The differences between the two main parties in the UK on most foreign policy questions are matters of almost imperceptible nuance. As we were reminded in the first election debate, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are united in their support for Ukraine, are committed to Israel’s continued right to self-defence and share an increasingly hawkish attitude towards China.

Unfortunately for them, this is at odds with the electorate: a new poll of British voters by UnHerd, in partnership with Focaldata, reveals a distinct realism towards foreign policy that is not reflected in either of their platforms. This is just one of the big issues facing the nation that isn’t being properly interrogated in the thus-far superficial general election campaign, and it is the focus of the first instalment in a polling series that will seek to understand the views of UnHerd Britain.

Our headline finding this week is a clear scepticism towards foreign adventures and an unambiguous focus on British national interest, a view which markedly differs from the prevailing liberal interventionism of past decades. A majority of voters (52%) believe that “British foreign policy should be focused on what is in Britain’s interests, even if that is not in other countries’ interests”, compared with only 30% who believe that “British foreign policy should try to make the world a better place, even if it has costs for Britain”.

UK voters: foreign policy should be based on national self-interest
Which of the following comes closer to your view? 

This more “realist” option is preferred by overwhelming majorities of Reform and Conservative voters, but is also the preference of people planning to vote Labour, at 45% to 36%. Only Liberal Democrat and Green voters tend the other way, preferring a more idealist foreign policy.

"These findings highlight the conundrum that awaits a future Labour government."

When it comes to overseas conflicts in general, only 7% of voters think that Britain should be more engaged than it currently is, while 44% think it should be less engaged, and 36% think we should keep roughly the current levels of involvement. Again, in a powerful sign of how ideas of British imperialism are no longer in favour on the Right, 64% of Reform voters want less engagement and this is also the preferred position of Conservative voters (44% compared with 42% who say “about the same”). In fact, there is support across all parties, with the exception of Labour, for a reduction in Britain’s engagement in overseas conflicts; Labour voters narrowly opt for the current level of engagement (41% to 39%).

Do you think Britain should be more or less engaged in overseas conflicts?
Polling text

These findings highlight the conundrum that awaits a future Labour government: while its voters are broadly the most supportive of idealistic British involvement in overseas conflicts, the party also contains a strain of passionately anti-war Leftists. The “progressive realism” coined by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy to describe Labour’s approach is best understood as an attempt to square this circle.

The thorniest issue for Keir Starmer will be Israel. Labour voters have a far more critical view of the current war in Gaza than their leader. Asked who they blame for the war, Labour voters choose “the Israeli Government” ahead of Hamas, while British voters in general blame Hamas ahead of Israel. Endorsement of the ICC’s prosecution proceedings against Benjamin Netanyahu is at 53% among Labour voters; only 14% oppose it. Starmer has voiced support for the arrest warrant, and one assumes he would comply with it if issued.

Right-leaning voters, when asked about the conflict, would prefer to disengage entirely rather than taking a tougher stance on either Israel or the Palestinians — this is the preferred option among both Conservative and Reform voters. But Labour voters fall narrowly alongside more progressive voter groups such as the Greens and Liberal Democrats in believing that “the UK should take a tougher stance on Israel”. Overall, disengaging from the war is the most popular option among British voters in general.

British voters: UK should disengage from Israel-Hamas war
British voters

The move towards "realism" extends also to the escalating standoff between the United States and China. Asked what British policy should be towards the standoff, 41% would align with the US; notably however, it is not a majority. Most voters think the country should either be aligned with neither (37%), or China (5%) or aren’t sure (15%).

Do you think the UK should align itself more with the US, China, or neither?
British voters

There is an exception, however, to British voters’ isolationist mood: Ukraine. Most think that the UK’s level of involvement is about right, or could be further increased. Only a minority of voters would prefer a reduced role or none at all. Voters would reject a peace treaty in which Russia would gain possession of eastern provinces of Ukraine and Crimea, and there is even substantial support for the UK allowing Ukraine to shoot missiles into Russian territory (40% compared with 22% against) and allowing British troops into Ukraine to help train Ukrainian forces (39% support compared with 34% against). However, any suggestion of British troops engaging in active combat against Russia is dismissed entirely, by absolute majorities of all political party voters.

Attitudes to Ukraine
British voters

Questions of distant wars, however, only become a salient political issue when citizens are asked to fight in them — and on this question, the results of the UnHerd Britain poll make concerning reading for any government. We asked parents whether they would be prepared to send their children into battle for a range of causes, and the numbers of those who would are vanishingly small. Only 15% would consent to their children taking up arms to defend Poland from a Russian invasion, 14% to defend France from invasion, 9% to defend Ukraine from further Russian attacks, and 7% to defend either Taiwan or Israel. Overwhelming majorities, between 71% and 82%, would object to their children being called up to defend any of these causes.

Would you want your children to fight in the British Army in each of the following circumstances?
Polling Text 

Even in the event of a direct invasion on British soil, only 21% of parents say they would want their children to fight to defend the country, 67% of parents say they would not want them involved and a further 10% are not sure.

These results confirm a sobering reality that has not been reflected in the election campaigns yet: there is very little appetite for military engagements of any kind, and if a new war arrives, it is not at all clear that Britain could muster an army even to defend itself.

As the election campaign progresses, UnHerd Britain will be investigating other important questions of public opinion. 

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