1 July 2012
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


There is a persistent belief among the British public that international terrorism remains the greatest threat to the British way of life and that countering it should be the main priority in UK foreign policy. Both views consistently rank first in their respective categories over the past three years of the survey. However, three interesting subtleties emerge from these results. First, age is an important factor: the younger you are, the less likely you are to be concerned with terrorism; only 33% of the 18–24-year-olds consider international terrorism to be the greatest threat to the British way of life, compared to 59% for those aged 60 and over. Second, inhabitants of London are relatively less concerned by terrorism (45% selected it as the greatest threat) than people living in the rest of the south (53%), the Midlands/Wales (47%) and the north (54%). This is somewhat surprising given London's historical prominence as Britain's main target of terrorist attacks. Third, there are clear differences between opinion-formers and the general public. Among opinion-formers, terrorism ranks only fourth as a threat to the British way of life.

By definition, terrorist attacks are designed to cause fear and panic in order to bring about political change. This year's survey results confirm the trend of distorted perceptions among the overall British public. Understandably, the public fears risks over which they have little control. But the statistical likelihood of being killed by a terrorist attack in the UK ranks significantly below cancer (more than 150,000 deaths in 2010); smoking (almost 100,000 people died from smoking-related diseases in 2011); alcohol (more than 15,000 people per year die from alcohol poisoning and related diseases); HIV (accounting for around 682 deaths in 2010); car accidents (more than 5 people die on UK roads every day); or even traffic pollution (almost 5,000 deaths per year).

However, an overriding sense of fear remains. The reality is that no government in the world can prevent every single terrorist attack, and terrorism should therefore be seen not as a threat to the British way of life but as a risk to be managed and contained. And although terrorist violence is likely to remain a fact of life, the government should place a high priority on addressing the pervading sense of fear that the potential for future attacks appears to induce.