We are constantly being told about threats to our national security but what is it that makes ordinary people in the UK feel most insecure? Judith Eversley reports on the findings of her local group’s efforts to gauge perceptions of human security in Bath and North East Somerset.
In 2020, UK Government undertook its Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review, publishing its results in March 2021. The remit was narrow, and aspects of security other than military ‘defence’ and ‘deterrence’ pushed to the periphery of the published report. Rethinking Security’s Alternative Security Review, by contrast, is a continuing nation-wide conversation about the meaning of the word ‘security’ as applied to the human race and to the planet.
In Bath & North East Somerset, a local group of supporters of Rethinking Security has long been considering how to have conversations about security that encompass more than national strength defined by arms or military alliances. If we want to talk to people about security, we reasoned, we must know first what makes people feel insecure. This approach fits neatly – we hope – into the inclusive approach of the Alternative Security Review.
We conducted an indicative survey among organisations and networks in our area, hoping to tease out some of the real issues that make up ‘security’: is it the kind of security covered in the Government’s Review, based on weaponry and military alliances, or something broader? With a small grant from Rethinking Security to pay for commercial survey software (thanks, RS!), we put together thirty questions on topics about which our survey respondents might worry or might feel insecure.
We asked how worried they were about thirty topics, including:
- Domestic violence
- Water quality
- Attack or invasion by another country
- The UK becoming involved in a war by virtue of its NATO membership
- Poverty and inequality
- Precarious housing or employment
- Family health, or access to social care
- Impact of new technologies on privacy
- Ordinary people’s (in)ability to influence political decision-making
- A new pandemic
- A UK intervention in a war in another part of the world
We began to circulate the pilot survey in September 2021, sending it to voluntary organisations, campaigning bodies, churches and schools. A letter in the local paper in late January 2022 directing readers to the online survey elicited a handful of responses from a wider community, for which we were grateful. The survey closed in early April 2022, by which time we had received 110 responses.
For each of the thirty topics, we asked respondents:
Please tell us on a scale of 0–3 (where zero is NOT AT ALL and 3 is A LOT), to what extent each of the following issues threatens the present or future security of yourself or other people.
The ten topics that worried them most were:
- Accelerating climate change/ecological breakdown (1st)
- Discrimination based on race, appearance, beliefs or disability (joint 2nd)
- An unequal society in which there is a wide gap between rich and poor (joint 2nd)
- Local pollution (e.g. poor air quality or contaminated water) (joint 2nd)
- Unemployment / uncertain employment (joint 5th)
- Being precariously housed or homeless (joint 5th)
- Not having access to health care (physical or mental) or social care (joint 5th)
- Serious poverty (8th)
- Not having access to mental health support when it is needed (joint 9th)
- The inability of ordinary people to influence political decision-making (joint 9th)
On the climate and ecological crisis issue, the percentage of respondents who worry A LOT was over 75% as shown here. It was the single largest source of insecurity of all thirty topics.
At the other end of the scale, most people were NOT AT ALL worried, or A LITTLE about the UK being “attacked or invaded by another country” – it was of little or no concern to 81%.
However, 63 out of our 110 respondents did worry QUITE A BIT or A LOT about the UK becoming involved in a war through its alliances with other countries.
After the thirty topic questions, Q31 asked for “whether there are other major factors that make you or people you care about feel insecure”. This allowed an open-ended response – no hints or prompts, no word limit. Not everyone took the opportunity to write something but among other insecurities that were noted were:
- Incompetence/untrustworthiness in government
- Increasing energy costs
- Gender-based violence
- Loss of community
Observations, queries and caveats
The results have been helpful to our local group both in clarifying our thoughts and providing a basis for outreach. We were astonished and encouraged to find that out of the 110 who clicked on the link to open the online survey, not one abandoned it mid-way, and few skipped any questions. Many responded helpfully to the open-ended question towards the end where respondents contributed their own ideas of key issues in human security.
In the process we have exposed issues of legitimacy and rigour that were always in the back of our minds – but we could not test our ideas without conducting a real survey. In this blog, I highlight observations from some of the key topics.
The main take-away from this exercise for me has been the selection of the thirty topics – a process that took weeks – then picking up additional issues from free-text responses. I believe that this supplies a jumping-off point for focus groups and face-to-face interviewing that we hope to follow up.
There were obvious limitations: it was online only, so we excluded anyone with no or limited access to a screen. A wider, longer exercise would have included paper questionnaires and face-to-face interviews.
Anyone who took the survey has evidently had time to click on a link and open it up and ten minutes to complete it, sometimes commenting at the end.
There was always a risk that circulating the link to our own networks – even when we asked for it to be passed on – would mean that the survey stayed too close to our own ‘bubble.’ So we are not under the illusion that our results constitute a representative sample of opinions in our region.
We were haunted by the question-setting: the difficulty of asking someone whether they worried about an issue on their own account, or with respect to those close to them, or for society more generally. Someone might be extremely worried about precarious employment if a family member’s employment is on a zero-hours contract but personally they might feel secure in their own employment status.
And then there is the geo-political environment: all but a dozen responses came in before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just before our cut-off date. Would that event have changed responses? We will never know. Even if we could identify our original respondents (which we can’t, since it was anonymous!), it would be tiresome, and some would not bother to complete it a second time.
Similarly, if the survey ran in late summer 2022, there would have to be questions on the impact of sharply rising energy prices and inflation more generally.
Originally we had hoped to conduct the survey as face-to-face interviews, but Covid has made people hesitant about close encounters. In personal conversations we could have asked each question in terms of three ‘constituencies’: self, family/near ones, society. But we ruled that out in an online, self-administered survey as being too demanding: effectively asking thirty questions three times – surely that would try people’s patience!
We have saved the format and are happy to share it so anyone may replicate the survey. It would be interesting to run it in the light of changed preoccupations in the second half of 2022.
A brief final note for those interested in the software for this kind of survey. Before we started, we reviewed free, paid-for and hybrid (“freemium”) options available; SurveyMonkey met our needs best. Time was when its free version would have been enough at least to draft and refine the questions, but it is now too limited: we needed to ask more than eight questions, especially as we wanted to finish with “Is there any topic we have missed?” and “Which groups and activities are you involved in?”. Moreover, within each topic we wanted people to be able to say how secure or insecure they felt say about climate change or assaults on human rights. With the free subscription one cannot specify “On a scale of 0 to 3, please tell us to what extent this topic threatens the present or future security of yourself or other people”. With RS help, we had access to a paid subscription long enough to scope out and run this pilot.
While we know that the results of our local survey don’t give the kind of data that can lay claim to being representative of our local community’s views in the way that Rethinking Security’s much larger national surveys will do later this year, we do believe that they are important in allowing at least parts of the community to openly share their concerns about a wide range of sources of insecurity. Moreover, in the process, we hope we have kick-started a hundred conversations about security and what it really means to ordinary people like us.
Judith Eversley is a retired international economist, active in the local group Rethinking Security in Bath & North East Somerset.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credits: Banner image: Shutterstock. Image within text: Our house is sinking, Installation by Stride Treglown by Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon in Bath, highlighting the severity of the climate emergency (Photo: JT Eversley).