How does the rest of the world view Britain?

A new Ipsos MORI poll reveals that the further you travel away from Britain, the better Britain looks.

Our position in the world and how we are perceived from abroad matters economically and politically. A positive image abroad can support export-led growth and inward investment, but also facilitates "soft power" and British influence on the world stage. Has 2012 changed global perceptions and improved brand Britain?

New Ipsos MORI research for the British Council suggests that Britain’s three big events of the past year – the Olympics, the Paralympics and the Diamond Jubilee – have contributed to an improvement in its reputation overseas and created additional interest in Britain as a place to visit, study and do business. This comes on top of an already positive global image of Britain, one which contrasts with, in many cases, an unnecessarily self-deprecating outlook among Brits as evidenced by our pre-Olympics research, Britain 2012.

Our latest Global Advisor survey across 11 countries including the US, China, India and Russia suggests that the Great British summer has had a positive impact overseas. Almost two thirds of those we polled said that they thought Britain did a good job at organising the Olympics (compared to only 6 per cent who disagreed), and 44 per cent believe that Britain has a greater influence over world affairs as a result (only 3 per cent take a negative view).

More than one in three said the 2012 Games have made them more likely to visit Britain and the same proportion said the Games have made Britain more attractive to them as a place to do business or study. Fewer than one in five said the Olympics have not made them any more likely to want to visit, study or do business in Britain.

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee also appears to have contributed to improved perceptions of Britain, albeit to a lesser extent. More than a quarter of those surveyed around the world said they had experienced or been aware of the Jubilee in some form. Of those, one in three said they now think more positively about Britain as a result. Only three per cent say that it has had a negative effect on their perceptions of Britain.

So far so good, but is Britain distinctive? There is some evidence from our polling that Britain stands out from other western nations in a way that could be good news for UK plc if harnessed in the right way. For example, other research for the British Council finds that people from the UK are more trusted than, say, those from Germany and from the USA.

Across a whole range of topics, we find people around the world see Britain in a pretty positive light with, for instance, a majority seeing us as a country committed to culture and the arts (54%), with strong democratic values and institutions (56 per cent) and with a good standard of living (59 per cent). The power of the English language is a positive, and cultural activities have a beneficial impact on views of Britain.

As is always the case though, there are some caveats. Much of the research we have conducted over the last twelve months suggests the further you travel away from Britain, the better Britain looks. Our European neighbours and trading partners tend to take a rather less positive view. Perhaps we should not be too surprised that Europeans give us a cool reception – along with ‘in/out’ debates, they are hardly hearing and seeing British confidence, something Boris Johnson pointed out at the CBI annual conference recently.

There is no getting away from the relatively poor self-assessment the British people give Britain. Is this a good place to invest, for instance? Only 24 per cent of us think so. Looking at Britain from outside, however, the figure rises to 42 per cent. The same poll found that only 13 per cent of Brits feel we have a strong economy whilst globally, 48 per cent feel Britain’s economy is strong. And one of the more striking Global Advisor poll findings this year is that Germans were four times more likely to be positive about their economy’s prospects than the British were of theirs.

Still, back in August, 78 per cent of the British public thought that the Olympics had had a positive impact on the way Britain is viewed by the world, and our polling for the British Council shows that they have been proved correct. This means that while this Olympic year is fading fast and interest in Rio 2016 is only just in its infancy, the 2012 legacy opportunities for Britain are still evident and exciting.

Ben Marshall is a Research Director at Ipsos MORI
Follow him on Twitter @BenM_IM

Fireworks light up the stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.