Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, British voters still believe in foreign wars
For a while last year, it seemed the anti-war movement had triumphed over British public opinion. After government plans to bomb Syria were scuppered in Parliament, organisations such as Stop the War Coalition claimed to speak for a new majority “which opposes any more western intervention in other people's countries”, especially in the Middle East.
Now, with Western combat operations back in Iraq, the British mood-swing on military intervention looks more complicated.
A recent YouGov report shows the public are still willing to support new campaigns, even back in old theatres. Strong majorities support British warplanes and armed drones being used to fight the Islamic State (Isil) in Iraq, as well as airdropping humanitarian supplies, while nearly half support sending arms to Iraqi Government and Peshmerga forces.
Although commentators like to talk about the new public rule against “boots on the ground”, there is actually some tolerance for it. Despite solid opposition to sending regular troops into combat, many are willing to support the limited deployment of UK special forces and military advisers to help train and advise Iraqi forces.
Perhaps significantly for future debates in Westminster, large numbers also favour expanding these operations into Syria, again with airstrikes, humanitarian assistance, special forces and advisors.
There is a 'red public line' of sorts, however, on going into Syria. Beyond targeting Isil, rescuing hostages or providing aid, people are less supportive of actions that sound like taking sides in the country’s civil war, such as bombing or making deals with the forces of Bashar al Assad, arming Western-backed rebels, enforcing no-fly zones and setting up rebel training camps nearby in the region. In other words, pursue Isil over the border if you have to, but don't get pulled into the wider Syrian conflict, if such a thing is possible.
Attitudes to Syria portray another important distinction, which was largely missed in the emotional post mortem that followed Commons rebellion against military action last year. It was Britain’s participation in those particular circumstances that many rejected, rather than the overall merits of a forceful Western response to the reported use of chemical weapons by the Assad Government. As YouGov found immediately after the vote, people thought MPs had made the right decision by a decisive four-to-one (68-16%). But they were also prepared to help America in other ways if President Barack Obama decided to order an attack without us. Most thought we should share intelligence on Syria (by 70-15%) and support the US case for action at the United Nations (by 64-16%); a smaller but substantial plurality were willing to allow US access to UK airstrips in Cyprus for attacking Syria (48-31%).
New polling meanwhile suggests that recent wars have failed to rally us much behind the anti-war movement. This is not to doubt the shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan hang heavy over the national debate, with a casualty-list that includes public confidence in the call to arms. When YouGov surveyed British voters in the build-up to invading Iraq in 2003, 62% said they trusted Tony Blair to tell the truth about what was happening there; now only 37% say they trust the Prime Minister to speak truthfully when considering military action. An even smaller proportion trust their own MP to do the same (28%).
But if we no longer trust our political leaders on issues of war (among other things), neither do we put much trust in those organisations that exist solely to oppose it. Only about one in four British voters say they trust the leaders of anti-war groups to tell the truth when it comes to debating military action (23%), compared with a large majority who don’t (64%). Interestingly in contrast, our view of military leaders is almost the exact reverse: 60% say they trust senior members of the UK Armed Forces in debates on military action, versus only 29% who don’t.
There was a point in 2003 when mainstream opinion teamed up with the anti-war movement to protest in the hundreds of thousands against invading Iraq. In the longer history of British public life, however, this is more like an exception that proves a rule. For much of the past century, UK foreign policy has been underpinned by a steady public belief in the utility of force, and what some have called an “unwritten compact” on British military engagement, namely that it would be necessary and a last resort, that it would end in success, that the outcome would be morally defensible and the benefits would outweigh the costs.
This compact was sorely tested, but not entirely broken, by long and questionable campaigns after 2001. A list of the side-effects on public opinion include a lower tolerance for military risk, a higher bar for evidence of the need to act, a new reluctance to do so without loud, international endorsement, and a deeper reverence for the legalities of intervention.
The genie is also out of the bottle, it seems, for public expectations of Parliamentary recall to approve the use of armed force overseas: nearly two thirds (58%) now think the Government should only take military action if MPs vote to support it first.
But we still fundamentally believe in the utility of force, and not only against imminent threats like Isil. Attitudes to Boko Haram in Nigeria are a useful indicator. Here is an African war involving an Islamist insurgency of no clear and present danger to British streets. Support for contributing ground troops, airstrikes or sending weapons is roughly as low as for the Syrian civil war. Yet a majority of Brits still support giving some amount of military help to the Nigerian government, including airdropping humanitarian supplies (71%), sending special forces to rescue hostages (55%) and providing military advisers (62%).
The days of surefire support for ambitious war-plans involving large numbers of ground troops may have passed. So has the altruistic mood that followed the Cold War, when voters were persistently less risk-averse than ministers about doing ‘armed social work’ around the world.
But as outgoing Army chief Sir Peter Wall recently warned in an interview with this newspaper, vague terms like “boots on the ground” are unhelpful when there are “lots of ways we can use military force constructively without being involved in decisive combat”.
British public opinion seems to agree: it can still be rallied to support a form of ‘war-lite’, if combined with an enhanced role for Parliament, and not only in the service of hard national interests but also softer humanitarian concerns.