In a major new report for Rethinking Security, Lillah Fearnley explores how public opinion on security is surveyed in the UK, what questions are asked, by whom and of whom, and what policy responses are included and promoted. The following is the Executive Summary of that report, including recommendations for policy-makers, pollsters and media.

Executive Summary

Keeping the nation safe is considered a primary duty of government, so decisions on security policies and the development of national security strategies are highly significant. What is understood by ‘security’ and who represents the ‘nation’ are therefore important questions, determining the focus of policy decisions and scope of strategies. The answers to them effectively set the parameters for the official vision of national security that emerges.

Drawing on 39 commercial public opinion polls and academic surveys carried out in the UK over the past decade, this study examines how public opinions on security issues are surveyed in the UK. It considers what questions are asked, how, and of whom – and what are the implications for the security strategies and policy decisions taken as a result. It goes on to consider what approaches to public opinion surveying would contribute to more open and inclusive security policy and decision-making. 

The purpose is to inform security policy-makers as well as those involved in researching public opinions on security issues. It shines a light on how current approaches to security polling and to national security consultations risk skewing the narrative around security in the UK by limiting the terms of the debate and whose opinion is sought. It offers recommendations for policy-makers and pollsters about how it could be done differently, including in future national security reviews.

UK policy-makers affirm the importance of public support for the country’s national security approach. A common means of gauging public support for a given policy is through large-scale quantitative surveys. These surveys, if based on a representative sample, are generally assumed to provide a neutral and comprehensive reflection of what people think, so they are regarded as reliable indicators of public opinion. Often commissioned by newspapers, opinion polls have high media visibility and are frequently cited by politicians to invoke public support for specific positions or policies.

There is plenty of evidence, however, that opinion polls are not always a reliable guide, particularly when it comes to predicting election results. It is also recognised that polling of public opinions may be manipulated by the state, especially but not exclusively in autocracies. This particularly applies when the stakes are high, for instance, when the state seeks public support for military intervention.[1]

This study illustrates the limitations of opinion polling on security issues carried out in the context of the UK. It shows how it effectively restricts respondents to a narrow view of security and of the options to address it – hence ‘thinking inside the box’. It also highlights the risk that opinion polls can themselves play a significant part in shaping public opinions on security, depending on how they are designed.

The study focuses on public surveys and opinion polling in the UK related to questions of national security. This includes both general perception surveys on security/insecurity and what the government should prioritise, as well as polls on specific security crises and how the government should respond. It also examines how the UK government has sought to incorporate the public’s views in the development of its national security strategies. It considers the impacts of these surveys on policy-making, and how the findings of public opinion research influence political and wider narratives about security. Finally, it recommends approaches that can generate a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of public opinions on security.

Across the various polls and surveys, it analyses how ‘security’ is framed, and what questions are asked – or not asked – of respondents. It considers how underlying assumptions about the nature of security, of threats, and the means by which security is maintained are reflected in the focus and framing of survey questions. It analyses the effect of closed questions where respondents have to select from a predetermined list of response options; and considers whose definition of security, threat and appropriate responses are reflected in these options. It finds that security challenges presented for assessment in closed questions largely echo those prioritised by policy-makers, while threats that disproportionally affect minority and marginalised groups are mostly absent. The evidence suggests, however, that when asked open-ended questions about the top security challenges, the responses of the public diverge significantly from these priorities.

It highlights, for instance, that when UK polls ask for opinions about how the government should respond to conflicts overseas, they often exclude options for non-military intervention, such as dialogue and mediation, restricting the public to an apparently binary choice between doing something – military intervention – or doing nothing. This sort of reductive approach to surveying public opinion limits understanding of, and engagement in, questions of national security, rather than opening them up for debate.

The majority of UK opinion polls frame security primarily in terms of the state and national interests, using closed questions with predetermined lists of security threats. It is notable that there is little focus on what actually makes people feel secure, with most questions concerned with identifying sources of insecurity. This directs inquiry towards state-based threats and away from more expansive definitions of security – ones that place the social, economic, and health concerns of societies at the centre. It raises questions about the social construction of ‘security’ and of the identified ‘threats’. Who decides what can, or cannot, be deemed a security threat?

The study also calls into question how inclusive these polls and surveys are of the diversity of the UK public. This depends not just on representative sampling but on proactively eliciting the views of minority and marginalised groups, and on recording and disaggregating data on ethnicity, religion, and other identities. It also means ensuring that the wording of questions does not alienate respondents, and that response options presented in closed questions reflect the breadth of potential security concerns of a diverse UK public. In particular it means ensuring that the portrayal of minority and marginalised groups in such surveys, does not in itself increase their insecurity.  

The study highlights how assumptions about security (what should be protected and how) are reflected in the focus of questions on security policy. For instance, the surveys explicitly explore public opinion of security policy focus predominantly on defence and deterrence (in other words, the protection of the nation from external threats) and militarised responses. Overall, there is little focus on alternative means of building and maintaining security in the UK or overseas in recent surveys of the UK public.

Although the UK Government affirms the importance of putting the interests and values of the UK public at the heart of national security policy, the study found that efforts to incorporate public opinion in national security strategy have been limited. For instance, the online public consultation for the UK Government’s recent ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ (the ‘Integrated Review’) did not seek to understand how the public defines security. Furthermore, although the Integrated Review made use of existing public opinion research, no new public opinion surveys were conducted as part of it. The apparent reliance on past public opinion research highlights the need to evaluate whether recent surveys of public perceptions are up to the task of reflecting the opinions and priorities of a diverse UK public. Significantly, none of the surveys fielded within five years of the ‘Integrated Review’ frame security challenges in terms of citizens or people.

The study concludes that the majority of opinion polls on security issues in the UK are designed and frame their questions in terms of the prevailing political discourse. This has the effect of perpetuating the existing government narrative on security, rather than opening that narrative up for public debate. The UK public is rarely invited or enabled to think outside the box when it comes to their opinions on national security issues. Those who commission opinion polls on security issues, the pollsters themselves, and the journalists reporting them, by shaping the way that public opinion is elicited and presented have considerable influence on the outcomes. The recommendations that follow are intended to inform a more inclusive and enabling approach by polling companies, commissioners and publishers of public opinion surveys on security issues, as well as by those responsible for formulating security policy.


A) For UK security policy-makers

The following recommendations are intended to improve government consultation with UK citizens on security issues:

  • Use opinion surveys as part of a broader public engagement strategy
    • Undertake public outreach activities – for instance town hall meetings or focus groups – in order to share information, stimulate public engagement on the policy issues, and generate qualitative research data;
    • Make use of innovative virtual forms of public engagement that have emerged as a result of pandemic restrictions;
    • Undertake regular public opinion surveys on ‘live’ security issues, accompanied by media coverage as a means to inform debate.
  • Adopt a mixed methods approach to surveying public opinion
    • Combine quantitative and qualitative research, such as focus groups, in order to yield a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of security perceptions;
    • Use qualitative research and other data sources to inform the choice and framing of questions asked in large-scale quantitative surveys;
    • Analyse the data from quantitative surveys and qualitative research together.
  • Adopt a more inclusive methodology for surveying public opinion
    • Engage a range of public stakeholders in designing survey questionnaires to avoid privileging the perspectives of security elites;
    • Proactively elicit the views of minority or marginalised groups, and record data on ethnicity, religion, and other identities;
    • Ensure the wording of questions does not alienate minority or marginalised groups and put them at risk.
  • Proactively engage a wider range of public stakeholders in national security reviews
    • Engage the public early on in consultation processes to develop national security strategies, and do not limit consultation to online methods only;
    • Provide structured opportunities for people to define what ‘security’ means to them, rather than just focusing on security ‘threats’.

B) For pollsters and others involved in surveying public opinion on security

The following recommendations are intended to inform better practice by polling companies, designers, commissioners and publishers of public opinion surveys on security:

  • Elicit the public’s own understanding of ‘security’ so that responses are not limited to state-based definitions
    • Include questions about how people define security, and what makes them feel secure;
    • Use either open-ended questions, or response options that reflect a broader definition of security – for example: economic or food security, health, environmental, personal, community and political security – rather than privileging state-centric definitions;
    • Include longer-term structural drivers of insecurity in addition to immediate threats – for example: inequality, exclusion and marginalisation;
    • Use language the public can understand and relate to – avoid policy jargon or terms that have contested or unclear meanings.
  • Avoid closed questions that limit the public to selecting threats and responses pre-identified by security elites
    • Explain the rationale for including/excluding specific threats to security. Whose view of security threats is being presented, and why?
    • Include open-ended questions that elicit spontaneously identified security threats and suggestions of what actions could be taken in response;
    • Include open-ended questions regarding the policies respondents would prioritise for building and maintaining security;
    • Include non-military response options, such as diplomacy, dialogue, and mediation, in questions on UK intervention in conflicts overseas;
    • Use follow-up questions to understand why specific issues are perceived as a threat, or why particular response options are supported;
    • Where possible, use focus groups to inform and design the response options for closed questions.
  • Use methodologies that elicit the perspectives of a diverse UK public, including minority and marginalised groups
    • Collect and analyse demographic data on, for example, ethnicity and religion, in addition to gender and age;
    • Consider over-sampling for minority groups that may be under-represented
    • Include security threats that may disproportionately affect minority and marginalised groups – for example: far-right extremism, sexual and gender-based violence;
    • Avoid naming specific groups (e.g. refugees) in lists of threats so as not to contribute to the insecurity of these groups.
  • When publishing survey findings, explain the purpose, methodology, definitions of key terms, and how response options were selected.

[1] For example, when the Russian government in early 2022 invoked state-controlled opinion polls to claim overwhelming public support for its military invasion of Ukraine. Alyukov, M. (2022) In Russia, opinion polls are a political weapon, Open Democracy, March 2022.

You can register to attend the launch event for this report on Friday 19 May at 2.30pm (BST) via Eventbrite.

The full version of the report is available here.

Lillah Fearnley is an independent consultant specialising in research on security and peacekeeping. She worked for UN Peacekeeping for several years in Lebanon and New York. She has co-authored a number of publications, including on understanding and integrating local perceptions into peacekeeping, and UN Peacekeeping’s Civil Affairs Handbook.

Image Credit: Rethinking Security.

One thought on “Thinking inside the box: How opinion polls shape security debates and policy in the UK

  1. Security is not a word used by most people in this country and it doesn’t have a very specific meaning. No wonder none of the questionnaire respondent could see the nuances of an overseas security problem. What about a rerun with a more obvious topic like health, education or poverty?

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