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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war