16 Feb 2021 Annual Survey of UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Britain
The British Foreign Policy Group’s (BFPG) major new report, the 2021 Annual Survey of UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Britain, is the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of UK public opinion on foreign policy. The survey finds that Britons’ foreign policy attitudes are evolving dynamically in the aftermath of Britain’s departure from the European Union and in the wake of the seismic global coronavirus pandemic. Ahead of the imminent publication of the Government’s Integrated Review of the UK’s Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy, the report maps a polarised nation, where international attitudes are increasingly cleaving onto domestic social and political identities.
About the Survey
This survey was conducted with the BFPG’s research partners Opinium Research on 6-7 January 2021 (sample of 2,002 UK adults, weighted to be nationally representative). The BFPG-Opinium survey is an ongoing partnership, pioneering quantitative research on foreign policy in the United Kingdom.
The BFPG’s Director, and the lead author of the report, Sophia Gaston, says:
“If we seek to pinpoint the ‘heart of the nation’ on foreign policy, we would find it favours a relatively open and ambitious international agenda, working alongside a variety of friends and partners, forging areas of special global leadership, and striking a healthy balance between our strategic interests and the projection of our values. It is also true, however, that these areas of consensus mask significant tensions and disparities between different groups of citizens – many of which play out within the major political parties themselves. Engagement and education must, therefore, be a central pillar of the publication of the Integrated Review. Just as Levelling Up aims to give all citizens a stake in Britain’s economy, so too must Global Britain seek to afford all citizens a stake and a voice in Britain’s foreign policy.”
- Many citizens remain uncertain about the Global Britain project, and hold competing visions about the UK’s foreign policy priorities. There is little appetite for the Indo-Pacific to be its central focus, and Britons remain hesitant towards military interventionism.
- On the other hand, there is a clear desire for multilateralism and leadership on climate change to be foundational pillars of the UK’s international agenda. International aid is also widely supported, although most Brits think foreign aid spending should be stopped or reduced during the pandemic.
- Britons are warming to Biden’s America, but the United States remains less trusted than other key security partners, such as Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan, and is considered a less important relationship than our partnership with the European Union.
- More Britons would prefer a closer UK-EU relationship than the deal secured in December, than the proportion who back the deal or favour a looser relationship.
- Russia and China are seen as distinctively hostile global actors, and concern about China is hardening, with only a fifth of Britons now supporting any form of UK-China economic relationship.
- The pandemic appears to have intensified pre-existing disadvantage and insecurity, rather than creating a more widespread sense of vulnerability amongst the population as a whole.
- The most alarming international threats to the British people are the risk of cyber-attacks from other nations, international terrorism, the rise of China, climate change and foreign interference.
- Britons recognise that globalisation has benefited the UK – especially London. The question of whether its spoils have been shared around the nation or reached individual communities are more contested and cut to the heart of socio-economic, regional, age- and identity-based divides.
- Public opinion on immigration is softening a little, but remains deeply polarised. Britons believe the UK population is too high, and are anxious about pressure on the welfare system and job competition, but also recognise migrants’ positive economic and social contributions.
- International identities such as global citizenship, patriotism and being ‘European’ remain fiercely contested and closely correlated with domestic political identities. National identities within the UK (ie. British, English, Scottish) also carry their unique relationships to foreign policy attitudes.
- Trust in the UK Government to make foreign policy decisions in line with citizens’ interests slumped over the past year, as the ups and downs of the pandemic inject a huge degree of dynamism into public opinion.
- The Conservative Party is no longer the party of globalisation, with the new voters the party has gained since the Referendum shifting its centre of gravity towards a more isolationist, security-conscious foreign policy. While more internationalist overall, Labour’s coalition remains extremely divided on foreign policy issues, and its voters are anxious about the impacts of trade.
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