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Honesty above all else? Expectations and perceptions of political conduct in three established democracies


Many citizens across the liberal democratic world are highly critical of their elected representatives’ conduct. Drawing on original survey data from Britain, France and Germany, this paper offers a unique insight into prevailing attitudes across Europe’s three largest democracies. It finds remarkable consistencies in the ethical priorities of British, French and German citizens: although there is some individual-level variation, respondents in all three countries overwhelmingly prioritise having honest representatives. It also finds differences in the types of behaviour that cause most concern in each country. The paper then examines how individuals’ preferences shape their concerns about prevailing standards. The findings are consistent with the idea that citizens’ predispositions have an ‘anchoring’ effect on perceptions of political integrity. Finally, the paper considers whether established democracies are susceptible to an ‘expectations gap’ between citizens’ expectations of conduct and what ‘normal’ politics can realistically deliver.

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Figure 1

Note: ‘Don’t knows’ are excluded.

Figure 2

Note: ‘Don’t knows’ are excluded.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from the ESRC (Grant Number RES-000-22-3459) and British Academy (Grant Numbers SG-101785 and SG-52322). They would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Nicholas Allen.



The data employed here were collected as part of the British, German and French Cooperative Campaign Analysis Projects (BCCAP, DECCAP and FRCCAP respectively) led by Ray Duch at Nuffield College, Oxford.

BCCAP was a multi-wave panel study carried out over the internet with participants drawn from the adult British population in collaboration with YouGov. A baseline survey was fielded in December of 2008, with subsequent panel waves taking place at 6-month intervals. Most of the data in this paper come from the third wave, fielded in September 2009, although the personal ethics questions were asked of respondents in the April 2009 wave. The number of respondents who took part in both waves was 809.

DECCAP was also a multi-wave panel study carried out over the internet with participants drawn from the adult German population in collaboration with YouGovPsychonomics. A baseline survey was fielded in June of 2009. Three subsequent waves took place, with the questions in this paper being fielded in the third wave in September 2009 before the Federal election. The respondents numbered 2341 in total. All the survey items were translated by native speakers and checked, via back-translation, by the researchers.

FRCCAP was a single survey administered online in January 2013. Respondents were recruited by Survey Sampling International (SSI) using a sample frame based on quotas for gender, age, education and region of residence. SSI rewards respondents in points, based on how long the survey takes, which they can then convert to vouchers of their choice. Respondents selected for the survey received non-specific email invites and were then redirected to a webpage administered by the Nuffield Centre for Experimental Social Sciences. The achieved sample was 1073. All the survey items were translated by native speakers and checked, via back-translation, by the researchers.

Dependent Variables

NB The variable names are in bold. All questions are provide in English.

Honesty over delivery This variable was constructed by reversing responses, still using a 0–10 scale, to the following question:

People want competent and honest politicians, but they disagree over which trait is more important. Some people say that it is more important to have politicians who can deliver the goods for people, even if they aren’t always very honest and trustworthy. Other people say that it’s more important to have politicians who are very honest and trustworthy, even if they can’t always deliver the goods. What do you think? Using the 0–10 scale below, where 0 means it’s more important to have politicians who can deliver the goods and 10 means it’s more important to have very honest and trustworthy politicians, where would you place yourself?

10 = most willing to compromise on honesty

0 = not at all willing to compromise on honesty.

Accepting bribes, abusing expenses, empty promises and straight answers These variables were based on responses to the following questions:

How much of a problem is the following behaviour by elected politicians in [Britain/France/Germany] today? Please use the 0–10 scale, where 0 mean it is not a problem at all and 10 means it is a very big problem.… [Not giving straight answers to questions] [Accepting bribes] [Misusing official expenses and allowances] [Making promises they know they can’t keep].

10 = it is a very big problem

0 = it is a not a big problem.

Independent Variables

Age Age in years.

Gender (male) coded 0 = female, 1 = male.

Income The BCCAP asked the following question: ‘What is your gross household income?’ The FRCCAP and DECCAP asked respondents to indicate their monthly net income. The BCCAP income measure was a 1–15 scale ranging from ‘under £5000 per year’ to ‘£150,000 per year and over’; the FRCCAP income measure was a 1–11 scale ranging from ‘less than €300 per month’ to ‘€8001 per month or more’; and the DECCAP income measure was a 1–8 scale ranging from ‘less than €1000 per month’ to ‘more than €4000 per month’. Comparable dummy variables were constructed from these scales:

Income: lower band (1 = less than £15,000 per year [gross] OR €1000 per month [net]).

Income: middle (1 = £15,000–£49,999 per year [gross] OR €1000–€3000 per month [net]).

Income: upper band (1 = more than £50,000 per year [gross] OR €3000 per month [net]).

Tertiary education coded 0 = non-graduate, 1 = graduate.

Party identification The BCCAP, FRCCAP and DECCAP fielded a standard question about partisanship, e.g. ‘Generally speaking do you think of yourself as Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or what?’ Responses to these questions were used to create simple dummy variables, where 0 = no and 1 = yes, for the following objects of identification:

Centre-right parties: British Conservative Party; French Union for a Popular Movement; German Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria.

Governing parties: British Labour Party; French Union for a Popular Movement; German Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and Social Democratic Party.

Opposition parties: British Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats and others; French Socialist Party, National Front and others; German Free Democrats, Greens, The Left and others.

No party identification: none.

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Allen, N., Birch, S. & Sarmiento-Mirwaldt, K. Honesty above all else? Expectations and perceptions of political conduct in three established democracies. Comp Eur Polit 16, 511–534 (2018).

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  • anti-politics
  • corruption
  • misconduct
  • ethical attitudes
  • expectations