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06 April 2023

UK satisfaction with politics internationally low – but support for democracy has still risen

Few people in the UK think politics is working for them

parliament at night

Democracy in theory and practice: how UK attitudes compare internationally

Read the research

Few people in the UK think politics is working for them, with the country ranking firmly among the bottom half of an international league table for satisfaction with the political system – but this has not dented Britons’ support for democracy, which has risen over the last two decades, according to new data.

The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, also finds support for the idea that experts, rather than government, should make political decisions is at a record high, and is greater than in any other western nation included in the study.

Meanwhile, the share of Britons identifying on the centre-left politically is at its highest in four decades.

The analysis was carried out as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world, in operation since 1981.

The latest UK data was collected in 2022, with data for other nations collected at various points throughout the latest wave of the WVS, which spanned 2017 to 2022. It reveals:

  • 17% of people in the UK indicate they are highly satisfied with how the political system is functioning these days – among the lowest of 23 countries analysed and on a par with satisfaction in Russia (16%), Mexico (17%) and Nigeria (15%).
  • The UK also ranks far behind the likes of Norway (41%), Canada (36%) and Germany (36%) on this question, although it does come higher than France (13%), the US (12%) and Italy (12%).
  • Among UK nations, Northern Ireland is by far the least satisfied with how its political system is functioning. Just 8% of the country’s population indicate they are highly satisfied with how their political system is functioning these days – around half the proportion who say the same elsewhere in the UK.
  • Northern Ireland is also the only UK country where a majority (56%) indicate they are not satisfied with the political system. Of the other nations included in the study, only Brazil (72%) fares worse on this measure.

Yet despite widespread dissatisfaction with how UK democracy is working in practice, the public haven’t lost faith in it in principle, and have in fact become more supportive:

  • In 1999, 76% of Britons thought democracy was a very or fairly good way of governing the country. In 2022, this was up to 90%.
  • And much of this shift has come from a growing share of the public who think democracy is a very good way of governing. In 1999, 41% were of this view; in 2022, 64% were.

Support for democracy has increased among Millennials in particular – although Gen Z still lag behind:

  • All adult generations have become more positive about democracy, but Millennials have seen the biggest improvement: 88% thought democracy was a good way of governing in 2022 – up from 67% in 2005.
  • In 2005, 52% of Millennials said it was important for them to live in a democratically governed country, far below other generations. But this had risen to 74% by 2018 and was at the same level in 2022.
  • 73% of Gen Z say democracy is a good way of governing the country – compared with just under 90% or more of other generations. However, given the changes seen among Millennials, this could increase as Gen Z ages.

In other positive trends, in 2022, 40% of Britons indicated they felt their country is governed in a highly democratic way – up from 32% in 2005.

However, the UK still ranks only mid-table internationally on this question – similar to France (35%) and Spain (41%), but far below other western nations such as Australia (50%), Canada (52%), Germany (59%), Norway (66%) and Sweden (66%).

Support for experts making political decisions is at a record high, while support for more authoritarian forms of government remains low

In 1999, 41% of the British public thought it was a good way of governing to have experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country – a low point in support for this idea. But by 2022, this had risen to 61% – the highest on record.

Of 24 countries analysed on this question, no western nation has more support for this approach than the UK (61%) – although Spain (57%) and Australia (59%) are close to UK levels of support.

By contrast, more authoritarian forms of government are preferred only by minorities of the population, with little change in attitudes over time.

12% of the British public say army rule is a good idea, compared with 6% who felt this way in 1998. And 24% of Britons approve of having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections, with views virtually unchanged from 24 years ago (25%).

The share of Britons identifying on the centre-left politically is at its highest in four decades

In 1981, 13% of Britons gave a response indicating the centre-left when asked to place their political views on a scale. By 2022, this had risen to 24% – the highest since the World Values Survey began – with a rise of five percentage points since 2018.

By comparison, 14% of the British public said they were on the centre-right in 2022 – down from 18% four years earlier.

But overall, Britons have long been most likely to put themselves at the centre of the political spectrum. 47% said this best described their position in 2022, compared with 41% in 1981, with some variation in the intervening years.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“Support for the idea of democracy is extremely high and rising in the UK – but we are much less convinced by how it is working for us right now. The vast majority say that democracy is a good idea and important, but only 17% of us highly satisfied with how our political system is currently functioning, putting us in the bottom half of international league tables.

“There is no evidence here that people in the UK are tired of the principle of democracy and are becoming more open to authoritarian models of government – we’re at risk of mixing up dissatisfaction with the outcomes people have experienced in recent years with a decline in support the system as a whole.

“For example, only minorities support the idea of a strong leader who ignores elections or army rule – and this really hasn’t changed over recent decades. It is true that Millennials seemed less enthusiastic about democracy when they first came into adulthood, but they have now come much more into line with older generations.

“What has changed is increasing support for expert roles in national decision-making, which is now at record levels in the UK. It’s easy to caricature the UK as drifting to identity-driven politics and sympathy for authoritarian models of government, but the reality shown in these long-term trends and international comparisons is we’re still committed to democracy and recognise the importance of expertise.”

Technical details

2022 UK data comes from a random probability sample of 3,056 adults aged 18+ interviewed by Ipsos through a mix on face-to-face and online survey methods. Data has been weighted by region, education and age interlocked with gender to be nationally representative.

For analysis of trends over time, data is nationally representative for Great Britain due to a lack of available trend data from Northern Ireland, and is based on surveys of 1,000 or more people aged 18+.

Samples for other countries are all nationally representative and made up of at least 1,000 people. Information on the sampling methodology these nations is available via the World Values Survey Association website.

Data produced for this research is used in wave 7 of the World Values Survey, which included around 90 countries and ran from 2017 to 2022. See the full report for the precise year each country was surveyed. The report focuses on a cross-section of 24 countries selected based on the availability of reliable and weighted data and then narrowed down, focusing on global coverage (based on the UN's standardised country coding system), regional coverage and population size. This selection gives coverage of 12 of the 17 UN M49 geographic regions across 24 countries, representing almost 50% of the world's population (source: World Bank). Not all questions are asked in each country in every wave of the study, and so the number of countries compared on each question can vary.