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Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain: Security in an Age of Austerity

31 March 2012 - 30 March 2013

PI/s in Exeter: Professor Dan Stevens

Research partners: Dr Nicholas Vaughan-Williams (University of Warwick)

Funding awarded: £ 65,452

Sponsor(s): Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

About the research

The international political landscape in which Britain operates has been transformed dramatically since the Cold War as a result of increased interconnectedness arising from globalisation, according to recent National Security Strategies published in 2008 and 2010. No longer are British interests at home and abroad considered to be under threat from one particular state, but rather from a complex web of threats said to include: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflict and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime. Successive Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democratic governments have pledged not only to develop a resilient security architecture designed to identify and mitigate against the effects of these threats. One of their key objectives has also been to reassure the British public, to heighten collective levels of security among the population, and to reduce subjective feelings of being "threatened". Yet, despite a tripling of the security budget since 2001 to just over £3.5 billion by 2011, little is known about public attitudes towards security threats, what sorts of issues ordinary people find threatening, whether they agree with -- or indeed are aware of -- governments' attempts to make them feel more "secure", and whether these attempts have any impact. This lack of information about public perceptions of security threats in Britain is made all the more serious in view of the need for reductions in the fiscal deficit and tough decisions about public spending in all areas of government including National Security.

The aim of our project, therefore, is to address this gap by launching an innovative and timely pilot investigation into a) how members of the public understand the related concepts of "threat" and "security", b) what they consider to be the most pressing threats to their security in contemporary political life, c) how and whether perceived threats to security influence other political attitudes such as tolerance of outgroups, and d) whether their views coincide or diverge from what the government's National Security Strategy presents as the greatest threats to British security and effective ways to respond to and mitigate them. Our programme of research seeks to gather views from across the main regions of the British Isles, including people of varying lifestage from different socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds. As well as a large-scale survey involving 2000 respondents, we shall conduct "mini groups" of 3-4 respondents in order to obtain views from individuals in-depth but also to examine group interactions. Our results will then be compared and contrasted with elite representations of threat, as found in, inter alia, the National Security Strategies, to build a picture of the congruence between "official" and "everyday" attitudes towards security. In keeping with the present government's 'Big Society' approach, the findings of the study will feed the attitudes and opinions of members of the public into substantive policy debates, such as those pertaining to the 2010 Security Defence and Security Review. We shall achieve this feed-back to key stakeholders through a series of policy papers to be presented at briefings with key organisations and end-users (Cabinet Office, National Security Council, Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism). Additionally, the project will open up new and innovative avenues for future academic research into public perceptions of threat in comparative contexts and cognitive and affective influences on threat definition more generally in the sub-disciplines of security studies and political psychology, respectively.

Economic and Social Research Council