Wary of Europe?

Peter KellnerPresident
November 21, 2011, 9:44 AM GMT+0

‘It’s not just Europe we’re wary of working with – it’s abroad’

As the Eurozone crisis shifts our focus to Europe, is Englishness these days a source not just of pride but also insecurity?

Why are most Britons so wary of the European Union? Polls consistently report a three-to-two majority for withdrawal. Why is that? Do we scorn the continentals as inferior to us? Is there a lingering hatred of the Germans? Do we find the French untrustworthy? Is it our island status that makes us want to keep our distance? In a special survey for Prospect, YouGov explored our underlying feelings. Among other things we discovered that people who say they are ‘English’ think differently from those who consider themselves ‘British’.

Our results dispose of two myths. First, we found few signs that we think Britain is best at tackling major social problems. Asked who provides better state schools, just 22% say Britain, while 50% say ‘other major European countries such as France and Germany’. We are also thought to lag far behind our fellow EU states on controlling immigration, ‘creating a strong economy with low unemployment’ and, more narrowly, reducing poverty. On only one issue do the figures, just, go the other way: 39% think we are better as ‘providing sick people with good health care’, while 35% look across the Channel for a better service. On each of these issues, the views of EU-enthusiasts and EU-sceptics are broadly similar, so our hostility to the EU does not spring from any widespread sense that membership damages our social fabric.

Second, forget any lingering influence of the Second World War. By a two-to-one margin we think the Germans these days are friendly rather than unfriendly. Here there is some difference between the pro- and anti-EU camps: just 19% of those who favour EU membership regard the Germans as unfriendly, compared with 39% of those who want us to quit the club. But dispel any thoughts that Hitler still casts a shadow over our attitudes. Far more people think France is unfriendly: 42% among pro-EU voters, 64% among the antis. Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister famously insisted that France are our permanent enemies, while Germany have been only occasionally hostile. Many Britons seem to agree.

That is not the only sense in which we dislike France far more than Germany. By a margin of three to one (63%-20%) we regard German people as trustworthy. The figures for the French are very different: 46% say they are friendly, while 37% say they are unfriendly. We also asked about two non-EU countries. A big majority of us trust Australians (76%-7%), while the figures for Americans (62%-21%) are similar to those for Germans. By far the biggest difference between those for and against EU membership concerns the French, with just 25% of those in the pro camp regarding the French as untrustworthy, compared with double that number, 49%, among the antis.

So there is something in the view that anti-EU Britons dislike the continentals, but our hostility and suspicion are directed far more at Paris than Berlin.

However, our survey suggests a much bigger factor. Before we asked people how they would vote in a referendum on the EU, we asked a more fundamental question about how Britain should relate to the rest of the world. We offered two options: ‘Many of the world’s problems can be tackled only if Britain joins forces with other countries, and often agrees to compromise in order to secure international agreement’; or: ‘The value of international agreement is often overstated. With very rare exceptions, Britain should do what it thinks right, regardless of what other countries decide.’

Now, it is perfectly possible for someone to prefer the internationalist answer and still want Britain to leave the EU, on the grounds that the EU is over-mighty, and Britain should retain the right to make deals with other countries on a case-by-case basis. However, this view is held by just 12% of those who want Britain to quit the EU. Fully 77% of them think Britain should normally go it alone.

Contrast that with the views of people who want us to remain members of the EU: 63% think we should join forces with other countries and often compromise, while just 27% prefer the go-it-alone option. This question produced by far the biggest difference between those for and against EU membership. It suggests that those against membership are motivated partly by hostility towards the continent, especially France, but more by a disdain for any kind of international co-operation. A strong streak of isolationism runs through the British psyche.

Or should that be English psyche? At the start of our survey we asked people whether they considered themselves mainly as English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British or European. A mere 2% said they were ‘European’. Most, 63%, said they were ‘English’, while 19% regarded themselves as ‘British’.

When we compared the attitudes of ‘English’ compared with ‘British’ respondents, we found something odd. ‘English’ voters want to leave the EU by a margin of 58-26% – but ‘British’ voters favour remaining members by 46-37%. And while ‘English’ voters overwhelmingly prefer an isolationist foreign policy, ‘British’ voters divide fairly evenly between going it alone and doing compromise deals to tackle world problems. (The views of ‘Scottish’ voters are closer to ‘British’ than ‘English’; we had too few ‘Welsh’ respondents to be sure of their stance.)

All told, our poll suggests that our views on EU membership are shaped to a significant extent by how we in these islands think of ourselves. What distinguishes people who call themselves ‘English’ is a passion for keeping other countries at arm’s length.

Whisper it softly, but is Englishness these days a source not just of pride but also insecurity?

This commentary appears in the December issue of Prospect magazine

See the survey details and full results here