Part Four: The UK and the prospect of war

Milan DinicDirector - Content Strategy and Innovation
May 24, 2024, 10:04 AM GMT+0

Half of Britons think the UK is likely to enter a war in the next five years, but four in ten are not confident that the army can defend the country in case of an attack

In January, both the defence secretary and the head of the British army have warned that the UK needs to be "prepared" for war.

The YouGov Big Survey on NATO and War asked about the likelihood of the UK being directly involved in a war – with boots on the ground – in the next five years. Over half of Britons (55%) think that such a scenario is likely in the next five years, with 12% saying that war with boots on the ground is “very likely”.

Three in ten Britons (32%) think it unlikely that the UK will be involved in a war in the next five years, and 13% say they don’t know. The results are almost identical to when we asked the same question two years ago, just two months into the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The results show that Britons in their 40s and 50s are most likely to think the UK will be at war in the next five years (58%), while this falls to under half of 16-24-year-olds (47%).

Confidence in the British army and defence spending

Four in ten Britons (39%) are not confident in the ability of the British army to defend the country in case of an attack by another power, including 10% who say they are “not at all confident”. An equal number of 2019 Labour (40%) and Conservative (43%) voters share this opinion.

Approaching half (46%) of Britons over 40 don’t think the army can defend the UK. This view is shared by three in ten (31%) of those under 40.

Just one in seven (15%) feel “very confident” that the UK can defend itself from an attack, while 40% are somewhat confident.

The war in Ukraine and other geopolitical tensions recently have brought about the question of whether countries should be investing more in their defence.

The MOD reported that the UK spent £52.8 billion on defence in 2022/23, rising to £54.2 billion in 2023/24. In March two government ministers called for a “much greater pace” of investment in defence in the UK.

Six in ten Britons (62%) support increasing the defence budget, with 30% saying it should “increase significantly”.

Our research highlights significant political differences between supporters of the two major UK parties regarding this issue: as many as eight in ten (82%) 2019 Conservative voters back the idea of increased defence spending (with 48% saying it should increase significantly) compared to around half (52%) of 2019 Labour supporters.

Just 7% think the UK defence budget should decrease, while 16% think it should stay as it is now.

Reasons for the UK to go to war

When it comes to reasons for being involved in a war, 82% think this is justifiable if the UK is directly attacked, while 8% oppose this (4% amongst Conservative voters and 9% amongst Labour supporters).

Half of Britons (52%) would support going to war if a UK ally was attacked, with Conservative voters being more supportive of the idea than Labour at 61% versus 49%. A quarter (26%) think an attack on a British ally is not a reason to go to war.

The public are split on whether ethnic cleansing or mass expulsion of people is a reason to go to war: 43% favour the idea while 32% oppose it. In this case, Labour voters are much more likely to support Britain going to war than Conservative supporters, by 57% to 37%.

Asked about the UK’s involvement in previous wars, only in the case of the Second World War do the majority of Britons (82%) think the country was right to get involved. Among Britons under 40, 22% say they don’t know if the UK was right to take part in WW2, which is higher than among older Britons (9%). One in five working-class Britons (18%) said they don’t know if Britain was right to take part in the Second World War, compared to 13% who are higher up the social ladder.

Around half (51%) think the UK was right to fight in the Falklands war in 1982. However, half of Britons under the age of 40 (51%) – who were not born when the Falklands War happened – say they don’t know whether the UK was right or wrong to take part.

When it comes to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, just 16% think it was the right decision, while 54% think it was wrong.

It should be noted that the sizable number of younger Britons who say they don’t know if Britain should have been involved in these conflicts is more likely to do with their lack of knowledge about the events, rather than be taken as a reflection of their opinion.

See the full results here