaker than for either local councils or the UK Parliament. Nearly half of WRS respondents disagreed with the notion that the UK Parliament should be ‘done away with’ if it were making lots of unpopular decisions; more than a third offered a similar viewpoint with regard to their local council. This compares with somewhat under a third for the Assembly, and only one-in-five for the EU. By contrast, slightly over two-in-five agreed with doing away with the Assembly in the event of it making numerous unpopular decisions, double the proportion believing that about the UK Parliament.

These results suggest that public support for the NAW is still rather conditional in nature. While lots of other evidence has shown that there is substantial support for the Assembly to exist, and to exercise a significant role in the government of Wales, in the event of the Assembly becoming associated with unpopular actions many Welsh people seem to find it quite possible to imagine life without it.

These findings, it should be noted, came from a survey (conducted shortly before the 2011 referendum) in which other measures of attitudes to devolution and the Assembly were generally positive. Despite this, the findings here suggest that the status of the institution may remain somewhat vulnerable. While in many respects quite favourable towards the Assembly, many people also seemed to find it very possible to imagine life in Wales without the body if it manifestly failed to ‘deliver the goods’. For a significant proportion of the Welsh people, it seems, the NAW is an optional feature of how they are governed, rather than a fundamental, non-negotiable one.

Read alongside other recent findings about poor perceptions of the record of devolved government, these findings make, I think, somewhat troubling reading for supporters of substantial devolution for Wales.

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