Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme

The latest Chatham House–YouGov survey suggests that while there is little consensus among the British public on major foreign policy issues, there is support for the UK to pursue an ambitious international agenda.

Photo: ADREES LATIF/Reuters/Corbis.

Is the United Kingdom becoming more isolationist in its foreign policy outlook? Growing uncertainty about its European future, declining budgets for defence and diplomacy, the government’s parliamentary defeat over intervention in Syria: each has contributed to a narrative that the UK’s status as an internationalist state is slowly eroding.

Internationalism or isolationism?

It is in this context that this edition of the Chatham House–YouGov survey explores attitudes to international affairs among the British public and opinion-formers. The results indicate that there has been no clear movement towards isolationism: in fact, in some policy areas the reverse appears to be true. Overall, there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role.

  • Majorities of the public and opinion-formers say that the UK should aspire to be a ‘great power’ rather than accept that it is in decline. 63% of the public and 61% of opinion-formers support this view, the highest level since the survey was first conducted.
  • A majority of the public says that the UK has a responsibility to maintain international security, provide troops for peacekeeping missions and help lead the global response to climate change.

At the same time, the public’s attitudes are marked by a degree of caution and defensiveness. They are sceptical of intervention in support of uprisings overseas, think foreign policy should focus on protecting the UK at its borders and remain unsupportive of development aid spending.

  • For the public, border protection and counterterrorism continue to be the most important international issue, as has been the case in the past two editions of the survey. Opinion-formers, meanwhile, think promoting British business and trade should be the main focus of foreign policy.
  • Among both the public and opinion-formers, international terrorism is most widely identified as a threat to the British way of life.
  • Only 17% of the public say that the UK has a moral responsibility to support popular uprisings against dictators.
  • The proportion of the public who think that the armed forces do the most to serve UK interests abroad has fallen from a peak of 53% in 2011 to 38% in 2014.

Beyond Brexit

On perhaps the biggest foreign policy question facing the UK, the future of its relationship with the EU, the public and opinion-formers diverge significantly. Public perceptions of the EU remain broadly negative, but there has been a modest but consistent improvement in them since the survey was last conducted in 2012. There is support for the government’s ambition to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU, with the return of powers from Brussels to the UK seen as the priority for reform. Opinion-formers, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly supportive of membership of the EU.

  • Public support for a referendum on membership of the EU has changed little since the last edition of the survey and remains high at 60%, with 24% opposed. Opinion-formers are narrowly opposed, with 50% against and 46% in favour.
  • Support for remaining in the EU has grown among opinion-formers and is now at 72%. Among the public, narrowly more would vote to remain in the EU (40%) than to leave it (39%).
  • A plurality of the public now thinks that the UK’s closest ties should be to the EU (30%) rather than to the US (25%), a reversal of the position in 2012.
  • Skewed perceptions of the financial costs of EU membership have become more pronounced. While Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget in 2013 was just over £11 billion, among the public the median estimate of this was £40 billion (up from £27 billion in 2012) and the mean estimate was £118 billion (up from £74 billion in 2012).
  • Almost half the public (49%) would support limiting free movement of people within the EU even if that would mean limiting their own rights to live and work elsewhere in Europe. Only 26% oppose such restrictions.

No consensus

The survey also demonstrates the extent to which attitudes to international affairs vary throughout the UK, whether between the public and opinion-formers, between supporters of different political parties, between different nations and regions, or between young and old.

  • Voters in London and Scotland would vote to stay in the EU, while those in the rest of the South, the Midlands/Wales and Northern England would vote to leave.
  • Scottish respondents are more pro-European, more supportive of development aid, and more likely than English ones to say ethics should play a role in foreign policy.
  • While more than two-thirds of Liberal Democrats and half of Labour supporters say they support an ethical foreign policy, only one-third of Conservatives and just 17% of UKIP voters do.
  • A plurality of Conservatives and UKIP supporters say the armed forces do the most to serve the UK’s interests internationally, whereas Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters place the BBC World Service first.

The challenge ahead

Such views pose a challenge for policy-makers. Britain remains a mid-sized power and a major economy, and it occupies a structurally important position within a number of multilateral organizations. Although there is no public consensus around the means and ends of foreign policy, the survey suggests that there is a base of public support for the UK to pursue an ambitious international agenda in some areas at least.

The challenges for the next government, whatever its political hue, will be to strike the right balance between the desire to be a great power and the political and financial constraints on that ambition; and also between shaping public opinion on foreign policy and the need to reflect it. This will require strong and thoughtful leadership at home as well as abroad.