The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

10 Aug 2023

Public Opinion

Role in the World

Drawing on the findings of the British Foreign Policy Group’s Annual Survey of UK Public Opinion, Evie Aspinall explores how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaped the attitudes of the British public towards foreign policy, driving a rise in interest in the UK’s role in the world.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, swathes of Britons rushed to sign up to the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, in an outpouring of public support for the nation. Over a year on, support remains remarkably robust, with a large majority of Britons supporting all forms of aid the UK has offered Ukraine, not least humanitarian aid, which garners support from a striking 85% of Britons. And there is no sign of support dissipating any time soon – the majority (53%) of Britons believe we should support Ukraine for as long as it takes; and even when presented with the hypothetical opportunity to withdraw all support from Ukraine, there is little appetite for this.

This level of support is remarkable, not only due its strength relative to Britons’ support for other crises, but also because the British public are significantly more supportive of Ukraine than the general public in much of the West are. There are many theories posited for this – the European nature of the conflict, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership on this issue, Britain’s desire to forge a clear role for itself on the world stage post-Brexit – all of which likely play a part. But what is perhaps most interesting of all is the defining impact the crisis is having on wider public opinion on foreign policy.

This most clearly emerges, perhaps unsurprisingly, in regard to defence policy. Support for the UK’s membership of NATO has reached new heights at 78%, up from 67% in 2021, and a majority of Britons now support increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP. This is particularly interesting given Britons are notoriously tight when it comes to foreign policy spending, with many viewing domestic and international spending as zero-sum, and firmly prioritising the former.

This strength in support for defence spending, and Britons’ wider support for shoring up the UK’s defensive capabilities, speaks to how Britons’ perceptions of the world around them have shifted since Russia’s invasion. There is now a growing mandate for strengthening the UK’s defensive capabilities, as the threats posed to the UK’s security, particularly by our strategic rivals, become ever more evident. Not only that, but Britons are willing to shoulder the costs that this will inevitably bring.

The other notable trend is a growing warmth towards engagement with the EU. Britons are now more likely to identify as European, more likely to trust the EU and more likely to view it as a more important strategic partner than the United States, than they were prior to the invasion. In turn, Britons are more supportive of all forms of cooperation with the EU than they were last year. Indeed, even a majority (58%) of Leave voters now believe the UK should seek to reduce barriers to trade with the EU, as Britons across all demographic groups warm towards cooperation with the EU.

There are, of course, a number of factors at play, not least the signing of the Windsor Framework and distance from the EU referendum, which will also have contributed to growing support for UK-EU cooperation. Nonetheless,  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is widely perceived to have brought the UK and the EU closer together. Indeed just 16% of Britons disagree with this. The invasion has forced Britain to refocus on the European security theatre and reasserted the importance of the UK’s partners and allies in responding to an increasingly geopolitically turbulent world, and, in turn, provided renewed impetus in the eyes of many Britons for the importance of UK-EU relations.

The impact of the crisis on public opinion extends beyond specific issues such as Ukraine, defence, and the EU. Britons’ interest and engagement in foreign policy more broadly has soared since the invasion of Ukraine, with 77% of Britons now interested in the UK’s international activities, up from 62% last year. This mirrors a trend we saw during the coronavirus pandemic, with interest in UK foreign policy rising 12 percentage points between 2019 and 2020.

While that interest slowly tapered off as the world re-emerged from lockdown, it’s clear that in moments of major geopolitical importance and instability, and where the impacts of UK foreign policy on the domestic population are most visible, ordinary people possess a genuine and profound interest in foreign policy that is often overlooked and underserved.

With (sadly) no end in sight for the Ukraine crisis, Britons’ renewed interest in foreign policy is likely to endure for a while longer at least. Government, academics and think tankers alike therefore have an opportunity to engage with a captive British public not just on Ukraine, but on broader foreign policy issues, to help better understand and build public consent for UK foreign policy. Heading into a general election that will be important now more than ever.

By Evie Aspinall, Director, British Foreign Policy Group. 

This blog draws on research from BFPG’s 2023 Annual Survey of UK Public Opinion. Fieldwork for the report involved a nationally representative sample of 2,158 people, conducted by J.L. Partners from 26th May – 1st June 2023.


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