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Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov. FolloStephan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 05.57.39A few weeks ago the British Prime Minister indicated to the American
President that he would provide support for action against Syria – and
recalled Parliament for approval. The vote went against him, and the
course of history was at least slightly deflected: the military action
did not take place when intended, and the President has himself gone on
to seek broader approval before committing to action, creating a
potentially important precedent for the future in this type of case
(neither Clinton nor Obama sought Congressional approval for air strikes
against Iraq in 1996 or 1998, in Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011).

David
Cameron had expected to win the vote, if narrowly. All sorts of things
might have affected the outcome – a YouGov
opinion poll was widely credited with being prime among them. On August
28th, the day before the vote, the front page of The Sun read “Brits
say no to war in Syria”
and citing “the first poll on the new crisis”,
showing a ratio of two to one against missile strikes.  The front page
of The Times
featured the same poll, saying that it “suggests that
voters overwhelmingly oppose… the use of British missiles against
missile sites inside Syria.”  It was also carried in the Daily Mail and
The Independent , including data comparing the case made for the 2003
invasion of Iraq with the case for intervention in Syria.


On the
morning before the Commons debate, the front page of The Times carried a
new YouGov poll
showing that “public opposition to military
intervention has hardened in the 24 hours since No 10 confirmed it was
considering a bombing strike.”  A spokesman for No 10 said: "The PM is
acutely aware of the
deep concerns in the country caused by what happened over Iraq. That's
why we are committed to taking action to deal with this war crime – but
taking action in the right way, proceeding on a consensual basis."

MPs
voted 285-272 to reject any UK involvement in US-led strikes. In a
statement following the decision Cameron said: “It is clear to me that
the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does
not want to see British military action. I get that and the government
will act accordingly.”
 
It is of course impossible to determine
whether the poll significantly affected the outcome. I doubt very much
that anyone who has deliberated on an issue and come firmly to
conclusion A, then pronounces B when handed a survey result. But in
cases such as these, someone who has not yet come to a firm conclusion,
and is perhaps caught between two courses – for example, wanting to
support a leadership proposal
but not really believing in the cause – might very well be emboldened
to stick with their caution.

Is it right that an opinion poll
should have this effect? Burke of course argued that an MP should ignore
public opinion, make up one’s own mind, and hope that events prove him
right. Would we agree with that prescription in all cases? Would an MP
who says, “When deciding how to vote in parliament, I always ignore the
views of my constituents” be deemed wise or foolish?

It an
absurdity to imagine that any MP makes up their minds without regard to
the opinions of others. Should they only regard the views of their
colleagues? Or of experts? Or of friends? We always make up our minds
with consideration to the views of at least some other people. On
occasion, might we not be influenced by the whole nation?

Some
decisions require specialist knowledge and expert analysis. Others
demand that the people influencing a
decision are not those who narrowly benefit from it. We elect MPs to
make difficult long-term decisions that we might be tempted to avoid
when considering our short term concerns. But there is at least one case
in a democracy where listening carefully to the views of the nation
must be justified: when an issue has been fairly widely discussed in
public, and where people have strong collective recent experiences to
bring to bear – such as getting involved in military action in the
Middle East.

So YouGov, in spite of receiving some criticism for
publishing a poll with this effect, continues to believe that accurate
and timely opinion research is an important part of the democratic
process. That is why we have a partnership with the Department of
Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at Cambridge University
– to
provide in-depth research on areas such as international relations. The
next YouGov-Cambridge Forum takes place on Thursday
and Friday at Magdalene College, and we will be releasing a wealth of
new data on opinion not only from the UK but also the Middle East.

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