Academic Director, YouGov

Following the British parliamentary vote on intervention in Syria, the government and the Prime Minister have defended Britain’s international relevance. However, polling data suggest there’s a creeping gap between willing and self-image in British attitudes to the world. 

(This article first appeared on RUSI.org here)

In his conference speech to the party faithful this week, David Cameron made an impassioned plea against isolationism, citing the role we play from counterterrorism to international aid as evidence that Britain still matters on the world stage.

In truth, we’ve been groping for a post-imperial sense of Exceptionalism since we asked the Truman Administration to underwrite military support for Greece and Turkey in 1947.

According to Winston Churchill a year later, Britain had become the political centre for ‘three great circles’ of freedom across the Commonwealth, the English speaking world and a united Europe.

Edward Heath called us ‘first rank’ among medium powers while James Callaghan preferred the indispensable ‘bridge builder’ for a multipolar age.

Margaret Thatcher quashed all that and proclaimed a return to greatness before Douglas Hurd withdrew to more humble notions of ‘punching above our weight’ on the back of American power.

Tony Blair renewed the vision of an indispensable bridge, this time a transatlantic one, before it collapsed under the invasion of Iraq.

More recently in 2010, Britain’s first ‘National Security Strategy’ (NSS-10) sought to refashion the nation-brand as a kind of Soft Power Britannia and cultural superpower, ‘whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size’. From NSS-2010 to London-2012, the current government has duly yodelled confidence about Britain’s continued perch as a great power and global leader.

In its varying forms, this kind of discourse has been a staple of civil servants and speechwriters since the end of Empire. But there’s a creeping gap between willing and self-image in British attitudes to the world, which will likely get harder for leaders to ignore or obscure with the old Whitehall rhetoric.

On one hand, we look increasingly circumspect about footing the bills of international engagement. As YouGov polls variously indicate, Britons are broadly divided on questions of defence cuts and procurement.

In earlier polling this year, 38% said the cuts have damaged Britain's ability to defend itself and should be reversed, compared with 45% saying they are either damaging but unavoidable or are reasonable and still allow for sufficient defence (see results). The electorate looks similarly undecided on whether to keep, scrap or downgrade the country’s Trident nuclear weapons system, with about a third choosing either to ‘maintain’ (32%) or ‘find a cheaper system’ (34%), while 20% prefer to ‘give up nuclear weapons altogether’ (see results). Another survey this year showed roughly similar numbers saying defence should be among the spending items that are cut or protected the most (see results).

By a similar token, when YouGov surveyed British attitudes to a range of overseas spending commitments in April, results showed strong support for maintaining current levels of funding for the Foreign Office and intelligence services. But several areas also stood out with a strong preference for cuts:

-59% supported a decrease in sending financial aid to poorer countries, versus 8% supporting an increase and 24% preferring to keep it the same as now;

-50% wanted lower spending on peacekeeping operations in places such as Africa, Haiti, Cyprus and the Middle East, versus 7% supporting an increase and 34% saying keep it the same;

-64% supported a decrease in financial contributions to the European Union, versus 3% wanting an increase and 24% wanting to keep the same (see results). 

On the other hand, the nation still clearly regards itself as a leading power whose prosperity and security both depend on keeping our historic place on high table.

According to research for the YouGov-Cambridge Programme:

-75% say Britain needs a major role in the world to protect its economic interests;

-65% say the same to protect national security;

-73% say it’s important to national interests to keep a leading voice in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO);

-78% say the same for the United Nations Security Council (see results). 

Results further show large majorities who say it’s important to keep the global, expeditionary capacity to send our Armed Forces anywhere in the world (69%), and to play the role of bridge (60%) between the United States and Europe.

Perhaps notably, given the debate on Britain’s place in the European Union (EU), these results include high levels of overall support for being a leading voice in the EU (70%), including strong endorsement for this position from supporters of the three largest political parties (68% of Conservatives, 75% of Labour and 87% of Liberal Democrat voters). However, one should note that this is not to be confused with attitudes to EU membership itself, but rather emphasises an underlying resistance to the notion of strategic shrinkage.

Table 1: In your view, how important or unimportant are the following activities in serving the United Kingdom's national interests?

 

Total important 
%

Total unimportant
%

Don’t know 
%

Being a leading voice in NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)

73

16

11

Being a leading voice in the European Union (EU)

70

23

8

Being a leading voice on the United Nations Security Council, as one of the Big Five Permanent Members (the others are the United States, Russia, China and France)

78

13

8

Having aircraft carriers to send our Armed Forces anywhere in the world

69

23

8

Acting as a bridge between the United States and Europe

60

30

9

Helping to finance international efforts to tackle global warming

51

41

8

Having our own nuclear weapons

54

34

12

Using military force to protect human rights in other countries

45

43

11

Sending financial aid to the developing world

36

57

7

Fieldwork was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1976 British Adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over. 

As former UK Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards remarked shortly before leaving his post, our political masters might be eager to reduce the size of our armed forces and the scope of international commitments. But the appetite to exercise influence on the world stage remains strong as ever.

Public opinion suggests a similar outlook. A majority of voters spanning the conservative-liberal divide expect the country to lead from the front in international affairs. At the same time, it hardly takes a pollster to see the country is in a period of retrenchment after five years of slump and twelve years of war:

-immigration vies with the economy as a top concern for voters (see more here);

-many want to downsize our commitment to international development, peacekeeping operations and using military force;

-people are also divided on the wisdom of defence cuts;

-Euroscepticism has gone mainstream while the recent Syria debate underscored a new reluctance to act together with our old superpower ally.

Declaring a new age of British isolationism is premature, and we may find smart ways to nurture great power influence with the limited resources of a progressively middle-ranking power – something the new House of Lords Committee on Soft Power has been tasked to investigate.

Either way, as the Syria episode demonstrated, Britain’s foreign policy-makers now walk a difficult path through the public square between familiar great power expectations and a growing lobby for Little Britain.

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