There has been some too and froing in the Spectator over the YouGov poll a fortnight ago on the War on Terror. Last week Matthew Parris wrote (alas, subscription only) that he didn’t believe the results and raised some questions over the wording and Allister Heath’s original article (also subscription only). This week Allister hits back, defending his interpretation of the poll.

I have always championed the need to look at the actual questions of polls and draw your own conclusions, so in that sense, good on Matthew Parris. On the other hand, having written a blog about opinion polls for the last couple of years, people do have an unfortunate tendency to want to explain away polls that tell them the public think things they’d rather they didn’t.

Allister has defended his own write up of the poll in the Speccy, so what about Parris’s comments on the poll itself? Parris raises specific questions in regards of two of the questions: firstly in regard of whether people think we are at war, and secondly over the use of passenger profiling. To try and get to the bottom of this YouGov have carried out some more detailed questions to try and get a proper idea of exactly what people do think about the war on terror (the full tables are here)

The original YouGov poll for the Spectator asked people to choose between two statements – either “we are in a world war against Islamic terrorists who threaten the West’s way of life” or “Islamic terrorism is a regional problem that holds no real threat to the West”. Parris complains that it is a false dichotomy, and he himself would have preferred to say that while the terrorists were obviously not confined to the Middle East, they were just a ragbag of random extremists, not an organised threat. In hindsight the original question also had two variables within it – are we ‘at war’ and is it a threat? In theory, someone could think we were at war, but that the terrorists did not really threaten our way of life, or that there was a genuine threat, but we weren’t at war.

Therefore YouGov broke the question down into a number of more specific questions. Who exactly did people was behind the terrorist threat – was there an organised terrorist conspiracy, or a semi-organised selection of groups? Do the terrorists genuinely threaten the West’s way of life? What are their motives? Should the government consider us to be at war?

The results largely reflect the earlier findings in the Spectator. Exactly half of the respondents think that Britain is facing an organized terrorist plot with a further 36% of people thinking that there is a plot, but that it is not well-organised, and consists only of a ‘rag-bag’ of individual terrorists and terrorist groups. 8% think there is no plot, just the actions of a few unconnected terrorist groups.

Regardless of how organised it is, a large majority people think that the West is genuinely at threat from Islamic terrorism. 70% think the terrorists do pose a threat to the West’s way of life, with 24% saying they do not pose a serious threat. The majority (54%) also think that the aim of the terrorists is to spread an extremist version of Islam across the globe, rather than simply to right the wrongs they believe have been committed in the Middle East (28%, 9% said they had a different aim, and 9% did not know).

The difference between this and the earlier poll is on whether we are at war. Asked whether “western governments should consider themselves to be at war with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism”, 33% said yes, but 60% said no. This paints an interesting picture of public opinion – half of people think we face an organized plot against us (with the overwhelming majority thinking there is at least a disorganised plot) and the majority of people think that plot poses a genuine threat to the West’s way of life… yet the majority of people do not think it should be considered a war.

To suggest a reason why would be pure speculation – perhaps it is a desire to be away from the frontline, an unwillingness to face the problem, perhaps people do not want to legitimize the terrorists by calling it a war, perhaps people took the word war to have implications of involving increased use of force that they disagreed with, perhaps it is because the rhetoric of ‘war’ against Islamic terrorism has become associated with the deeply unpopular President Bush, perhaps people simply see war as something that happens between states and armies, not terrorist groups. Without further questions we can’t tell.

The second point Parris queried was over passenger profiling. In the Spectator poll passenger profiling was defined as “a process of selecting passengers based on their background or appearance” and 55% of people said they’d like to see it introduced. Parris suggests that ‘background’ shouldn’t have been there, what profiling was really about wasn’t using background information to target passengers, but targeting them based on their appearance.

There was also a YouGov poll in the Telegraph last week which seemed to contradict the poll in the Spectator. In the Telegraph poll the question of passenger profiling was combined with that about the new security measures on planes (e.g. the restrictions on liquids and hand luggage). 8% said the checks should be done away with, 8% said they should apply only to those who the security services have intelligence about, 6% said they should apply only to those of Middle Eastern or Asian origin, but 75% said “all passengers should be subject to new checks: the terrorists can always recruit people who don’t look like terrorists”.

Neither of the earlier questions were perfect. The first question might have made profiling sound too innocuous by talk of ‘background’, the Telegraph question confuses several issues and presents another false dichotomy – either the security checks are applied to everyone equally, or are applied only to people of a certain racial background while entirely ignoring other people – you couldn’t have some extra security for everyone but a lot extra for some people.

YouGov has asked a further question on passenger profiling – this time giving a definition that doesn’t shy away from saying exactly what passenger profiling might mean (“conducting additional security checks on those who match the profile of past terrorists, for example young men of Middle Eastern appearance”), and removing the false dichotomy in the Telegraph question by asking people to chose between using passenger profiling to select all those who receive extra checks, using passenger profiling to select those who receive checks, but also randomly selecting some other people for extra checks and finally rejecting the use of passenger profiling entirely.

These results here were that, as in the Telegraph poll, few people supported the idea of using passenger profiling alone to decide who gets security checked (only 16% of respondents). When passenger profiling was used in conjunction with random checks thought it was supported by 72% of people, with only 9% rejecting passenger profiling entirely. It appears as though bring background into the equation wasn’t what made the difference, people were just as happy to support profiling based purely on appearance. The strong opposition in the Telegraph seems to be people rejecting the idea of ignoring people who don’t match the profile, rather than an outright rejection of profiling by race.

Asked in general whether the government should tone down anti-terrorist laws and “pay more attention to the grievances of the Muslim population in the UK”, maintain the existing anti-terrorist laws or “increase the present anti-terrorism laws, regardless of whether this causes offence to the Muslim population in the UK”, the majority, 55%, of people supported tougher anti-terrorism laws regardless of the effect this had upon the Muslims population with only 12% supporting a more conciliatory approach.

Asked a similar question on foreign policy the answer was less decisive, but still tilted towards an aggressive approach to terrorism – 14% supported Britain’s present foreign policy, 41% supported a more aggressive approach and 32% thought “Britain should pursue a more conciliatory foreign policy and try to lessen the grievances of those who support Islamist terrorism”.

Combining these three polls together we can get quite a detailed view of the nuances of the public’s attitude towards the “war on terror”. Most people think there is a genuine threat to the West, and they expect it to continue and to get worse in the future. Most people think we are threatened by an organised terrorist conspiracy, not just unconnected local groups. There is majority support for harsher anti-terrorism measures at home, and while attitude to foreign policy is more divided and influenced by hostile opinions of President Bush, more people support a more aggressive foreign policy than support a more conciliatory one.

In general the wording of questions can and does make a difference, especially on an issue where people have such nuanced, developed but strongly held views. If you are asking a factual question then it is easy to phrase, but as soon as you get into more complex opinions it becomes almost impossible to come up with a perfect form of wording for a question that no one will raise an issue with, or ponder how it may have been answered if it had been phrased slightly differently. The bottom line is that the more questions we ask, using different wordings and approaching issues from different angles, the better our understanding becomes.

pdf Download full tables HERE.


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