Britons Divided on Term ‘Special Relationship’

June 20, 2021
R&WS Research Team
International Relations | Relations with the United States

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Last week, the United Kingdom welcomed US President Joe Biden on his first international trip since taking office. Biden attended the G7 Summit in Cornwall and visited the Queen at Windsor Castle, in a trip the White House described as ‘restoring our alliances’ and ‘revitalising the Transatlantic relationship.’ Earlier this month, however, the US-UK alliance came under the spotlight when Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticised its common descriptor ‘special relationship’ on the grounds it seemed ‘needy and weak.’ The latest research at Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that the British public is fiercely divided on many questions relating to the relationship between the UK and the US, with around half of Britons agreeing with Johnson’s view.

When prompted with his comments, 49% of Britons say they agree with Boris Johnson’s criticism of the term ‘special relationship.’ Agreement is marginally higher among 2019 Conservative voters (53%) than 2019 Labour voters (48%). Overall, 23% of respondents disagree with his view, and 23% neither agree nor disagree.

Yet, in the question prior to the one that mentions Boris Johnson’s comments on the phrase, respondents appear more divided. To this prior question, 41% say they like the use of the term ‘special relationship’ to describe the relations between the US and the UK, while 40% say they do not like the term. Around one fifth (19%) are unsure of their view.

The term’s popularity varies with respondents’ political affiliation, with comparatively more 2019 Conservative voters (50%) than 2019 Labour voters (39%) saying they like its use. In fact, a plurality (43%) of 2019 Labour voters do not like the term ‘special relationship’ to describe the US-UK alliance, compared to 34% of 2019 Conservative voters. Altogether, the differences between the results of these two questions suggest that Conservative voters were not particularly mindful of a negative connotation of the phrase ‘special relationship’ prior to Johnson’s comments. Indeed, a plurality (45%) of the British public considers the US to be the UK’s most important ally. This opinion is more common among 2019 Conservative voters (56%) than 2019 Labour voters (41%).

Nevertheless, Labour supporters are comparatively more likely to be critical of the US’s role in British politics and society. Half of Britons overall (50%) and 49% of 2019 Conservative voters agree that the US has too much influence in the UK, but this proportion rises to 57% among 2019 Labour voters.

This pattern of differing attitudes towards the US depending on respondents’ political preferences continues when we look at how the public thinks the UK should manage its foreign relations. Overall, a plurality (37%) of respondents say the UK should be equally distant or close to the EU and the US. At the same time, 31% think the UK should be closer to the EU than the US, while 19% think the UK should be closer to the US than the EU.

Yet, where a plurality (46%) of 2019 Conservative voters favour keeping the EU and US at an equal distance to the UK, a significantly lower proportion (28%) of 2019 Labour voters share this view. Instead, nearly half (48%) of 2019 Labour voters say that the UK should be closer to the EU than the US—a position held by only 18% of 2019 Conservative voters. Meanwhile, whereas 28% of Conservative voters think the UK should be closer to the US than the EU, only 13% of Labour voter feel this way.

Despite these differences, however, there is broad agreement across political lines that making such a choice may in any case be unnecessary: majorities of both 2019 Conservative voters (70%) and 2019 Labour voters (66%) say it is possible to have very favourable relations with both the EU and the US. Confidence in this possibility is high across all age groups but increases further with age, from just over half (55%) of 18-to-24-year-olds to strong majorities of 45-to-54-year-olds (73%), 55-to-64-year-olds (72%) and those aged 65 and over (70%). Conversely, young people are the most likely of all age demographics to think that the UK can have very favourable relations with either the EU or US, but not both: 28% of 18-to-24-year-olds feel this way, compared to 12% of 45-to-54-year-olds and 16% of those aged 65 and above.

Our research altogether suggests that the British public is relatively split when it comes to its views on the term ‘special relationship.’ A plurality of Britons agrees with Boris Johnson that the term seems ‘needy and weak.’ Yet, before being presented with Johnson’s comments, respondents were relatively divided on whether they personally liked or disliked the term’s use to describe the UK-US alliance. In addition, we observe differences between 2019 Conservative and Labour voters in their views on the relationship between the UK and the US. Compared to Conservative voters, Labour voters more commonly tend to dislike the term, just as they tend to favour closer relations with the EU over the US.

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. Follow us on Twitter

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