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Stephan Shakespeare: Whose side are we on?

Stephan Shakespeare is founder and CEO of YouGov.

George Bush has said, “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists”. More recently, he added “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists”. How does the British public respond? After the Spectator/YouGov poll out today, we have a clearer idea.

We’ve known for some time that people in Britain support tougher anti-terrorism measures, and this poll confirms that. In terms of being with the US in attempts to protect ourselves against terrorist acts, there’s no problem. But were President Bush to put his two lines together, and say, “In our War on Islamic Fascism, you’re either with America or you’re against us”, the British public’s view would be less clear.

The first striking finding of the poll is that people do indeed believe we are engaged in a ‘global war’. Asked “Do you think that the West is in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten our way of life, or do you think that Islamic terrorism is a regional problem that poses no real threat to the West?”, the overwhelming majority (73%) said “We are in a world war against Islamic terrorists who threaten the West’s way of life”. They think there’s a lot worse to come, and that this will last for at least ten years. And they say that right now, we’re losing that war.

They also want a tougher foreign policy to deal with the threat. But when asked “In the future, would you prefer Britain to pursue a foreign policy agenda closer to that of the United States, or to that of the rest of the European Union?”, British people prefer the EU by three to one.

Some will see this is a confused response. If we’re in a war that threatens us personally – a war we acknowledge as being against our very way of life, and which we expect to be bloody and long, and which we must win - don’t we have to choose sides? And don’t we have to choose America?

Before the Iraq war, British people were similarly equivocal about their support for joining America in military action. They approved the war only on condition that there was a second UN resolution. When YouGov delved into their understanding of the process for getting such a resolution, we discovered that what they really wanted was support for war among a majority of member nations, but they weren’t too bothered about a couple of vetoes on the security council. In other words, it wasn’t the ‘legal basis’ they particularly cared about, but a more general sense that most other governments of the world approved, that Britain wouldn’t be exposed as America’s only partner. (For the record, on the eve of the House of Commons vote, when a second UN resolution was no longer a possibility, YouGov did record a small majority in favour of war.)

Since then, of course, people in Britain have swung against the Iraq war, and wish we hadn’t got involved. They think the post-war phase is being conducted badly by both the US and Britain, and they hate being led by the man they see as ‘Bush’s poodle’, Tony Blair.

The Spectator/YouGov poll now tells us that the public equivocation continues in the new context. Yes, British people want to win the war on terror, but that doesn’t mean they are buying in to the American ‘neocon’ view of the future. They recognise the threat, but they’d rather be aligned with other European countries than with the United States. It reveals a desire to be out of the front line - not shoulder-to-shoulder with the main combatants but tucked into the EU pack.

The implications for American foreign policy are profound. America has come to believe that Britain is a firm ally who can be counted on in the tough years ahead. That is very much on the basis of Tony Blair’s position, expressed by him with exhilarating words in the US congress itself. But those words resonated very discordantly back home, and led to his dramatic fall from public favour.

America should know that it cannot count on wholehearted support from the British public - and therefore, when Blair is gone, it cannot count on robust support from British politicians either. Earlier this week the Conservative Party leader David Cameron expressly refused to characterise the current situation as a ‘war’ and stuck to the words ‘struggle’, having earlier signalled through his foreign affairs spokesman William Hague the beginnings of a deliberate distancing from US policy. Nor will Gordon Brown, than man almost certain to follow Blair as Prime Minister, want to go into a general election as a stalwart of the American alliance. He has already said privately that it could be a disaster if British troops were still in Iraq by next election time.

On a personal note: I see America as the key driver of freedom, democracy, and prosperity in the world. I am heartened that Australia under John Howard, and Canada under Stephen Harper, are fully onside. And I am saddened and troubled that Britain may no longer be ‘shoulder to shoulder’ after Tony Blair goes. If in the future we increasingly look to the EU for comfort, rather than to America for inspiration, then the current drift to economy-choking taxes, increasingly bureaucratic administration, and above all appeasement in foreign affairs, will continue unabated by any pull in the opposite direction.

That is why I believe America matters to Britain and to the world, and why America must pay more attention to our relationship. Of course there are many pressing issues that command greater time and resources. But if America finds itself without a single, true and reliable friend in Europe, what will that mean for its global war? Only America can win this one – but America can only win with some genuine allies.


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