The Role of the FCO in UK Government


Written evidence from Dr. Graeme Davies, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds and Dr. Robert Johns, Department of Government, University of Essex

British Public Attitudes about International Affairs [1]


1. The evidence from this memorandum comes from Foreign Policy Attitudes and Support for War Amongst the British Public, an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project (Award Ref. 062-23-1952). The data were collected in early 2010 on a representative sample of 5,000 British adults. Respondents were questioned about their attitudes towards international affairs, the use of military force, perceived security threats, nuclear weapons, MI6 and international trust amongst others. The purpose of this evidence is to give the committee members an indication of the public opinion parameters within which the FCO will have to operate. This memorandum reports a selection of our results.

2. Some of our main findings are:

· The British public are supportive of an ethical foreign policy, largely eschewing the use of torture, supporting strict controls on the arms trade, and preferring negotiation to the use of military action.

· Only 3% of the British public rank defence and foreign affairs as their most important policy priority compared to 57% who placed the economy first.

· 51% of the British public tend not to trust other nations.

· 57% of the British public declare themselves to be interested in international affairs.

· 48% of the British public are confident that MI6 produces accurate intelligence; only 17% are confident that the British government will present this information accurately to the public.

· 61% of the British public rank international terrorism as a critical threat to British security.

· 41% rank proliferation of nuclear weapons as a critical threat to national security.

· 54% agree with the statement that "Britain is too small a country to be out policing the world".

· 49% of the British public believe that negotiations are an effective approach for dealing with a country whereas 18% believe that military action is more effective.

· 46% of the public believe torture can never be justified.

3. Our evidence suggests public feelings about Britain’s role in the world are confused – or, at least, heavily contextual – with some responses suggesting that the public believe we should be less active, whereas other responses suggesting a desire for greater engagement. While respondents profess themselves interested in international affairs, it did not rank very highly as a policy priority for the public. When we do engage in international affairs we should do so in conjunction with other states. However, the public believes that the UK spends too many resources supporting US military activities and that we contribute too much to international organisations. The public is also generally mistrustful of other states in the international system.

4. The evidence presented will examine British public attitudes in eight areas:

a) International affairs

b) Negotiations and sanctions

c) Security threats

d) International aid

e) International trade

f) National debt and military action

g) Confidence in intelligence and government

h) Nuclear weapons

The authors

5. Dr. Graeme Davies: Lecturer in International Security at the University of Leeds and Co-Director of Project. Dr Davies has published research on domestic politics and the initiation of international conflicts, North Korean foreign policy behaviour and the effect of coercive diplomacy on Iran. He is currently working on British and US public attitudes towards international conflict and international affairs.

6. Dr. Robert Johns: Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Essex and Co-Director of Project. Dr Johns researches and has published in the fields of public opinion and political psychology. He has been lead researcher on a number of major survey projects investigating political attitudes in Britain.

Attitudes towards international affairs

7. The public in general regard themselves as interested in international relations, with 59% of respondents saying that they pay attention to international politics. However, only 3% of the public rank defence and foreign affairs as their most important policy priority. When considering Britain’s role in the world, the British public show a strong preference for multilateral efforts and tend to want the British to avoid policing the international system. Looking at Figure 1 we see that 78% of the British public agree or agree strongly that the UK should work with other countries in solving problems like climate change and poverty. However, 20% of the public agree strongly that we are too small a country to be out policing the world and only 8% agree strongly that we should be trying to end conflicts around the world. Generally the public appear to be roughly equally split on ‘internationalism versus isolationism’ with 38% of the public believing that we should concentrate on problems at home, 41% disagreeing, and 22% unsure. This is characteristic of a broader ambivalence in British public attitudes towards international affairs. In particular, our findings suggest that there considerable uncertainty about active engagement in military matters, but the public do want to see us cooperate with other states on non-military matters. As with so many findings in this survey, this is clearly reflective of Britain’s recent foreign policy experience.

8. In terms of military alliances the public are particularly unwilling for the British to become involved in unilateral action or ‘coalition of the willing’-style actions with the United States (Figure 2). 70% of the public are willing to support British involvement in UN-led operations and 45% of the public are willing to support EU-led operations. 30% of the public are willing to support British involvement in US-led coalitions, marginally lower than the 32% who are willing to support unilateral military action. Clearly, if Britain is to act abroad then the public would prefer that we worked with other nations; if we are to go to war, they feel that we should act within formal international organisations, preferably the UN.

Attitudes towards international negotiations and economic sanctions

9. One of the areas addressed in the survey is attitudes towards international negotiations, a matter directly under the FCO’s remit. While the public are generally mistrustful of other countries in the international system, this does not translate into opposition to negotiations and the public is clearly in favour of negotiating with Iran, North Korea and the Taliban. Looking at Figure 3, we see the public are very supportive of diplomatic attempts to deal with states that have or might be developing nuclear weapons. We also examined attitudes towards military strikes against Iran and found that the public is again in favour of a more diplomatic approach. There is slightly less willingness to support negotiations with the Taliban, although it still remains the preferred option for a significant portion of the public. Overall, the public is inclined to regard negotiations are a more effective tool for foreign affairs than military action (Figure 4).

10. Respondents were on balance likely to see economic sanctions as effective (Figure 5). Confirming the dovish tendency among the British public, sanctions were, like diplomacy, seen as preferable to military action in dealing with countries perceived to be a problem for the United Kingdom.

Security threats

11. The British public clearly perceive that the rise of Islamic extremism and the spread of international terrorism as posing the greatest threat to British national security, trumping even the spread of nuclear weapons (Figure 6). The rise of international terrorism has had a significant impact upon the British public with 73% believing that Britain will be the target of terrorist attacks in the next few years and 27% of respondents believing that they might be the victim of such an attack (the latter probably an undue pessimism considering the historical record of terror attacks). Interestingly, the rise of China is viewed by the British public as an important if not critical security threat. These attitudes are clearly subject to the influence of the media and political debate more generally, and public perceptions of national security priorities may well reflect the focus in public discourse on terror rather than on, say, energy security.

Aid policy

12. There seems to be a general if slightly grudging acceptance of foreign aid, with half the population believing that the aid budget is either about right (30%) or too small (21%) (Figure 7). A further 9% answered "don’t know", leaving a large minority (40%) who believe that we spend too much. There is roughly an even split on how the British public view foreign aid priorities (Figure 8), with around 39% of the population believing that we should focus our aid policy on national interests and 42% believing we should focus on need of the developing countries.

Trade policy

13. The next area we focus upon is the extent of protectionist attitudes amongst the British public, and in particular on their attitudes towards the arms trade. Generally the public opposes both unbridled protectionism and completely free trade; rather they are supportive of limited restrictions upon imports (Figure 9). (This flock to the middle option may also reflect a public that knows and thinks little about the subject.) There is similar balance on the issue of arms exporting, but here there is a core of strong opposition, with 14% strongly disapproving of the arms trade (Figure 10). The support of the rest of the public comes with conditions, however, relating to where the public believes those arms are going. A separate question revealed that, while 21% flatly oppose any arms exports and 11% take an entirely permissive approach, the large majority of the public believe that we should only sell arms to democracies and countries with a good human rights record (Figure 11). Arms deals with countries that have poor human rights records would clearly go against public opinion.

National debt and military action

14. Looking at Figure 6, we can see that 94% of the British public view the financial crisis as an important or critical threat to British security. One of the implications of the financial crisis is the size of the deficit and the overall level of national debt. We examined public views about whether it should affect government decision-making about the use of military action. Clearly, the deployment of armed forces is a costly business and financial restrictions may affect national priorities. A small majority of the British public (54%) believe that the level of national debt should not influence military decisions. However, a significant minority (36%) believe we should rule out any new military endeavours until the debt has been reduced substantially and 11% of the public believe that we should suspend all military actions until the national debt has been significantly reduced.

Confidence in intelligence and the government

15. One of the clearest findings we have in our study is that, while the British public are broadly confident in the intelligence produced by MI6 (48% to the ‘confident’ side of the middle point), they are far less confident that the British government will present that intelligence accurately (only 18%) (Figure 13). The flawed use of intelligence during the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has clearly influenced public attitudes about how government uses intelligence. Further analysis suggests that an individual’s confidence in intelligence and government reporting of that intelligence will have a significant impact upon their support for pre-emptive military action. This will have significant implications for British foreign policy if future decisions are based on – or at least publicly justified using – intelligence.

16. We also examined public attitudes towards the use of coercive questioning methods. Most within the public show a strong distaste for the use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques (such as water-boarding), 46% of the public believing that torture and 34% that enhanced interrogation can never be justified (Figure 14). On the other hand, there remain significant minorities who are much more sanguine about such methods.

Nuclear weapons and the NPT

17. The next area that we investigated was public attitudes towards nuclear weapons, their costs, and our obligations towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We asked the public if they believed that we spent too much, too little or just the right amount on our nuclear deterrent (Figure 15). While the largest minority of the public felt that we spent about the right amount on our nuclear deterrent (32%) a sizeable proportion of the public (38% to that side of the mid-point) tend to think that too much money is spent. When asked about Britain’s obligations to disarm under the NPT, respondents showed general support for the removal of nuclear weapons but little enthusiasm for leading the way on that front. A majority of the public (52%) believe that we should disarm at the same pace as the other nuclear powers and few were in the extreme categories: just 9% of the public believe we should retain the deterrent regardless of the actions of other states, and still fewer were unilateralists – just 5% favoured immediate disarmament.


18. The picture emerging from this research is of a broadly multilateral public. Their focus is generally on international cooperation within formal institutional frameworks. They are concerned about ad hoc military campaigns and believe that we should neither be acting in unilateral fashion nor attempting to police the international system. The public support nuclear disarmament but again they want the government to act in conjunction with the other states.

19. This desire for multilateral action is also consistent with the wider demands for an ethical foreign policy. The public eschews the use of torture, is broadly supportive of international aid (even at a time of domestic economic difficulty), and, while not opposed to the arms trade, wants strict controls on where British weapons are sold. An ethical foreign policy at the heart of government will receive strong support from the British public.

20. There is a general confidence in the intelligence that is produced by MI6, but an uncertainty about how that intelligence will be used by the government. This has immediate policy implications: an independent agency that is free from political control and can produce publicly available intelligence dossiers may be necessary to improve British public confidence in evidence presented for military action. It also has implications for the nature of public opinion about foreign policy, a topic often remote from people’s everyday concerns (and often given little prominence in the mass media). While the public reported considerable interest in international affairs, the apparently moderate positions taken on most issues may reflect the top-of-the-head responses from citizens who have seldom reflected on that question before and grasp at what sounds like a reasonable response. Attitudes tend to crystallise when previously remote issues are thrust into their attention, as with the Iraq war and accompanying controversies about intelligence. Public opinion in this field thus offers policymakers a degree of room for manoeuvre. However, there is a point beyond which the ‘permissive consensus’ will break.

25 November 2010

[1] More material is available on request.