Part Five – The nuclear dilemma: Britons on weapons of mass destruction

Milan DinicDirector - Content Strategy and Innovation
May 24, 2024, 10:21 AM GMT+0

The majority of Britons think that nuclear weapons are making the world a more dangerous place and that countries should give up nuclear weapons. Despite this, half would support the UK using nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack

Currently, there are nine countries in the world which are known or suspected to possess nuclear weapons, with Russia and the US having significantly more than other nations.

Two-thirds of Britons (66%) believe that no nation should possess nuclear weapons, YouGov’s Big Survey on NATO and War shows. This sentiment is more pronounced among women (73%) than men (59%).

Around a quarter (23%) think that nuclear weapons should be limited only to countries that possess them now. Men (32%) are twice as likely as women (14%) to say this.

Just 4% think that other countries should be free to pursue the development of nuclear arms.

Asked whether all countries with nuclear weapons should get rid of them, 11% support the idea of this being done unilaterally (i.e. regardless of whether other countries with nuclear weapons do this), while two-thirds (65%) say this should be done on the condition of all nuclear powers doing the same.

One in seven Britons (14%) think that countries which possess nuclear weapons should not get rid of them.

Overall, two-thirds of Britons (67%) think that nuclear weapons are making the world a more dangerous place, while just one in nine (11%) say the opposite. One in five 2019 Conservative voters (19%) say that nuclear weapons are making the world feel safer, compared to 7% among those who voted Labour in the previous general election.

Among those who think the countries that have a nuclear arsenal should retain it, 42% say nuclear weapons make the world safer and 34% think the opposite. When it comes to Britons who say that countries should get rid of nuclear weapons, 76% say they are making the world a more dangerous place, while 6% say they’re making the world safer.

Our study finds that a third of Britons (36%) report that they have considered what to do in case of a nuclear attack, while 58% say they have not.

Men (41%) are more likely than women (32%) to report they have thought about this.

The UK and nuclear weapons

The UK acquired its first nuclear weapons in 1952 and currently has no more than 260 nuclear warheads which are operated only from submarines.

Three in ten Britons (29%) say this makes them feel safer, but a quarter of the population (24%) report feeling less safe. Four in ten (39%) say they feel neither safe nor unsafe and 8% say they don’t know. These results are similar to when we ran the same question in April 2022.

Men are twice as likely as women (39% vs 20%) to say that the UK having nuclear weapons makes them feel safer. Also, those who voted Conservative in 2019 are more than twice as likely as 2019 Labour supporters to hold this view (43% vs 20%).

Britons responded differently when it comes to scenarios in which it would be appropriate for a country to use nuclear weapons.

Just six percent of Britons think that it would be acceptable for a country to use nuclear weapons first. Eight in ten (84%) think it would not be acceptable.

Asked specifically about whether it would be appropriate for the United Kingdom to use nuclear weapons first, 6% of Britons think it would be acceptable, while 83% say it wouldn’t.

However, in the case of the UK being attacked with nuclear weapons, 55% would support Britain launching a nuclear counterattack. One in five (22%) would oppose using nuclear weapons in even this situation, with the youngest generation (34% of 16-24-year-olds) more likely to say so than older age groups (13-21%).

A quarter (23%) said they don’t know whether the UK should or shouldn’t use nuclear weapons if suffering a nuclear attack.

The results of this section are very similar to those in the similar study we ran two years ago, which can be found here.

See the full results here