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The British public and foreign policy – no consensus

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

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.

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.

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