Libya polls show that British public is divided

YouGov poll shows 45 per cent of people supporting action in Libya, while ComRes finds 43 per cent o

The first polls gauging British public support for military action have come out – and they show contradictory results.

A YouGov poll for the Sun shows 45 per cent of people supporting action by Britain, the US and France, and 36 per cent stating that it is wrong.

However, a ComRes/ITN poll shows almost exactly the opposite, with 35 per cent in favour of action and 43 per cent opposed to it.

Clearly, this shows that we mustn't be too hasty about declaring that the public is opposed to or in favour of the war, as many news outlets have been doing this morning.

Discussing the ComRes poll, John Rentoul declares that "it is not even as well supported by the British public as the Iraq invasion", citing a Guardian/ICM poll which showed 54 per cent support for Britain's role in the invasion of Iraq in the days after it started.

While it is true that all pollsters showed a boost in support for the 2003 Iraq war after it actually began, the comparison is slightly disingenuous, given the unique circumstances. Drilling down into the figures from Ipsos MORI (taken before the war started) shows that this support was highly conditional – while 74 per cent would support war with proof of WMDs and a UN resolution, just 26 per cent would support it without either of these two things.

It's also relevant that support for the Iraq war (and for Afghanistan) dropped substantially as they dragged on. Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza suggests that the first Gulf war might be a better comparison, as public support started and stayed high:

The secret to that political success? The war was short – military actions lasted less than a month – and the US was widely perceived to be at the head of a broad international coalition that soundly defeated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein . . .

Given that history, it's no surprise that President Obama is focusing almost entirely on the planned brevity of the US's military involvement and the near-unanimity of the international community in support of the actions taken against Libya.

This would certainly be a better model for this action – though it's worth noting that neither of today's polls shows public support even approaching the levels seen in 1991, when 80 per cent of the British public thought military action was right.

All today's polls tell us is that the public is still unsure: there is no widespread opposition to it, but nor is there a swell of support.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.