What comes to your mind when asked whether the UK public cares about politics and/or foreign affairs? New research conducted by Dr Rob Jones and Dr Graeme Davies, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, sheds some interesting light on this topic.
So what does the public think about politics and foreign affairs?
The main results of Jones and Davies’ survey were as follows:
• Only 13% of the British public are not interested in politics in general, and (perhaps surprisingly) this figure decreases when talking about foreign affairs: 9% are disinterested, while 77% are “quite” to “extremely” interested;
• When talking about Britain’s role in the world, there is often a 50:50 split between taking an isolationist and interventionist position;
• The level of education (18+ as opposed to 16+) makes a marked, positive difference on opinion;
• Identifying oneself as “not British” (i.e. English, Welsh or Scottish) and reading the tabloids are the top two reasons for favouring a more isolationist worldview;
• Only supporters of UKIP and the BNP are overwhelmingly in favour of isolationism. All other party supporters are in favour of getting involved abroad, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green party leading the way;
• There is a 57:43 split between those who think we spend “enough” or “too little” on International Development, to those who think we spend “too much”. This is roughly the same when asked whether aid should be needs- or interests-based.
Finally, if we take a look at the research carried out on the reasons underpinning people’s opinions, which focused on their perceptions of threats, International terrorism and Islamic extremism, followed by immigration, came at the top of the UK public’s list of ‘critical threats’, with people across a very broad spectrum agreeing. The level of fear increases, however, amongst tabloid readers and supporters of UKIP/the BNP. The latter were particularly fearful of being personally caught up in an attack.
When asked what the public believes to be ‘under threat’ from these elements, ‘Jobs’, ‘way of life’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Christianity’ (4 out of 6 responses) can all be linked to these top 3 perceived critical threats. Political parties have clearly encouraged national fear, and the press – especially the tabloids – have encouraged personal fear. What is evident is that this fear matters: it makes us more compliant.
Concluding remarks: the legacy of fear
This research unmistakably demonstrates that the media and political parties play a major role in shaping the way the UK public thinks and, even more importantly, acts. Indeed, if more people are interested in foreign affairs than are interested in politics in general, we could ask whether it is possible, or simply too simplistic, to draw a direct correlation between the additional percentage to those who support isolationist politics, i.e. (far) right political supporters and tabloid readers.
Coupled with the need for greater education, what the international development community may now want to focus on is countering the ‘triple threat’ of lack of education engagement with global issues, negative political discourse and media manipulation of fear - and how this ties in with the public’s views on aid. (This video by ONE further demonstrates the chasm between what people think is spent on overseas development aid and the actual figure).
Contrary to popular belief, then, this research shows beyond doubt that most people are interested in politics in general – and even more so in foreign affairs. Strategies to counter this ‘triple threat’ must therefore stem from policies that do not simply aim to engage the public in those arenas, but that engage with specific issues within them - especially where political and media coverage is not providing a just or rational view of global issues.