Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

The Chatham House-YouGov Survey - Are the British Prepared to Compete?

Are the British Prepared to Compete?

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Chairman, Gatehouse Advisory Partners; former UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations

The first impression from YouGov's latest study of UK public reactions to foreign policy development and the wider international scene is of people's continuing attachment to the UK's independence as an island state. This, however, is accompanied by a lack of enthusiasm for any particular role for the UK in the international context, except perhaps contented passivity.

The survey did not cover complex economic matters in detail, which obscures the fact that a nation's economic capability has become, in a more equal and competitive world, the most important economic capability has become, in a more equal and competitive world, the most important determinant of national health and impact. But it is noticeable that the three highest points of focus chosen for UK foreign policy - placed in a slightly different order by the general public and the opinionformers - are (i) ensuring the supply of raw materials, (ii) protecting the country's home territory and (iii) promoting UK business. No swelling of concern about global issues visible here, as the scores for climate change, poverty reduction and the promotion of democratic values follow some way behind.

The second is the growing trend of scepticism about the European Union, most marked among those with conservative leanings, of course, but still striking across the board. This is predictable as a response to commentaries and headlines at home, and to the EU's, and especially the Eurozone's, poor performance. But it also underlines the reluctance of the British public to acknowledge the significance of the UK's main trading bloc, or to recognize that most European societies have swung back closer to the UK's kind of national preference and can therefore promise more opportunities for partnership on issues than Britons give them credit for.

If the EU scores lowest on the relationship meter, China is out there at the top, way ahead of Russia, Brazil, the US or India. Although the survey gives little direct evidence of the reasons for this, it must surely reflect, first, the perceived prominence of China as the primary rising power and, second, the importance of China as the economic game-changer. What assets might be put into UK-China links, or who the UK's allies and partners might be in tapping the opportunities of the new era, are factors that do not emerge with any clarity from the relative coolness in the results towards the British business community, diplomacy and investment in the international institutions.

Are there areas of positive spirit? The armed forces receive a lot of support, at least for spending on their equipment, and the quality of the BBC World Service is recognized. The intelligence services, too, will be pleased to see that they feature at the higher end, which may reflect their decision to be less shadowy with their public profile. But the overall impression is that most people are content with current levels of activity and spending. And, while the armed forces receive a thumbs-up, using them to intervene abroad, as in Libya, does not. That touch of insularity, which is not so distant from the prevailing European view, reflects the experience of the past ten years, and especially the legacy of Iraq.

You could go so far as to say that the picture has a whiff of complacency about it: 'we are comfortable where we are, thank you'. Most opinion-formers - 54% to 39% (and specifically 67% to 29% among those who intend to vote Conservative) - want Britain to try to remain a great power, retain its Security Council seat and maintain substantial armed forces. But there is little sign that they want to make sacrifices for that to be possible in a more competitive world.

So it comes as a slight shock to see that the overall view of UK foreign policy over the past year of the coalition government comes out negative, with 40% thinking that it has 'damaged Britain's reputation abroad' and only 6% saying that it has enhanced it. It might reflect economic pessimism at home, or worry about geopolitical change, or dissatisfaction with the UK's impact on the international scene, or a complex mixture. But it does seem inconsistent with the tenor of the figures elsewhere. Both the pollsters and the surveyed might reflect a bit further on what this exercise does not tell us.

The current economic situation is the UK's greatest medium-term worry, with consequences not just for the UK's position and image in the world but for the domestic social and political story as well. Nothing is more important than getting back to top economic form.

Beyond that, there is a sense of the conventional and the familiar about this survey which misses some cardinal points about what is going on out there. The international institutions are fading in their effectiveness and we must start thinking about what takes their place (the G20 on its own is not enough); issues are being addressed in ad hoc ways by the powers with proactive capabilities, which requires skilful and sometimes unconventional approaches by those who think of themselves in that category; the private sector and civil society are part of the multiplicity of actors on the international scene and the UK's effectiveness needs to be boosted here too; and governments are being pushed into new forms of response by the power of freer societies interacting across borders in constantly changing ways.

Sitting in our comfort area, waiting for things to get better around us, blaming the government: none of these fit what we are facing as a country. New ideas and new energy have got to come from somewhere. Time for the next generation to step forward?

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Moore Wilson Digital Agency London