Britain in the world

July 23, 2010, 11:52 PM GMT+0

The public is divided on the extent to which Britain should play a role on the political world stage, a poll for Chatham House has found.

The survey, which aimed to help assess the UK’s future foreign policy and role in international relations, was sent to two groups of respondents. The first set of respondents belong to the YouGovStone panel, which means that they are high-earning, opinion-formers in business, Whitehall and the voluntary sector. The second group was made up of a wider cross-section of the general British public. The results were striking.

Threats to our way of life

On the issue of ‘threats’ to the British way of life, international terrorism is seen by the public as the greatest danger (56%), followed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons among non-friendly states like North Korea and Iran (52%). In contrast, the panel of influential opinion-formers are more inclined to believe that the failure of the banks and the international financial system poses the greatest threat to our way of life (61%), with the interruption of our energy supplies, such as oil and gas, coming in second (54%).

Given the public concerns over terrorism and the prospect of nuclear proliferation, it may come as little surprise that many among the British public (49%) think the armed forces best serve British interests around the world. Furthermore, the majority of respondents (62%) feel that the UK’s bid to remain a great power, with substantial armed forces at its command, and with a seat on the United Nations Security Council, is the right thing to do.

Our group of elite thinkers however, think that the exportation of British cultures through organisations like the BBC and television world services (76%), and through mediums like British books, music, films and drama (67%), would best serve British interests overseas.

Intervention in international community

Accordingly, much of the British public advocates a reduced role in the international community, and insists instead that the Government should focus more on the national interest. 51% say that British foreign policy should ‘pursue national interests at all times’ even if this means doing some things that some people may regard as unethical. 54% even suggested that as most foreign aid is ‘wasted’, and does little or nothing to promote British interests, it should be radically reduced.

Again, there are striking differences between the two panels’ responses. In contrast to the general public, 65% of influential respondents feel that British foreign policy should be based at least in part on ethical considerations, even if this means sometimes not acting in the country’s immediate national interest.

These findings may pose somewhat of a quandary for Britain’s new Coalition Government as it tries to keep the electorate on-side despite mismatched priorities among much of the public.

Survey details and full results