Professors Confuse Right Wing for Authoritarian

Britons who want a small state and a “strong” foreign policy are not susceptible to authoritarianism.

The Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, December 12, 2013
The Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, December 12, 2013 (Alvin Leong)

If you live in the United Kingdom, you may have recently seen headlines like these: “Around 50 percent ‘hold authoritarian views'”.

Nearly one in two Britons is supposed to share opinions that researchers describe as “authoritarian populist”.

Politics professors David Sanders, Tom Scotto and Jason Reifler from the Universities of Essex and Exeter used data from a series of YouGov polls conducted between 2011 and 2015 to reach their conclusions.

At the liberal Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman was surprised by the findings and tried to dig a little deeper — but couldn’t. He reports that the paper doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

The BBC say it was “shared with BBC Radio 4’s Today program” so I think it’s fair to presume that we can’t look at this unless we contact the authors directly and ask nicely.

We can only go by what the BBC reports then, and that’s that the three academics gauged respondents’ “ideological sympathy for the market and rolling back the state; a ‘strong and tough’ foreign policy; a negative emotional response to immigration; a critical attitude to human rights and disapproval of the European Union.”

Which seems like an odd way to measure authoritarian tendencies.


Favoring free markets and limited government is obviously not authoritarian. It’s the opposite.

You can make an argument that proponents of a “strong and tough” foreign policy will accept “strong and tough” policies at home as well, making them susceptible to the authoritarian argument. But you would be on shaky ground.

Ditto when you’re measuring a “negative emotional response” to immigration. Is nativism necessarily authoritarian? Let’s hope not!

Holding critical views of human rights is surely suspect, but calling Euroskeptics authoritarian is ridiculous. There are many in Britain who see the EU as a centralizing force that takes freedom away from nations. They may be wrong; that doesn’t make them authoritarian.

What the professors appear to have successfully measured rather is the share of Britons who hold consistently right-wing views. In which case 50 percent does not seem like a newsworthy figure at all.

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