19 June 1987 - 21 June 1987

How to Identify Pubic Opinion in a Modern Pluralistic Society: Pressure Groups, Opinion Polls and the Ballot Box

Chair: Sir Ian Trethowan

This conference was organised by the Ditchley Foundation jointly with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. It is the first of an exchange of two conferences with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The second is expected to take place in the Middle West in the spring of 1988.

The last conference of my incumbency (my sixty-ninth) was the first in an exchange of two conferences with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. It took place on the weekend 19-21 June. The second conference in the exchange is expected to take place at Wingspread, Wisconsin, in May 1988.

The subject of the conference was "How to identify public opinion in a modern pluralistic society: pressure groups, opinion polls and the ballot box". This title was chosen because of the experience gathered by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in conducting its well-known surveys and analyses of American public opinion on American foreign policy, the latest of which was published at the beginning of this year. At the time when the idea of the conference exchange was conceived, there was no thought that it might coincide with a British General Election. In fact the British election nearly put paid to it. The period of election fever in the spring and the announcement in May that the election would take place in June, ten days before our conference, caused many of the expected British participants to cancel their acceptances. Recruitment had to be begun again at short notice almost from scratch. Fortunately, it proved possible to assemble a group in which the accent was more on academic analysts of public affairs and political commentators from the written press, TV and radio than on the pre-occupied politicians and party-political organisers. And we enjoyed adventitious credit for being highly topical. The group of participants which was brought to Ditchley by the Chicago Council included several important political consultants, campaign managers, pollsters and journalists specialising in political analysis. It was a very strong team, and the British side matched up to and complemented it. The concluding plenary sessions on the Sunday were of exceptional quality, with no dull moments. The lively pace and sparkle of the conference owed much to its chairman, Sir Ian Trethowan, formerly Director-General of the BBC and now taking over as Chairman of Thames Television. As the occasion was primarily a Chicago/Ditchley one, the conference was almost entirely American/British, but there were important individual participants from Canada, Germany, Italy and Sweden.

At the outset, the conference was inclined to focus almost exclusively on seemingly inexhaustible analysis and anecdote about the recent British election and the ideas about political campaigning and opinion polling to which it gave rise. This was corrected when the three working groups on the Saturday focussed respectively on special interest and pressure groups, on the problems of maintaining respect for parliamentary processes and representative politics, and on the roles of opinion polls and opinion poll analysts.

The leading theme from the American side was the decay of the party system in the United States. This was largely a result of television and the increased importance of primaries in the selection of Presidential candidates. A scattering of fund-raising political action committees, and not a nation-wide web of party bosses or party machines, now dominated the scene. In one sense this made politics more populist and more responsive to public opinion: in another it frustrated coherent policy-making and put long-term considerations at the mercy of short-term ones. The electorate would still respond to a leader who expressed their values and articulated attitudes with which they could identify, and they would go along with his opinions if he voiced them with conviction; but if his opinions and the policies built on them turned out to be mistaken there was nothing, no network of party, capable of holding the system together.

It was obvious that, on the British side, political parties were still strong and still served as the main intermediary organisms through which public opinion and government policy-making inter-reacted. In Britain, the problem needing to be tackled was more that of making Parliament effective and convincing as the collective representative of the people, providing either a check or a spur on government. Improvements in the standing committee procedures would probably go a long way towards providing a remedy. Canadian and German experience in developing the work of parliamentary committees was commended. On the continent of Europe, the prevalence of proportional representation in one form or another tended to ensure that political parties remained strong. It was remarked, however, that in Europe as in America elected representatives were increasingly judged by the attention they paid to the parochial concerns of their constituents and by their performance as local ombudsmen. Because their political parties still flourished, those on the European side of the Atlantic seemed more confident of coping with special interest and pressure groups and lobbies than those on the American side. Indeed a strong case was made for regarding such groups as a valuable part of the democratic process where government and parliament were strong.

The President of the Chicago Council gave a short presentation of the results of the Council's latest survey of American public opinion on American foreign policy. Throughout the conference there was much illuminating comment about the mystery of public opinion and the ways it took shape. The pollsters explained the increasing sophistication of the art of question-setting, and the analysts explained the importance of not rushing to conclusions on the basis of ephemeral shifts in public awareness on issues which became fleetingly newsworthy. No-one disputed the superiority of the Americans in the business of polling, but there was some doubt whether it did them any good in the predicament into which their party political system had fallen. There was a good deal of discussion of the role of the information media, with the journalists present disclaiming (unconvincingly) that they had any power or intention of agenda-setting, much less of influencing public opinion. It was generally conceded that skilful governments and political leaders could always beat the media at agenda-setting if they wanted. And it was accepted that the natural function of the press, TV and radio was to adopt a critical posture, even an adversarial one, towards all in authority who appeared before them. But the pleas of innocence and neutrality entered, each in turn, by the journalists, the pollsters and the analysts were received with scepticism.

At the end of the conference there was a call for better long-term education of the public, so that it could exercise more judiciously the power of direct choice which modern mass communications and survey techniques put in its hands. The work of the foundations set up by the German political parties with public funding (Adenauer Stiftung, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, etc.) was commended in this regard. No-one questioned that the people was sovereign: the question was how to help the people to make and communicate political judgements effectively. Curiously, it was the only occasion which I can remember at Ditchley when the Europeans were more confident than the Americans.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir Ian Trethowan
Chairman, Horserace Betting Levy Board; Chairman, Thames Television from July 1987; Director, Barclays Bank (UK), Thames Television Ltd; Consultant and Director, Thorn EMI; an Independent Director, Times Newspapers Holdings Ltd; Member of the Board, British Council; Chairman, British Museum Society; a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation.


Dr David Butler

Senior Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford
Mr Roger Carrick CMG LVO
HM Consul General, Chicago
Mr John Cole
Political Editor, BBC
Professor Ivor Crewe
Professor and Chairman, Department of Government, University of Essex; elections analyst for BBC TV and The Guardian
Professor Bernard Crick
Columnist, The Scotsman; Consultant on Northern Ireland to various bodies; Emeritus Professor, University of London; Member, Council of the Hansard Society.
Mr John Curtice
Lecturer in Politics, University of Liverpool.
Mr Nigel Forman MP
(Conservative), Carshalton and Wallington
Professor Hilde Himmelweit
Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics; Member, Centre for Contemporary Studies.
Mr Richard Holme CBE
Chairman, Constitutional Reform Centre; Secretary, Parliamentary Democracy Trust; Hon Treasurer, Green Alliance
Mr Tom McNally
Head of Public Affairs, Hill and Knowlton (International Public Relations Counsel); Director, British Retailers Association
Mr Nick Raynsford
Parliamentary Candidate (Labour), Fulham (1987 General Election)
Sir Alfred Sherman
Journalist; public affairs adviser in private practice as Interthought; co-founder, Centre for Policy Studies; Chairman, Policy-Search Ltd
Mr Geoffrey Smith
Political Columnist, The Times.
Mr Linbert Spencer
Chief Executive, Project Fullemploy (Charitable Trust); Associate Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Community and Race Relations, Brunel University
Mr Kevin Swaddle
Nuffield College, Oxford.
Mr Michael Trend
Correspondent, The Spectator.
Mr Paul Tyler
Alliance Campaign Co-ordinator, 1987 General Election
Mr Ben Whitaker
Executive Director, The Minority Rights Group Ltd; UK Member, UN Human Rights Sub-Commission.
Mr Des Wilson
President, National Executive, Liberal Party; Chairman, Friends of the Earth; Chairman, Campaign for Freedom of Information; Project Adviser, CLEAR (Campaign for Lead-Free Air).
The Rt Hon the Lord Windlesham CVO PC
Chairman, The Parole Board; a Governor, Member, Council of Management and Chairman, Programmes Committee, the Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Robert Worcester
Chairman and Managing Director, Market & Opinion Research International (MORI); Consultant to The Times, Sunday Times and The Economist; Programmes Committee of the Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Hugo Young
Political Columnist, The Guardian

Dr Maya Even

Election Consultant, TV-am; Political Journalist.
Mr Patrick Martin
Focus Editor, The Globe and Mail, Toronto; Author

Herr Karl-G
ünther von Hase Hon GCVO Hon KCMG
Chairman, Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft, Dusseldorf

Count Paolo Filo Della Torre

London Correspondent, La Repubblica.

Professor Hans L Zetterberg

Editor-in-Chief, Svenska Dagbladet, President, World Association for Public Opinion Research; formerly Director, Swedish Institute of Public Opinion.

Mr William Boyd

President, The Johnson Foundation, Racine, Wisconsin
Dr Norman Bradburn
Provost, University of Chicago; Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioural Science, and Chairman, Department of Behavioural Science, University of Chicago
Mr David S Broder
National Political Correspondent, Associate Editor and Columnist, The Washington Post.
Mr Arthur Cyr
Vice President and Program Director, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Lecturer in Public Policy and Political Science, University of Illinois and University of Chicago
Mrs Nora Dell
Editor, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (Managing Editor of four public opinion studies conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations).
Mr Peter D Hart
President, Peter D Hart Research Associates Inc, Washington, DC
Mr Arthur Lloyd Kelly
Chief Executive Office, KEL Enterprises Ltd, Chicago; Member, Advisory Council of the American Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Benjamin Page
Frank C Erwin Centennial Professor in Government, University of Texas at Austin; Research Associate, National Opinion Research Centre, Chicago
Mr John M Richman
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Kraft Inc, Chicago; Chairman of the Board, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Member, Board of Directors, Continental Illinois Corporation and Continental Illinois Bank & Trust Company of Chicago.
Mr John E Rielly
President, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Consultant, National Security Council.
Mr William Schneider
Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC.
Mr John Sears
The Law Offices of John P Sears
Mr Robert Squier
President, The Communications Company, Washington, DC; President, The Film Company (documentary film-maker); Consultant to House Democratic Campaign Committee, Democratic National Committee.
Mr Matthew Storin, Editor and Senior Vice President, The Chicago-Sun Tinies; formerly Deputy Managing Editor, US News and World Report. Managing Editor, The Boston Globe.
Mr Ted Van Dyk, Van Dyk & Associates, Washington, DC
Mr Richard Wirthlin, Chairman of the Board, Decision/Making/Information, McLean, VA