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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.