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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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.