The British public and foreign policy – no consensus

This year's Chatham House survey reveals fundamental divisions between Tory and Lib Dem supporters.

These are turbulent times in international affairs. Stagnation in Europe and deep uncertainty over the future of the European project, instability across the Middle East and the shift in the centre of economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific – all are fundamental challenges for international policy-makers. As a medium-sized country under severe economic pressure, the UK faces a number of hard choices for its foreign policy: As global power shifts, who should the UK’s closest ties be to? In particular, what role should the EU play in Britain’s future? What resources can be devoted to foreign policy in austere times?  

For the last three years, the Chatham House-YouGov Survey has explored public attitudes to these questions. This year’s results provide some particularly interesting insights which could spell trouble for the coalition’s foreign policy. 

Drifting away from Europe

As most European countries face up to the twin trends of relative economic decline and the growing necessity to face external challenges in unison, the British public remains fundamentally sceptical about deeper European integration and about the EU itself. While other EU countries seek to bind themselves ever more closely together, the momentum to deepen EU political and economic integration appears to be having a centrifugal effect on the UK.

A clear majority – 57 per cent – of the general public would like to vote on the UK’s membership of the EU. And in such a referendum, almost half (49 per cent) would vote for the UK to leave the EU altogether. The public tends to see more disadvantages (in particular too much regulation and immigration) than benefits (freedom to travel and work across the EU) from membership of the EU. There is almost no support for joining the euro.

But when presented with a broader range of options for future European integration than an "in/out" choice, the most popular view is for a less integrated EU based on a free trade area, rather than complete withdrawal. This has important implications for the phrasing of any future referendum on membership of the EU.

There is also a notable knowledge gap about the costs of Europe: most of the public significantly overestimate the UK’s net contribution to the EU, on average by three times the actual figure of £8.1 billion net per year.  And yet when asked whether the UK should cooperate with the EU in a number of policy areas, including security, migration, trade and foreign policy, the public are overwhelmingly supportive of close cooperation.

Our poll of opinion-formers – leaders from a range of sectors including business, government, NGOs and the media – reveals a British elite that diverges widely from the public on Europe. This group tends to oppose a referendum (53 per cent to 42 per cent), and if given a say on membership, a solid majority – 63 per cent – would vote to remain in the EU. Opinion-formers tend to think the UK’s closest ties should be to the EU, rather than the US or emerging economies like China or India, and they have a more balanced view of the benefits (they cite freedom to travel, free trade and peace and security) and costs (bureaucracy and a loss of national power) of EU membership.

Is there a consensus alternative option?

If the public is not convinced that Britain’s future lies within the EU, what other channels of influence can the UK leverage? No consensus emerges. The public thinks the armed forces are the key asset of UK foreign policy; the opinion-formers believe it to be the BBC World Service. And when asked when the UK should use military force, the public felt that British interests should come above those of the international community.

Overseas aid receives highly negative views from the public, 56 per cent of whom believe that the UK should give little or no aid; again, opinion-formers disagree entirely, with a majority of the view that the UK should give a "fair amount", as part of a wider belief in the importance of ethical considerations in foreign policy.

This seems to reflect a defensive view among the general public to developments in international affairs. Rather than favouring an internationalist or transformative foreign policy, a majority – 51 per cent – think the government’s top priorities should be protecting the British ‘homeland’ from external threats such as terrorism. Beyond this apparently fundamental belief, three years of the Chatham House-YouGov Survey reveal no genuinely shared vision for the UK’s role in the world, beyond a definitive opposition to one based on further integration with Europe.

Hard choices ahead for the coalition

The coalition government is now over two years into its term in office. Its foreign policy has tended to be pragmatic, and the two parties have achieved an impressive unity of purpose in support of the government’s ambitions to develop a "distinctive" British foreign policy, involving no "strategic shrinkage" and a keen focus on "the national interest".

However, this year’s survey reveals fundamental divisions between supporters of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on almost every aspect of foreign policy. This is true of attitudes to overseas aid, the role of interests vs. ethics in foreign policy or reasons for the use of military force. There is a dramatic split over Europe in particular. 71 per cent of those intending to vote Conservative would like the UK to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, and 69 per cent would vote to leave the EU altogether. In contrast, only 40 per cent of Liberal Democrats favour a referendum, and 64 per cent would vote to remain within the Union.

Given the choices that lie ahead for the UK, whether on Europe, defence or development spending, and more fundamentally, what kind of role Britain should play around the world, these divisions could become more pronounced. Resolving differences between and within the two parties could pose as great a challenge to the coalition government as will the shifting dynamics of international affairs. And all of this must be achieved in an era of reduced spending on foreign policy. Reconciling these difficulties may be the biggest challenge of all.

David Cameron greets troops after making a speech to British and American troops at Camp Leatherneck military base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Knight is a research associate and Thomas Raines coordinates the Europe research programme at Chatham House.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster