Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

British Public Opinion and Interventionism

On military interventions, the British public tends to favor restraint.

Max Boot made a claim near the end of his post on Cameron that deserves a bit more scrutiny:

Certainly [Cameron’s] isolationism is not demanded by the public; in a recent survey 63 percent of Britons said they wanted their country to continue to be a great power.

As I said over the weekend, it’s completely wrong to describe Cameron as an “isolationist,” but Boot is also misreading British public opinion. The Chatham House/YouGov survey he cites (also mentioned here by Daniel Twining) does show that there is broad support for the idea that Britain should remain a “great power,” but on questions of military intervention the public tends to favor restraint. 40% said that they think the U.K. should use force only when its borders are threatened, and 47% said that the U.K. should “not involve itself at all” in foreign uprisings against their governments. Boot would probably wrongly call these responses “isolationist” as well.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that there is considerable resistance to British involvement in unnecessary wars, which we saw demonstrated so dramatically during the Syria debate. On both questions, there are large blocs of British voters that don’t want the U.K. to participate in the sorts of interventions that Cameron and Boot have repeatedly backed. More generally, 60% agreed with the statement that the U.K. is “expected to do too much internationally” and that the U.K. should do less while others do more. As the survey report noted, agreement with the statement was especially strong among UKIP supporters, but it also received “majority support from voters in each of the major parties.” Boot cited the survey to prove that Cameron is out of step with the British public, but he has gotten the public’s views on interventionism and international activism just as wrong as he did Cameron’s foreign policy record.