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
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
- 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
3. Our evidence suggests public feelings about
Britain's role in the world are confusedor, at least, heavily
contextualwith 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.
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
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 is 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.
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
as a more effective tool for foreign affairs than military action
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.
11. The British public clearly perceive 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.
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 the need of the developing countries.
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
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.
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 onor at least publicly justified usingintelligence.
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.
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 unilateralistsjust 5% favoured immediate
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
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
7 More material is available on request. Back