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.

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.