The UK Public’s Estimation of Allies and Threats

July 20, 2020
R&WS Research Team
International Relations | Relations with China | Relations with the United States | Security

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As rising tensions between China and the West raise questions about the future of Britain’s foreign policy, a recent poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that the British public views countries in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, with the notable exception of the United States, as its closest allies. Canada, New Zealand and Australia receive the highest levels of support from respondents, with 63% to 65% of the UK public saying they regard these three countries as primarily being allies for the UK. 

The British public has a relatively positive attitude towards European allies. A majority of respondents (56%) view France as more of an ally, with only 12% calling the country more of a threat. Similarly, 51% of the public see Germany as more of an ally than threat. Only 14% of respondents call Germany more of a threat. Following them is the fifth member of the Five Eyes alliance, the United States, which 44% of UK respondents consider to be primarily an ally of the UK. 

These responses have a clear partisan dimension. For example, a strong majority (58%) of 2019 Conservative voters view the US as being more of an ally than a threat for the UK. Meanwhile, only two percent more Labour voters consider the US to be more of an ally (33%) than a threat (31%) to the UK and its interests. This response could perhaps be partly explained by left-leaning voters associating the United States primarily with the Trump administration. 

Looking more closely at this relationship, a plurality (36%) of British respondents think the UK should maintain the current level of relations with the US. 29% would like the Government to seek closer relations, while 23% would like to see more distant ties between the two countries. Conservatives are more strongly in favour of warming relations, with 39% seeking closer relations and a mere 13% preferring more distance, suggesting that the Prime Minister’s pursuit of a trade deal with the US will be popular with his support base in spite of broader mixed sentiment.

This mixed sentiment of the UK public towards the US contrasts with a poll we recently conducted in the US which found that a clear plurality of US respondents (35%) view the United Kingdom as their most important ally.

Meanwhile, looking further afield, we find an interesting appraisal of Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region. On the 7th of July, it was announced that the UK would resume the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in spite of fears that the weapons could be used for missions in Yemen which were in violation of humanitarian law. At the same time, the Government also announced that 20 Saudi nationals involved with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including a close aide of the Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, will be sanctioned under the UK’s new Magnitsky sanctions law. Our poll found that only 16% of respondents view Saudi Arabia as more of an ally while a clear plurality (39%) view the country as more of a threat. 

A slim plurality (34%) want the UK to seek more distant relations with Saudi Arabia while 32% think the Government should maintain the current level of relations. These responses suggest that for the time being the Government should continue striking a balance between being firm on some issues such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi while not completely ending commercial ties.

Saudi Arabia’s neighbours the United Arab Emirates and Qatar fare a little better. 36% of respondents view Qatar and the UAE as neither an ally nor a threat. Whilst not a strong endorsement, the public’s position does not place excessive pressure on the Government to reconsider the UK’s trade and political ties with those countries. 

The public is uncertain on its views of another country in the region: Israel. 31% view the country as neither an ally nor a threat, 25% view it as more of a threat, 23% as more of an ally, while over one in five (21%) do not know. 31% of 2019 Conservative voters see Israel as more of an ally compared to only 16% of 2019 Labour voters, revealing somewhat of a partisan dimension. 

However, it is China and Russia that are considered the UK’s greatest threats, as a large majority (62%) of respondents view these two states as more of a threat.

Almost half the public (49%) would like the UK to seek more distant relations with China while 44% feel the same about Russia. In the context of increasing revelations about Russia’s destabilising interference in UK public life, and heightened tensions in the Sino-British relationship, these results suggest the Government’s current actions, including its recent decisions to welcome BNO Passport holders, are in tune with the public’s mood. 

In fact, the public seems to view Russia and China with more suspicion than Iran. 52% of respondents see Iran as more of a threat and 38% think the Government should seek more distant relations. While these levels of disapproval are still high, they are lower than those found with Russia and China, highlighting the magnitude of public antipathy towards the two countries. These figures are nevertheless important, considering the United Kingdom’s role in the negotiation of JCPOA. 

Overall it seems the British public feels closest ties with other anglophone countries, suggesting the push from the Government to pursue closer relations together with Canada, New Zealand, and Australia will be a popular move. Meanwhile, the more mixed sentiment towards the US suggests a likely slightly sceptical public in any discussions of a future trade deal with the US. Nevertheless, the antipathy towards China and Russia may bring the United States and the United Kingdom closer together, despite the greater degree of ambivalence the British public has towards 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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