Brexit and Beyond – Public Views on UK Foreign Policy

Introduction

Foreign policy issues affect every aspect of our lives, and there is increasing popular involvement in foreign policy issues, with Brexit just the latest example. Yet until now there has been insufficient public discussion on the UK’s international position and choices. The risks and some of the already visible consequences have been highlighted in previous work carried out by the British Foreign Policy Group, ranging from underfunding of the FCO, to a growing divide between the policy world and the British public about what the UK’s international role should be. If people are not engaged in foreign affairs, that is to say they are neither interested nor informed, then Government may struggle to achieve the public support that it increasingly needs for a successful foreign policy.

With this is mind, the British Foreign Policy Group commissioned nationwide polling from BMG research, to provide the launchpad for the BFPG National Engagement Program. The program will include events across the UK, it’s Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies on how our country can maximise its international trade, security and diplomatic capabilities for the benefit of all of us. This BFPG report analysing the data will show how engagement, shaped by interest and knowledge, is the key to bridging the gap between the policy world and the British public on UK foreign policy issues.

Engagement

How interested would you say you are in what the UK does internationally?

A majority (58%) of the British public feeling interested in foreign affairs is important and welcome , but despite this interest, only 38% of the British public feel informed. An important challenge is therefore how to inform that 20% who are interested but don’t feel informed.

How informed do you feel about UK foreign affairs?

Access to information is key to this. So where do people look for information on foreign policy?

If you were searching for information on ‘[Important Issue Entered by Respondent]’ where would you look first?

Online news is overwhelmingly the single largest source of information for active searchers taking 53% of the vote (if printed press is added – News providers account for a 63% share of the foreign policy information market). Government, via its websites and social media presence came a strong second with 25%. These are the two voices who hold the primary responsibility for informing. Previous BFPG reports have referred to the decreasing importance given to international affairs by the media (80% decrease in international news stories in first 10 pages of UK Newspapers between 1979 and 2009), and our poll reinforces the negative impact that this has had. The UK Government has been rated highly for its digital public engagement. However, more needs to be done, in particular around foreign policy, to ensure that those who are interested and seek to be informed, can find the necessary information. It is interesting to note that social media (outside of government sources), is only the primary source of foreign policy information for 6% of the population, almost the same percentage as those whose primary source is talking to other people.

However, these statistics do not look at how people passively receive information, something harder to measure because people are often not even aware that they are obtaining information from these sources. Passively-received information accounts for an important part of how people obtain information. This makes it harder to draw conclusions about how to reach out to those who are not interested to start with, as they are the ones less likely to be actively searching for information, and reinforces the need to focus first on informing those who are interested yet feel uninformed.

Knowledge

To validate figures around how informed people felt, the BFPG carried out several knowledge-based questions around basic foreign policy issues. Whilst these did confirm self-reported levels of knowledge, they nonetheless highlighted worrying gaps in the British public’s knowledge. For example, only 44% of the British public are aware that countries can trade with each other without an arranged trade deal.

Please read the following statements and state whether you believe they are true or false: “Without an arranged trade deal, countries cannot trade with one another”

Issues

Brexit, International terrorism[1], and Immigration are the 3 key international issues for the British people, whilst territorial disputes, international crime, and international trade are viewed as far less important. This is likely to reflect both media coverage and the sense of urgency associated with each of these issues. However, there is clearly work to do to reinforce how longer term and less headline worthy issues such as international trade are essential if we are to maintain, let alone improve, current living standards.

[1] This survey was carried out before the 22/05/17 Manchester attacks.

‘Which of the following international issues do you view as most important?

Despite the low importance of international trade for the British public, who we trade with and how much we export and import is crucial to the success of our country. As we leave the EU, we have a unique opportunity to reshape and remould the trading networks of the UK. For the British public, the following countries were where we should increase our trade links.

‘Which countries, if any, should the UK focus increasing its trading links with?’ (Choose up to 5 Countries)

Unsurprisingly, the two largest world economies were the two most popular partners. Alongside Germany and France, these countries represent 4 of our current principal trading partners. These statistics can therefore be seen as a validation of our current trading priorities. Perhaps more revealing is the inclusion of several major Commonwealth countries: Australia, India, Canada, and New Zealand, at the expense of some our current major EU trading partners such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and even Ireland. This shows that although the UK public does not seek a major overhaul of our trade links, indeed they would appear to support our current major partners, they appear to be endorsing an important shift in focus at the level below the 5 or so major trading partners.

Support

The EU is perhaps the most prominent of a number of major international associations of which the UK is a member, and the decision to leave the EU begs the question of whether these other organisations suffer similarly poor reputations amongst UK voters. The BFPG poll asked the public whether they would want to leave a number of these major associations or agreements, providing a brief description of each one. The organisations related to trade and finance, notably the World Bank and the IMF, only secured a slim ‘Remain’ majority of 51 % and 53% respectively. These results are replicated when a similar question was asked about a number of international agreements. The Dubs Amendment only had 34% support and Le Touquet had the highest of the 4 polled with 60%. This shows the connection between the issues that matter to the public (in this case Immigration), and the perceptions of how our international actions affect those issues.

If you could choose, would you stay in or leave the following international organisations?
If you could choose, would you keep or scrap the following international agreements/treaties?

But what is the correlation between engagement and support?  Those organisations with the lower ‘Remain’ percentage, also have the highest “don’t know” percentage, highlighting how a lack of knowledge translates to a lack of support. This does not mean that a lack of knowledge makes it more likely that people would vote “Leave”, but rather that those who do not feel informed are less likely to support particular policies.  Equally, over the seven organisations polled, those interested in UK foreign affairs were 27% more likely to want to ‘Remain’ than those either uninterested or neither interested nor uninterested.

If you could choose, would you stay in or leave the following international organisations?’ – by  ‘ Level of interest in what the UK does internationally’

Diplomacy

The FCO budget has more than halved over the last 10 years, but despite the additional requirements that departure from the European Union will likely place on the FCO, the support for funding UK diplomacy is surprisingly low.

Currently the UK spends roughly 0.14% of its Budget (£1.1 billion) on diplomacy. After the UK leaves the European Union, in your view, should the UK be spending more, less, or about the same on diplomatic activities?

It is not surprising that there is a level of discrepancy between support for policy and support for funding, people are more likely to want something then to be happy paying for it, but nonetheless the fact that only 19% support a much-needed increase in spending of UK diplomacy is worrying. This reinforces the idea that the British public have high expectations of what our diplomatic service should deliver, but are not interested enough to support funding it, or have unrealistic ideas of the cost of such delivery.

Conclusion

The fact that we rarely discuss foreign policy enough, in particular around elections, means that the public are not interested nor indeed sufficiently informed. This widens the gap between the perceptions and objectives of the public and policy world. There is a distinct need in the UK for the British people to understand why foreign policy matters to them so that they do not remain uninterested, and for people across the whole country to have better access to impartial information. This also works both ways though, and the policy world should, through the work of the British Foreign Policy Group and others, listen to the concerns of the people, something else that can only be achieved through real discussion and engagement.

This BFPG/BMG Research opinion poll is the starting point for the BFPG’s National Engagement Program – generating both interest and information in the UK’s international position and choices. These results of the BFPG/BMG poll underline the importance of building this greater engagement on UK foreign policy issues and demonstrate that interest in foreign affairs has a significant impact, not only on knowledge, but on issue salience and on support of our foreign policy aims. The UK Government’s foreign policy has as its primary objective the protection and prosperity of the UK. But it also inevitably responds to the will of the British public, even when it contrasts with the Government’s position (as seen by Brexit). The best way to achieve an alignment between policy objectives and public sentiment is to encourage a more effective engagement. This is the aim of the British Foreign Policy Group.

To download a .pdf version of the raw data please click here

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott
edward.elliott@bfpg.org.uk

Edward Elliott is Research & Operations Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group. He is a graduate in politics, international relations, French, and law, having studied at Durham University and Sciences Po. Fluent in Spanish as well as French, he has worked in France, Spain, England, and Slovakia before joining the BFPG as a researcher and helping establish the organisation.