18 February 2021

What does ‘global Britain’ really mean to voters?

By Sophia Gaston

The term ‘Global Britain’ has the remarkable distinction of being the only political slogan that carried through from the May era to the Johnson Government.

Four years on, however, we are still awaiting the arrival of the Government’s Integrated Review of the UK’s Foreign, Defence and Development Policy, which should finally reveal what it means in policy terms. Less explored, however, is the question of how the ambitions at the heart of the Global Britain agenda will be received by the British people.

In times gone by, Whitehall paid little attention to voters’ foreign policy preferences, as it was presumed that they didn’t weigh particularly heavily on minds at the ballot box. The Iraq War and, more recently, the Brexit referendum have changed all that.

In the four years since the British Foreign Policy Group began surveying the British public, their interest in foreign affairs has risen sharply. Today, more than seven in ten Britons say they are interested in the UK’s international activities, and the proportion of those who are uninterested has more than halved to just 7%.

This growing curiosity about UK foreign policy is in part driven by the close relationship between social attitudes, national and international identities. Our views about the UK’s role in the world reflect our values, hard-wired instincts, and life experiences. On balance, we should regard the fact that people feel they have a stake in the UK’s foreign policy as a positive development. But it also means the Government must secure the endorsement of the public for its Global Britain project. After all, our voice on the world stage is only as strong as its foundations at home.

The BFPG’s annual survey of 2021 paints a mixed picture of public opinion on foreign policy, and makes clear that the task of building public consent will not be achieved overnight. Overall, we find that the mid-point of the nation is to favour a relatively internationalist foreign policy, with designated areas of global leadership and a commitment to working in cooperation with others. Clear majorities support the UK’s leadership on climate action (68%), endorse our Nato membership (67%), and support the Government maintaining or increasing the UK’s foreign policy budget (63%).

However, that apparent consensus is masking a considerable degree of polarisation, both between and within the major political parties, across demographic groups, and the UK’s regions and constituent nations.

Despite the ‘great political realignment’ having seen swathes of Leave and Remain voters sort themselves between the Conservative and Labour parties since the EU Referendum, both parties still house diverse coalitions – whose diverging social attitudes and world views are laid bare when it comes to foreign policy.

The Conservatives’ voter base now includes a large number of Leave voters whose instincts are poles apart from internationalist Remain voters who once ruled the roost – and are often some distance from the Government’s own foreign policy ambitions. In turn, Labour’s Leave and Remain voters often represent the extreme ends of British public opinion. For example, Labour-Remain voters are the least likely to support reductions in the UK’s foreign budget, and Labour-Leave voters are the most likely to do so.

Beneath these diverging attitudes are some plain truths about how international attitudes are formed. Britons who have had the opportunity to attend university, to travel abroad and to live with a degree of economic security are much more inclined to favour an open, connected and active UK foreign policy. And while some of those who favour an isolationist or defensive foreign policy are well off, these tendencies are most closely correlated with relative deprivation and disengagement. Britons who were able to travel abroad for multiple holidays in 2019, for example, are almost 20 percentage points more likely to recognise the economic benefits of immigration, and almost 30 percentage points more likely to feel they have benefited from globalisation, than those who did not leave Britain’s shores in the past two years.

Equally troubling is the gap in engagement, knowledge and buy-in amongst certain groups for what should be the fundamental pillars of our shared national security and national interest. A third of BAME Britons, for instance, feel that none of the components of the UK’s foreign policy are a source of pride for them, and half of all women believe the UK has no special allied relationship. This degree of polarisation, particularly that which is driven by social circumstance, is unsustainable and will hinder our progress in achieving the Government’s ambitions for Global Britain. We should consider these findings a crisis in need of focused attention, in the same manner the Government is compelled to address the social inequalities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the regional inequalities brought to the forefront in the EU referendum.

In fact, there is a pathway forward in considering these issues in a more holistic way – fusing the Levelling Up and Global Britain agendas in a project of social and democratic renewal. Rebalancing both economic growth and political engagement may provide the foundations for more Brits to support an energetic and enterprising foreign policy agenda – which will in turn help to guarantee Britain’s prosperity and security into the future.

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Sophia Gaston is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not reflect the views of CapX.