Before he lost Thursday night’s vote in the House of Commons, David Cameron lost the battle to persuade voters that British missiles should bomb Syria.
However, we should be clear about the specific nature of the public verdict. It is not that we have become a nation of isolationists, or even that we oppose ALL military action against Syria: it’s Britain’s participation in current circumstances that we reject. If the United States decides to bomb Syria, most of us will cheer them on from the sidelines.
YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times was conducted between Friday lunchtime and Saturday morning, after the news had been digested of the Government’s defeat in the House of Commons. It finds that by four-to-one (68-16%) we think Parliament took the right decision – an even wider margin than the two-to-one opposition to military action that we found for The Sun and Times before Thursday’s debate.
Our latest figures show that this majority was driven by two main factors.
a) The Government failed to persuade Britons that Syria’s President Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against his opponents. Just 43% believe he is responsible; a further 43% say ‘don’t know’. Had voters been convinced of Assad’s guilt, their attitude to military action might well have been different. By 66-26% we regard chemical warfare as an ‘especially horrific a crime against humanity’ rather than ‘a terrible thing, but no worse than other forms of killing’
b) Many voters feared that British troops would be dragged into another Middle East quagmire. 51% of those who opposed military action thought that a limited missile attack ‘would probably have ended up with Britain being dragged into further military action and British troops having to go into Syria’
Yet the poll finds no desire for the West to go soft on President Assad. We asked people whether Britain should help America if President Obama orders an attack and asks for our help. By huge majorities we want Britain to share intelligence information about Syria (by 70-15%) and to support the US at the United Nations (by 64-16%).
By a smaller but still clear margin (48-31%), we would be happy to give access to Britain’s military base in Cyprus to US forces attacking Syria.
More widely, our poll shows that opposition to British military action does NOT indicate – as some people fear and others hope – any wish for a doctrine of disengagement from the world’s problems. We posed seven different circumstances in which Britain might consider sending troops into action outside Europe. In every case, most people said we should definitely, or seriously consider, taking part – ranging from contributing to a United Nations operation (75%) to stopping “an unfriendly country acquiring nuclear weapons” (53%).
The real lesson of the past week is that, after Iraq, the bar for public support for war has been raised far higher. British voters are wary of sending our troops into action without firm evidence of the need to do so, and a cast-iron assurance that British soldiers won’t end up dying in a distant land for no good reason. It was on these specific grounds that David Cameron failed to win over the general public this time round.