Belief in a ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and US remains strong

Alec FolwellSenior Research Executive
September 14, 2016, 2:35 PM UTC

The ‘Special Relationship’ is often used to describe the shared ideals and cultural heritage between the United Kingdom and the United States, and the phrase is no stranger to the discourse of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

Under Obama’s presidency the rhetoric surrounding the relationship appears to have been toned down in comparison with the Bush-Blair years in what might be seen by some as a ‘cooling’ in UK-US relations. Perhaps a reflection of changing priorities for the administration, the last eight-years have seen a US pivot toward the Asia-Pacific and a focus on rebuilding relations with continental Europe after the divisive Iraq conflict.

In 2008 YouGov asked its Opinion Formers – which draws leaders from the worlds of business, politics, the media, charities, public sector and academia among others – what they made of the ‘special relationship’ as Barack Obama prepared to enter the White House. Eight years on, and with Obama’s tenure in office drawing to a close, YouGov asked them whether they still believe a ‘Special Relationship’ exists between the two countries.

Around three in five (57%) Opinions Formers believe that there is still a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US, compared to 37% who believe the heralded relationship has waned.

As in 2008, around half (46%) believe that this ‘special relationship’ is beneficial for the UK while 39% feel it has had neither a positive nor negative effect. Twelve per cent however see the relationship as being negative for the UK (down sharply from 34% in 2008). Looking along party lines, Conservative voters are more likely to view the relationship as positive for the UK (59%) than their Labour counterparts (42%).

An explanation for such uncertainty or negativity toward the ‘special relationship’ might be found in the fact that 58% of Opinion Formers feel that ‘the UK will never be a full partner’. Labour voters feel this more keenly, with 71% in agreement compared to 44% of Conservatives. Not much has changed in the 8 years since YouGov asked Opinion Formers the same question, as that suspicion has remained with the same percentage of 58% Opinion Formers agreeing with this statement.

Despite this, 51% feel that the relationship ‘is vital for Britain’s long term security’ compared to 43% who felt the same in 2008. This perhaps suggests that the events in the intervening years such as, Russian invasion of Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine and uprisings and civil wars in the Middle East, have created a new dependence on the security provided by the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

Likewise, 44% of Opinion Formers see the relationship as beneficial to resolving major world issues, and increase from 29% in 2008. Indeed, 56% of respondents agree that this relationship has ultimately ‘helped the UK play a bigger role in the world than it otherwise would’, supporting the notion that Britain “punches above its weight” on the international stage.

Again, this is felt more keenly among Conservative voters (67%) than Labour voters (48%). Interestingly, in 2008 after the culmination of Bush and Blair’s intervention in the Middle East, 49% of Opinion Formers said that the ‘special relationship’ created resentment amongst other nations. This has dropped significantly in the intervening years to 14%, suggesting that much of the perceived animosity held toward the ‘special relationship’ has been ameliorated in the past eight years.

With the result of the Brexit referendum potentially alienating the UK from its EU partners, it will be interesting to see whether there will be shifts in the dynamics of this ‘special relationship’ in light of Britain’s changing relationship with the world post-Brexit. As the forthcoming Presidential election looms, Obama’s departure may prove an opportune time to seek ever closer relations with a President more amenable toward Anglo-American relations. 

YouGov completed online interviews with 588 opinion formers from its UK Opinion Formers Panel. Opinion Formers are leaders in their field from business, media, politics, NGOs, academia and beyond. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st and 31st of March 2016. 2008 fieldwork completed interviews with 252 UK Opinion Formers between the 7th and 16th July, 2008. The figures have not been weighted.

Image PA

With thanks to Joanna Sweeney for additional reporting