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22 March 2011

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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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.