The end the Brexit transition period, the recent US Presidential election, and the coronavirus pandemic have strained some bilateral relationships while potentially strengthening others. Amid rising tensions with China and disrupted movement across the Channel, a recent poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that the British public are substantially less likely to consider Germany or France an ally than they were in July. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the November Presidential Election, more British respondents now want the UK to seek closer relations with the United States. The British public still considers China, Russia, and Iran to be threats.
While pluralities still consider France (36%) and Germany (40%) to be allies, there has been a significant decrease since July, when the majority (56% and 51% respectively) of the British public considered them both to be more of an ally than a threat. The disruption caused by France’s decision to close its border to the UK before Christmas amid fears about the spread of a mutant strain of coronavirus could be a factor behind this sharp decline. Indeed, a quarter (24%) now consider France to be more of a threat, compared to just 12% in July. The images of lorries stranded in Kent, preventing many drivers from returning home over the festive period, may have increased animosity towards France specifically. Some considered France’s decision to close the border more of a political decision rather than a one driven by public health concerns and the transport secretary described it as ‘rather unnecessary’. In particular, the most dramatic decline in feelings of collegiality towards France could be observed among 2019 Conservative voters: whereas 60% said they considered France more of an ally in July 2020, this proportion declined to only 29% in January 2021.
Significant pluralities still consider Spain (44%) and Italy (43%) to be allies, and the majority (53%) consider Ireland to be more of an ally than a threat.. These differences could potentially be explained by the tougher and more widely-reported stance taken by the French and German leaders during the Brexit negotiations.
Perceptions of friendship with European countries may have declined significantly, but strong majorities still consider Australia (60%) and Canada (59%) to be allies, a very slight decrease since July. The British public continues to have a more favourable view of these Commonwealth countries than of Britain’s continental European neighbours or of the United States.
Meanwhile, the majority of the British public consider China (57%) and Russia (57%) to be threats and half (48%) consider Iran to be a threat. Approximately a third consider the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Qatar to be neither threats nor allies. A plurality now sees Saudi Arabia as neither a threat nor an ally (31%), while a plurality (39%) in July considered it to be more of a threat, suggesting that Saudi Arabia has somewhat succeeded in making a reputational recovery since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
Moving forward, the British public is split on whether to seek closer relations with France or Germany or maintain the current level of relations. The end of the Brexit transition period marks to start of a new type of relationship with France and Germany by virtue of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and therefore the British public may be unsure as to what the future relationship will look like anyway.
The British public are also divided on relations with Israel. Over a third (37%) wish to maintain the current level of relations but a fifth (19%) would like to seek closer relations, whereas a further fifth (20%) would like to seek more distant relations.
In July, 2019 Conservative voters were more likely to consider Israel an ally than Labour voters. However, recent polling now shows little difference in how the voters of the two major parties view Israel. Earlier differing views on whether Israel is more of an ally than a threat have not translated into political differences in views on the relationship going forward.
Only 16% of the public think the UK should seek closer relations with China and Russia. While they are otherwise divided on whether the UK should seek more distant relations or maintain the current level of relations, it is important to note that the UK has not had a close relationship with either China or Russia in recent years. The suppression of democracy activists in Hong Kong, the coronavirus pandemic, safety concerns about Huawei, and accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang have all contributed to anti-China sentiment in the UK. Past polling found that the Government’s offer of residency to BNOs in Hong Kong was supported by the British public and they would like to see less reliance on goods produced in China, even if that results in rising costs. Meanwhile, the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in Salisbury two years ago, which resulted in the death of a British citizen, is still at the forefront of relations between Russia and the UK.
There are no significant differences between the voters of the major parties, indicating that the British public continue to view Russia and China as a threat regardless of their political views.
The public are split on the future of relations with the United States: 36% think the UK should maintain the current level of relations with the US, while 37% think the UK should seek closer relations. Nevertheless, only 15% wished to seek more distant relations, a decline from around a quarter (23%) in July, and there has been an increase of eight points in the proportion wishing to seek closer relations with the US.
The shift towards wishing to see closer relations with the US is likely a result of Joe Biden winning the Presidency in November, as previous polling conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that the British public would overwhelmingly vote for Biden over Trump. There is a slight political divide, with a plurality of 2019 Conservative voters (45%) wishing to seek closer ties to the United States while a plurality of 2019 Labour voters (37%) think the UK should maintain current relations.
While the public is somewhat split on the future direction of the US-UK relationship, it overwhelmingly considers the United States to be the UK’s most important ally. Over a third (37%) consider the US the most important while no other country garnered double-digit support. Despite Australia, Canada, and Ireland being considered more of an ally than the United States, only tiny minorities considered any one of them to be the UK’s most important ally (6%, 4%, 6% respectively).
Almost half of 2019 Conservative voters (47%) and a third of 2019 Labour voters (33%) consider the United States to be the UK’s most important ally.
Overall, animosity towards China, Russia, and Iran has remained high and the British public overwhelmingly consider that these nations are threats. While pluralities still consider EU countries such as France and Germany to be allies, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of the public seeing them as threats. The Commonwealth countries of Australia and Canada continue to be seen especially favourably by the British public. A plurality considers the United States to be more of an ally and there has been a significant decrease in the proportion of those who wish to seek more distant relations with the United States since Joe Biden’s election. Ultimately, the British public overwhelmingly acknowledges that the United States remains Britain’s most important ally.
To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.