1 July 2012


Reviewing a 'distinctive' British foreign policy

As a medium-sized power in the midst of a protracted economic downturn and under severe resource constraints, the United Kingdom faces hard choices in its foreign policy. Despite this, the coalition government entered office with high ambitions to develop a 'distinctive' British foreign policy. This was to involve no 'strategic shrinkage', vigorously promoting British businesses and trade interests, a cautious approach to European integration, a reinvigorated but rebalanced relationship with the US, and strengthened relations with emerging powers.

The survey results indicate broad alignment between the government’s priorities and the views of the public. Both the general public and opinion-formers rank commercial diplomacy as a top priority in British foreign policy. 47% of the public believe that national interests should drive UK policy. And there is close correlation between the government’s approach to its relations with the European Union (EU) and the sceptical attitude of the British public towards Europe. There is increasing recognition of the importance of engaging with emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil.

However, the public are not convinced by the coalition's performance. 32%, a significant proportion, believe that the coalition has changed British foreign policy for the worse; 41% see no difference, and only 6% believe things have changed for the better. This view is largely shared by opinion-formers, 52% of whom see no difference, while 24% believe things have changed for the worse.

The results appear to reflect a growing defensiveness and unease among the UK public towards developments in international affairs. Rather than favouring an internationalist or transformative foreign policy, a majority (50%) think the government’s top priorities should be protecting the British 'homeland' from threats such as terrorism, organized crime and weapons of mass destruction. 

Britain and the European Union: drifting apart

The survey confirms the ambivalent view of the British public concerning the EU. While other countries in Europe regard further European integration as part of the solution to present crises and a response to long-term trends, the UK general public remains extremely sceptical about deeper European integration and about the EU itself.

A clear majority (57%) of the general public would like to vote on the UK's membership of the EU. And in such a referendum, almost half (49%) would vote for the UK to leave the EU altogether. Further economic integration was particularly unpopular: 60% of the public have no desire for the UK to join the single currency at any point in the future. However, when presented with a broader range of options than a simple 'in/out' choice, the most popular preference was not for the UK’s withdrawal but continuing membership of a less integrated EU, more akin to a free trade area.

In addition, a clear majority of the public continues to favour closer cooperation with EU partners across a range of policy areas that would improve UK security and prosperity. For their part, opinion-formers remain firmly convinced of the centrality of Europe to Britain’s future. 53% are opposed to a referendum and 63% would vote for the UK to remain a member.

An island apart?

In the context of entrenched public scepticism towards the UK’s future in the European Union, what might be the cornerstones of a more independent UK foreign policy? No consensus view emerges. Both the general public and the opinion-formers express a continued attachment to the UK’s status as a great power. But this is where the similarities between the two groups end. The general public view the armed forces as the country’s greatest foreign policy asset, even though most would only be in favour of the use of military force when UK interests and territory are under threat. For opinion-formers, the BBC World Service and other aspects of British soft power are more important.

This divide extends to overseas aid. In stark contrast to opinion-formers, who are decisively in favour of the importance and benefits of UK government spending on overseas aid, the public holds largely negatives attitudes. Although the public greatly overestimates the amount Britain spends on aid, there is a general belief (54%) that the UK should not give very much; when informed of the actual UK spending on development in real terms, 61% still felt that this was too high. In addition, Britons appear to be returning to traditional allies. Favourable views of the United States increased from 20% (2010) to 34% (2012), while unfavourable views have fallen from 17% to 8% in this period.

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberal Democrats are from Venus

Given the challenges in the world and the turmoil within the EU, as well as the pressure on resources at home, the coalition government will likely need to make some hard foreign policy choices. But the survey offers no clear mandate for future action, nor any consensus approach to British foreign policy.

In this context, it is notable that, until now, there have not been significant public clashes within the coalition over foreign policy as there have been over certain domestic policies. The two parties have achieved a commendable unity of purpose, pursuing a pragmatic course in foreign policy. However, the 2012 results reveal deep divisions between the supporters of the two halves of the coalition government on the principles, philosophy, priorities, means and ends of UK foreign policy.

For example, a majority of Liberal Democrats believe that UK foreign policy should be based at least in part on ethical considerations, while 64% of Conservatives favour a foreign policy based on a keen pursuit of the national interest. Almost three quarters of Conservatives support holding a referendum on membership of the EU, as opposed to only 40% of Liberal Democrats. Given a vote, 64% of Liberal Democrats would choose to remain a member, while 69% of Conservatives would vote to leave the EU altogether. For Conservatives, international terrorism (59%) is the greatest threat to the British way of life; for Liberal Democrats, it is the failure of the international financial system (55%). This pattern is repeated across the survey: Conservatives and Liberal Democrats tend to hold starkly opposing views, while Labour voters tend to be somewhere between the two.

Hard choices ahead

One of the difficulties for British policy-makers will be to make sense of the contradictions and aspirations of public and opinion-former attitudes to British foreign policy reflected in this survey. Policy-makers must decide on the degree to which they choose to respond to the views of the public, or attempt to lead public opinion in support of less popular policies. For example:

  • Can the coalition government construct a viable future for the UK within, but on the margins of, a more integrated EU? Would the British public thank or punish the government for offering it a stark referendum on staying in or exiting the EU in order to seal the decision?  
  • Can the government win public support for growing levels of spending on overseas aid by emphasising the direct benefits such spending might accrue for the country's long-term security?  
  • Can smaller armed forces meet popular ambitions for the UK to remain a great power? What happens if the UK is drawn into a military conflict with Iran in support of the US and others?

Resources would provide a greater range of alternatives and a degree of discretion on each of these decisions. But budgetary pressure across government is unlikely to ease, and foreign policy, with the exception of development spending, will not be treated as a special case. As Sir Ernest Rutherford once said, 'Gentlemen, we have run out of money; it is time to start thinking'. The challenge will be to square its own large ambitions, the limited resources at its disposal, and the often contradictory instincts of the general public.