What’s inside the minds of UK students on foreign policy

Inside the minds of UK students on foreign policy

Throughout the General Election campaign, the British Foreign Policy Group have been traveling across the UK to listen to the foreign policy views of our youngest voting demographic: students. Whilst voter turnout was lowest amongst young people in 2017, two thirds of the over three million people that registered to vote this year are under the age of 34. Students and young people more generally may yet prove to be a force to be reckoned with on December 12th. With so much of the debate focused around Britain’s role in the world, foreign policy could certainly effect the way many voters swing.

Our team spoke to students at universities across Bath, Bristol, Newcastle and London, interviewing both partisan and nonpartisan students alike. Our findings shine a light on a more personal narrative behind public opinion research published by the BFPG as well as challenge stereotypes about students’ political views.

Knowledge: perception vs. reality

Considering that a January 2019 BFPG survey on ‘Public Opinion on the UK’s Role in the World’ found that 18-24 year olds were the most likely age group to say they felt uninformed about the UK’s foreign affairs, students demonstrated a considerable amount of knowledge about foreign policy. Despite believing that they didn’t know enough to engage, a vast majority of the students we spoke to held well-developed opinions about the intricacies of the UK’s role in the world, and the concept of ‘Global Britain.’

Maddie and Martha, who we spoke to outside Newcastle’s Philip Robinson Library, groaned when asked to be interviewed. ‘We have no idea what’s going on!’ they said. Similarly, when we asked a student named Thom if he would mind appearing in our video, he looked down. ‘I don’t want to look stupid,’ he shrugged. Once we got talking, however, many of the students we spoke to revealed nuanced insights into British foreign policy, from Martha’s point about the UK being a bridge between Europe and the US, to Thom’s vivid recollection of Jeremy Corbyn’s defence of his principles of non-interventionism and nuclear disarmament going back decades.

The most important issue of our time

Most remarkable in our conversations was the importance of climate change to students as the primary framework guiding the future of international policy. One LSE student looked at us incredulously when asked about the incorporation of climate diplomacy into foreign affairs. ‘Our foreign policy should be centered around decarbonising the entire globe,’ he said, as if stating the obvious. He then went on to describe the transferrences of technology and foreign aid necessary to reach net-zero carbon emission goals in the developing world.

Lucy at the University of Bristol expanded on this by predicting that ‘we’re going to see… effects of climate change which go beyond what people usually consider – including climate refugees and climate migration,’ which would ‘tie in to and exacerbate other foreign policy concerns.’ When asked about foreign policy priorities in the future, Diego at the LSE quipped that it was only a matter of time before climate change ‘kills us all’.

Our survey research correspondingly showed that 43% of 18-24 year olds selected climate change as the most important international issue – ahead of Brexit, international crime, war, humanitarian crises, and terrorism. They were the only age group to select climate change as the most important.

Europe over America, any day

BFPG survey research has shown 18-24 year olds to be the most emphatic age group in their support for EU membership, with 66% in favour of remaining in the EU, compared to just 35% for those aged 55-64. ‘Of course! Obviously!’ chorused Olivia and Genevievie in Newcastle when we asked them whether they supported the UK’s membership of the European Union. In London, the reaction was similar. Georgia, a Politics student in Bath, emphasised the frustrating yet existential nature of the Europe question, saying ‘there’s no point discussing foreign policy priorities beyond Brexit’.

However, many students also seemed to deviate from stereotypes about their strident support for the EU. ‘I’m not that bothered about the EU, to be honest,’ said Josh, a student in Newcastle. This sentiment was repeated by many others, who preferred to emphasise the importance of other international issues like climate change. Alastair, a Bath student, made the point that broader foreign policy questions will necessarily be pushed to the back of the queue until our relationship with the European Union is ultimately decided upon.

When given a choice between an alliance with Europe or a pivot towards the US, students were nearly unanimous in their aversion to a strengthening of a partnership with the US. ‘I couldn’t think of anything worse,’ one Newcastle student told us with disgust. The picture was similar across London, with students saying time and time again that they would much prefer a stronger alliance with Europe to one with America. When pressed on the reasons behind this, most did not pinpoint a specific issue that had turned them against the US, instead expressing a lack of trust towards our historical ally.  

A growing public distrust of the US is reflected in a recent BFPG survey, in which 28% of 18-34 year olds ranked the US as one of the top three threats to global peace and security.

BFPG research has also revealed that 18-24 year olds, along with 25-34 year olds, are the most likely age groups to say that UK foreign policy should be driven more by values like democracy and human rights than by economic and strategic interests. All age groups, however, favoured prioritising economic and strategic interests overall. We found this to be reflected on the ground, with students citing immigration and the wellbeing of refugees as a priority foreign policy concern. Still, most acknowledged that when push comes to shove, strategic interests take precedence. ‘People would like to say values [should drive foreign policy], but they will be distracted when the next massive recession comes along,’ said Maddie in Newcastle. A group of Courtauld students that we talked to outside LSE library said the same: ‘historically, economic interests always lead to bad, so values are best. But low key, it’s always economic interests’. 

Remain and reform… the IMF

In general, the students we spoke to supported the UK’s membership of international institutions such as NATO, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organisation. Attitudes towards the International Monetary Fund were more nuanced, however, which was fascinating given the fact that the IMF barely receives a mention in any party’s election manifesto. A group of King’s students we spoke to outside the Strand campus exchanged knowing looks and chuckles when we asked them about the UK’s membership of the IMF. ‘We disagree on the IMF’ one told us knowingly. 

Up in Newcastle, we experienced similar forebodings. ‘I don’t like the IMF,’ one student expressed candidly. Josh, a member of the student Lib Dems, embraced the party line: ‘of course [the IMF] has its flaws,’ he conceded, ‘but I’m very much a ‘remain and reform’ kind of guy’. Interestingly, BFPG research reflects this slight aversion to the IMF amongst the young: 18-24 year olds were shown to be the least supportive group of UK membership of the IMF, with only 46% in support compared to 67% for those aged over 65. 

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

Ahead of the election on December 12th, students were keen to discuss the different parties’ foreign policy offerings. Most students were largely left-leaning, which was unsurprising given an ICM poll identifying student voting intention for Labour at 72%. Usha, a member of the Bristol Socialist Worker Student Society, told us she has absolute faith that Jeremy Corbyn would deliver on his international commitments. 

Whilst many were impressed by Labour’s radical manifesto, they were less aware of specific pledges the party had made on foreign policy issues. Some were even wary of the direction a Labour government could take the country in. Josh, a student Conservative from the University of Newcastle, quipped that ‘Corbyn will be able to change a lot of things internationally, but for the worst’. Robert from the University of Bristol even went so far as to describe Corbyn as ‘fundamentally anti-Western’. Interestingly, it seemed that students had far stronger views on Jeremy Corbyn – either very supportive or very against Corbyn – than they had on Boris Johnson.

Others were yet unsure. ‘We were just saying we have no idea who we’re going to vote for,’ squirmed a group of Newcastle students as we approached them. When we informed one Canadian student that her status as a Commonwealth citizen living in the UK meant she was eligible to vote, she shrugged. ‘Given that I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in UK politics, it’s probably best I don’t’.

At a time when many perceive the younger generation to be uninformed and politically unengaged, we were pleasantly surprised to find widespread enthusiasm about our project. The British Foreign Policy Group have been busy analysing the foreign policy opinions not only of the public, but also of the major parties throughout the General Election campaign. Our Director, Sophia Gaston, writes that this year’s party manifestos mark the end of British foreign policy consensus – and the polarisation does not end there. Recent BFPG research shows that British public opinion is even divided on our perception of foreign threats, having major implications for the foreign policy positions of Britain’s political parties going forward. 

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Flora Holmes, Katarina Kosmala-Dahlbeck and Matt Gillow