Dealing with Libya

February 28, 2011, 9:44 PM GMT+0

Should Britain have diplomatic relations with tyrants in the Middle East? Should we buy their oil? Should we sell them arms? On the whole, Britain’s public takes a pragmatic view. At the end of a week in which a number of Libyan towns fell to opponents of the Gaddafi regime and David Cameron led a trade mission, including arms manufacturers, to the Gulf, YouGov explored these issues for the Sunday Times.

  • A large majority (69%) thinks Britain was right to help Libya with education and training.
  • Half the public (51%) backed British companies operating in Libya to extract oil; but only 21% thought this was wrong.
  • A large minority, 28%, said don’t know; this suggests that while Libya undoubtedly provokes great passion among many people, quite a few Britons are uncertain about our relations with the Gaddafi regime.

This uncertainty also appears when people are asked whether Britain was right to re-establish diplomatic relations and trading links after Libya agreed to abandon its programme of developing weapons of mass destruction and to pay compensation to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

  • On restoring diplomatic relations, the responses were: right 40%, wrong 35%, not sure 26%.
  • On re-establishing trade links, the responses were similar: right 38%, wrong 34%, not sure 27%.
  • More broadly, 45% think ‘Britain was right to try and encourage a more positive relationship with Libya in the hope that it would have led to reform, even if it ultimately failed’, while 39% think ‘Britain was wrong to do deals with a regime that had backed terrorists and killed its own people’.
  • The strongest supporters of dealing with the Gaddafi regime are Liberal Democrats, men, Scots and middle-class voters; women, those over 40 and working class voters divide evenly.

That relationship was built up under the last Labour government. Just 15% think a Conservative government would not have done any deals with Libya; 57% think a Tory government would have done much the same as Labour did.

On the issue of arms, however, voters are much more critical.

  • As many as 76% say we were wrong to allow British companies to sell arms to Libya.
  • And 62% think David Cameron was wrong last week to promote arms sales during his visit to the Gulf. Labour and Lib Dem voters are heavily against the Prime Minister; even Tory voters are more likely to oppose him on this issue (46%) than to support him (39%).

What should happen now? By four-to-one – though, again, with many don’t knows – the public backs the freezing of Libyan assets held by British banks. Most people would like Gaddafi, if he is overthrown, to be tried by the International Criminal Court (rather than by the new Libyan regime). But by three-to-one, the British public would be against offering asylum to refugees fleeing from Libya.

Finally we asked whether, if Gaddafi falls, Britain should seek the return of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to complete his sentence in Scotland. The public on the whole is evenly divided – but by a margin of more than two-to-one, Scots specifically DON’T want him back.

See the Sunday Times survey details and full results