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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder