Making social science accessible

01 Sep 2023

Public Opinion

UK in the world

Using data from UK in a Changing Europe’s regular public opinion tracker with Redfield and Wilton, Sophie Stowers highlights five key trends in attitudes towards foreign policy and Britain’s place on the world stage.

Foreign policy is rarely a key issue for voters as a general election approaches. Instead, domestic issues – the things voters confront on a daily basis, like healthcare, tax, and the cost of living – tend to dominate. As we head towards the deadline for the next general election, broadly that looks set to continue.

But it is true that since Britain’s exit from the EU seven years ago, there has a lot more discussion about its place in the world. The countries it should cooperate most closely with outside the European bloc – on trade, security and defence, amongst other things – has been up for debate for the first time in decades. International cooperation has only become more important with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the outbreak of war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Using data from our regular public opinion tracker with Redfield and Wilton, which measures public sentiments across all aspects of Brexit and British politics, this month we highlight five key trends in attitudes towards foreign policy and Britain’s place on the world stage.

  1. Voters say foreign policy is an important issue when deciding who to vote for – but not as important as domestic issues.

As above, we find that although a significant number of voters say that foreign policy is either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important when choosing which party to vote for at an election, is it nowhere near as important as issues such as the economy, crime or healthcare. Indeed, the number of voters saying foreign policy is important to their vote choice has stayed consistent since our last poll.

Chart showing that foreign policy is less important for voters when deciding who to vote for than domestic issues.

We have seen David Lammy begin to outline what the UK’s foreign policy would look like under a Labour government, with the party aiming to ‘reconnect’ Britain with its international partners after a turbulent few years on the international stage.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has also been at pains to repair the UK’s foreign relationships post-Brexit, not least with the European Union. Yet based on the data above, neither party is likely to make foreign policy a focus of their election campaigns over consistently salient issues like crime, the NHS and cost of living.

  1. Over four in ten voters think that Brexit has reduced the amount of influence the UK has in the world

Most voters believe that leaving the EU has led to Britain having less power on the world stage. Although, unsurprisingly, this sentiment is concentrated most heavily amongst 2016 Remain voters (62%), just over a quarter of 2016 Leavers also agree.

Chart showing that most voters think that the UK's influence in the world has decreased since it left the European Union.

It is worth noting, however, that respondents do point to the UK’s newfound ability to sign trade deals and accords with non-EU countries as a key benefit of Brexit, suggesting that the public do think there are some ways Brexit has benefitted the UK’s ability to work with foreign partners.

  1. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the countries viewed most favourably by the British public

Amongst the public at large, there is a more positive opinion of Commonwealth countries than those on the Continent, particularly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This may be because of the greater emphasis on CANZUK and trade cooperation with these countries post-Brexit. Indeed, we do find that 2016 Leavers tend to be slightly more favourable towards these countries than Remainers, who continue to show a slight preference for European states – particularly Ireland and Germany.

Chart showing that Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the countries viewed most positively by the UK public

The USA is viewed less generously than European countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Greece, despite the fact (as we show below) that many Britons consider the country a key ally to the UK. The US is considered just 2% more favourably than the EU, which is viewed positively by half of respondents (though Remainers are more than twice as likely as Leavers to say this).

  1. The USA is considered to be the UK’s most important ally, whilst Russia is deemed its biggest threat

Though Britons may have a less favourable opinion of the US than some other countries, over half of respondents think that the ‘special relationship’ is important. This is despite the absence of a UK-US trade deal, suggesting that for many, the foundation of this relationship continues to be based in other areas, such as defence and security.

Indeed, that is paralleled by the fact that over half of respondents think Russia presents the biggest threat to the UK post-invasion of Ukraine, though China comes close behind. Interestingly, ahead of Mohammed bin Salman’s controversial visit to the UK, just 8% of Britons see Saudi Arabia as a threat to the UK.

Chart showing that the US is seen by the public as the UK's biggest ally, whilst Russia is viewed as its biggest threat

  1. When faced with a choice between cooperating with either the EU or the USA, in most instances, voters opt for the EU

We see that most respondents believe that post-Brexit, the UK should continue to cooperate with both the EU and the USA on matters of international importance; we’ve seen a continuing shift amongst voters towards the ‘both’ option, as opposed to just picking the US or EU, since February 2022.

Yet when faced with a choice between the two on key issues such as defence and climate, there is a preference towards the EU. On these issues, particularly defence and relations with Russia, we’ve seen a trend towards the EU over the US since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that the outbreak of war on Europe’s doorstep has made many voters reconsider the value of cooperation with our continental partners post-Brexit.

Chart showing that on most issues, the public thinks it is more important to work with the EU than the US

By Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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