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Chatham House-YouGov research reveals public and opinion-formers want UK to be a ‘great power’ in international affairs

A new Chatham House paper, based on survey data from YouGov, has found that there is no clear movement towards isolationism in the UK and that, overall, there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role. 

Internationalism or Isolationism? British Attitudes Towards the UK's International Priorities’ found that 63% of the public and 61% of opinion-formers believe that the UK should seek to remain a ‘great power’, the highest level since the survey was first conducted in 2010.  This attitude was reflected in views on a range of international matters, with majorities of the public believing that the UK has a responsibility to maintain international security (69%), provide troops for peacekeeping missions (58%) and help lead the global response to climate change (56%). 

'The public appears to reject ideas of decline, and supports an ambitious British foreign policy, although they are divided on whether it should be driven by ethics or national interest' said report author Thomas Raines, Research Associate, Europe Programme. 

There are stark divides between voters over whether the UK should have an ethical foreign policy. While more than two-thirds of Liberal Democrats and half of Labour supporters say they believe in an ethical foreign policy, only a third of Conservatives do, and just 17% of UKIP voters.

On perhaps the biggest foreign policy question facing the UK, attitudes towards the European Union show a modest improvement in perceptions since the survey was last conducted in 2012, suggesting Euroscepticism may have passed its peak. 

For the first time, a plurality of the public now think that the UK’s closest ties should be to the EU (30%) rather than to the US (25%), and while 60% of the public support a referendum on EU membership, narrowly more would vote to stay in (40%) than to leave (39%).  Opinion-formers, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly supportive of EU membership, with 72% in favour of the UK remaining a member. 

The paper also reveals how skewed perceptions of the financial costs of EU membership are. The median public estimate of the net costs of membership (£40bn) is nearly four times the real figure (£11bn), and the mean estimate (£118bn) is more than ten times the actual cost. 

The survey further demonstrates a clear appetite for change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, with almost half the public (49%) supporting limitations on free movement of people within the EU even if that would limit their own rights to live and work elsewhere in Europe, with only 26% opposed. 

Editor's notes: 

Read the paper, 'Internationalism or Isolationism? The Chatham House-YouGov Survey: British Attitudes Towards the UK's International Priorities', by Thomas RainesEurope Programme. Embargoed until Friday 30 January, 00:01 GMT. 

YouGov, on behalf of Chatham House, conducted two surveys. The first was of a representative sample of 2,059 adults. This fieldwork was undertaken between 6 and 12 August 2014. The survey was carried out online, and the figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in Great Britain (aged 18 and over, excluding Northern Ireland). 

The second survey was conducted using the YouGov Reputation panel and surveyed 704 panellists on YouGov’s panel of opinion-formers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 31 July and 16 August 2014.  The survey was carried out online.  

When linking to this paper, please use this link, which will go live when the embargo is lifted. 

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