Much is assumed, especially by journalists, about the role and characteristics of British public opinion in relation to foreign policy, and indeed international relations more generally, but there is surprisingly little hard data on the subject.
The same is true of most other states, apart from the USA, on which there is a wealth of material. But even on the US most of the data concerns public attitudes to particular issues of the moment. Such polls as have been conducted on British opinion have similarly concentrated on the ebb and flow of public views on policy issues, with much attention naturally paid to participation in war (particularly the Falklands war of 1982, the two wars with Iraq, in 1991 and 2003 and the current conflict in Afghanistan).
A poll recently conducted by YouGov on behalf of the author is a first step towards the analysis of some more fundamental issues. It has posed questions about the public’s basic level of knowledge about foreign policy and international affairs (usually assumed to be minimal), about its degree of interest in events beyond our shores, and about the criteria people use when coming to their judgements. So far we only have a snapshot of attitudes as they were in February-March of 2011, but a revealing one which we hope will provide the basis of further polls and thus the creation of some useful time-series data.
One preliminary indication of great interest is that the public is not in fact so ignorant about the major issues of international relations. Indeed, it is possible that people have a better sense of at least the broad outlines of such issues as Iraq or Libya than they do of the complexities of the Alternative Vote system or of interest-rate policy. On basic geography a high percentage (often as much as 90%) of our respondents was able to identify the truth or falsehood of statements about the location of places from across the globe, while 59% knew that the Hutu/Tutsi dispute related to Rwanda. Well over two-thirds, on average, could identify the posts held by figures such as Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. These figures tend to run contrary to the assumptions of modern foreign policy analysis, which tends to see public opinion as strong on judgement and continuity but weak on facts. It is indeed true that the public is weak on the more technical issues (only 22% knew that European Union foreign policy is associated with the initials ‘CFSP’) but then the blizzard of EU acronyms is notoriously confusing, and in any case political argument is never even primarily a matter of technicalities….
We also investigated the level of interest which the public has in international affairs, including the main levels at which that interest operates - local, regional, national, European and global. It is perhaps not surprising that the national level stands above the others in terms of the attention it attracts, but it is noteworthy is that on a wide range of foreign policy issues a total of more than half the sample answered that the issue in question mattered either ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ to them. On international terrorism the figure was 80% but it was as high as 70% even in relation to the possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea. By contrast, only 38% felt that US Presidential elections mattered to them, which is a highly counter-intuitive finding. Clearly the public has become alarmed at the prospect of nuclear terrorism, and does not believe that a changing of the guard in Washington makes so much difference to everyday life.
The so-called Almond-Lippmann consensus of the 1950s suggested that public opinion is inevitably disregarded on foreign policy because it is so ill-informed and erratic. Even if this picture of the public were to be true it would not in principle invalidate democratic accountability, which is based on notions of rights rather than expertise, but there is no doubt that a public which demonstrates engagement and an understanding of key issues is more likely to keep policy-makers honest. The current poll data presents an encouraging picture at least with regard to basic levels of knowledge, albeit with some qualifications about gender and class divergences. The old certainties about the differences between attitudes towards politics within the state on the one hand, and internationally on the other, therefore plainly need re-examining.