Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

Arab Spring: where next for UK policy?

Jane Kinninmont, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The contentious entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan still appear to be shaping British attitudes towards international intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. The survey results show a striking scepticism among the general public and opinion-formers about British military intervention abroad, despite the crossparty support among politicians for the no-fly zone in Libya.

The multilateral nature of the action against Colonel Gaddafi probably helped to sell it to the public: respondents were far more likely to support military action under a multilateral umbrella than in partnership with the EU, which came out as roughly as unpopular as the US. However, this was a general question with no specific target mentioned. When asked if they would support military action against Iran's nuclear programme, nearly half of the general public were opposed and opponents outweighed supporters across class, age, gender and region. There also seemed to be scepticism about intervention more widely, with nearly half of all respondents saying Britain should not involve itself in any way in uprisings like those in Egypt and Libya.

However, 18-24-year-olds bucked the trend, with 29% saying that Britain has a moral responsibility to support such uprisings regardless of national interest. Respondents in this age group were between 10 and 16 years old when the Iraq war started and between 4 and 10 years old when Tony Blair came into office, so it is likely that their worldview is less affected by the Iraq experience. They are also the same age as the people leading the uprisings in the Arab world, a region where most of the population is under 25.

By contrast, the over-60s were the most likely to oppose involvement in Arab uprisings (60%), and the least likely to support unilateral military action (12%). Further research could perhaps unlock which types of non-military intervention - such as economic sanctions or trade incentives, diplomatic pressure, civil society work - might have popular support.

Survey respondents showed continued concern about international terrorism, cited by more than half as one of the greatest threats to the British way of life. It was the most commonly cited threat among all age groups, the second being the risk to energy supplies. These popular worries may encourage policy-makers to maintain a focus on traditional concerns of counter-terrorism and energy security in dealing with the Middle East. Tackling terrorism requires a holistic approach that also addresses political issues, including conflict and state failure, not just the security aspects. But if voters want their government to support democracy and human rights overseas, they need to convince policy-makers that these things matter to them.

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