The figures used in this comment are drawn from a breakdown of a nationally representative sample of 2,059 people, divided into Scotland, the North, the Midlands and Wales, London, and the rest of the South. The figures for nations and regions within the UK are proportionate shares of the UK population as a whole, and are therefore smaller samples. The smaller the sample, the larger the margin of error. However, where there are significant divergences between regions outside this margin, we can have some confidence that this reflects a wider trend.
The Scottish National Party wants to bring a new voice, with a distinctly Scottish accent, to international affairs. According to the White Paper, Scotland’s Future, ‘while the UK seeks an ability to project global power, an independent Scotland can choose a different approach’. Taking inspiration from Scandinavia, this would focus on humanitarian and environmental causes, being an active and constructive member of the European Union, and an adept diplomatic player in multilateral institutions.
But do Scots think differently about foreign affairs? And, for that matter, do Northerners, or Londoners? The fourth Chatham House-YouGov survey, which explores public attitudes to international affairs, shows there are some significantly divergent attitudes to basic aspects of UK foreign policy across the country. It also highlights where Brits seem to share common perceptions and attitudes.
On moral and ethical questions, the regions seem to have divergent views. A majority of Scots polled (52%) think that British foreign policy should be based at least in part on ethical considerations, rather than simply pursuing the national interest at all times (33%). Londoners tend to agree (47% to 35%). But this is in marked contrast to the rest of the South, the Midlands and Wales and the North, in which national interest trumps ethics (most clearly in the North; 38% to 47%). Scots are less likely than others to think the UK should seek to be a ‘Great Power’, although even in Scotland a majority (53%) still support this view. In the South, that figure is 66%.
Scottish respondents in the survey are more supportive of spending on international development, with 42% feeling proud of the UK’s commitment to overseas aid, 12% higher than any other part of the country. Londoners and Scots are more likely to want to see the aid budget increased than respondents elsewhere, although these figures are still dwarfed by those who want to reduce it.
It is in attitudes to European integration though where the divergence is most striking. In this sample, Londoners and Scots would vote to stay in the EU, while the rest of the country would, narrowly, support leaving. Scots would vote to remain in the EU by two to one: 59% would vote to stay in (far higher than for any other part of the country) and just 24% to leave, a huge shift from our survey of two years ago when there was a slight lead in Scotland for those voting to leave, 41% to 40%.
Scots in this survey were more likely to identify advantages to EU membership and more likely than those living in other parts of the country to associate the EU with its perceived benefits rather than its drawbacks. Although Scots, like most other British people, significantly overestimate the UK’s net contribution to the EU, Scotland is the only region in the survey in which more respondents felt that the current figure of £9 billion was ‘about right’ rather than that it was ‘too much’ (43% said ‘about right’ to 37% ’too much’).
It is plausible to think that the debate on one union (the UK) has moved views on the other (the EU). Heightened scrutiny over an independent Scotland’s position inside the EU may have driven more to consider the value of membership, and most seem to have moved to the pro- camp. In 2012, one in five Scottish respondents thought there had been no advantages from EU membership, the highest of any region. Now, that figure is fewer than one in twelve, and the lowest of any region. This will give some encouragement to those who think that a positive campaign for EU membership ahead of any in/out EU referendum would be able to convince some sceptics of the benefits of membership.
In other areas though, attitudes to foreign affairs are shared across the UK. Across Britain, perceptions of the favourability of other countries are fairly evenly held. In Europe, attitudes are consistently warmest to northern European neighbours the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Ireland and coolest toward Russia (by a large margin) and Ukraine. All parts of the country think international terrorism poses the greatest threat to the UK and attitudes towards the use of military force are fairly consistent across regions. The view that the UK should help lead the global response to climate change is widely shared across the country.
Overall though, London and Scotland stand out as the two regions whose attitudes tend to diverge most from the rest of the UK, while the North, Midlands, Wales and the rest of the South tend to group together. Given the tone of the debate between London and Edinburgh at present, this is perhaps surprising. The tendency has been to characterize the metropole as distant and out of touch. But regardless of differences between Holyrood and Westminster, Scots and Londoners seem to share similar attitudes to a number of international issues, most clearly European integration.
Some aspects of the SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland do seem to chime with the results of this limited sample. Scots are more pro-EU and more concerned about ethical aspects of foreign affairs. But in many areas the differences are marginal. It would be ironic though if pro-EU Scotland left the UK (particularly if driven in some part by fears that the UK could leave the EU), only to find transition to independent membership to be difficult. Perhaps more likely is that the two unions become self-re-enforcing. A No vote in Scotland would strengthen the body of pro-EU opinion in the UK, and make a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU more winnable.
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