Unlike in the United States, there isn’t much of a public debate on foreign and security policy in Britain. It rarely features in elections and only a small number of politicians self-define as foreign policy experts. We therefore hardly ever ask what voters think about foreign policy; it doesn’t seem to matter politically.
It would be an exaggeration to say the poisoning of Sergei Skripal will put foreign and security policy at the heart of political debate, but it’s reasonable to assume the public are taking more interest in our relations with Russia. And it’s reasonable to assume voters will make decisions about the leadership credentials and strength of senior British politicians as they watch them handle Russia.
So what do the public actually think about Russia? Boiled down: the Russian state’s reputation is poor, but actually worsens when you dig deeper into the polling and look beyond headline views on Vladimir Putin.
Across every recent poll, Putin is unpopular with the British public and perceived to be a threat to the West generally and Britain specifically. Two thirds of the public said Putin’s position as Russian President made the world less safe in a 2016 ComRes poll. And a 2017 YouGov poll asked British people to rate Putin on a scale between 0 and 10, where 0 denoted “strong dislike”; Putin’s average score was 2 on this scale.
Correspondingly, the public are concerned about Russian foreign policy. The same YouGov poll revealed that, by 51 per cent to ten per cent, people think relations between Russia and the West have got worse in recent times – and most blame Russia for that. People view Russian foreign policy as a serious threat to world peace (although it’s significantly below terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyber-attacks). A separate YouGov poll from 2017 showed that, given a list of options that included Iran, North Korea and China, people said they thought Russia was the biggest threat to Britain.
We need to inject an important caveat at this point. This is that, on some measures, Donald Trump’s reputation is worse than Putin’s and many consider American foreign policy to be a danger to the world under his leadership (perhaps progress on North Korea will change that). The YouGov poll that asked people to rank Putin on a scale asked people to do the same for Trump. More people said they strongly disliked Trump than Putin. Furthermore, while more people said they thought Russian foreign policy was a danger to the world than American foreign policy, it was a close run thing.
However, apologists for Russia should take little comfort from this point. There’s no denying that America’s reputation in the rest of the world has taken a battering since Trump’s election. But the British people retain deep respect for the US – both as a nation state but also as a cultural entity. They love America but dislike Trump; people can easily divorce the two in their minds. Any half-serious survey of other polls on British attitudes to the US shows it’s a very popular country.
The same is not true of Russia. For example, when asked to rate a series of countries that Britain might trade with, in a 2016 YouGov poll, Russia scores poorly. Just nine per cent of the public said a trade deal with Russia should be a top priority. Furthermore, when given a list of countries that Britain might receive more migrants from, in a 2016 YouGov poll, Russia also scored poorly. The country’s reputation as an aggressive power has undermined its reputation broadly. (Yes, there are other things in play in these polls, but they indicate scepticism about the Russian state).
For those that argue it’s ridiculous to compare the reputation of Russia with the US – because “of course” the British people like the US more – it’s worth comparing attitudes to Russia with attitudes to China. China isn’t viewed as a threat to Britain – or, rather, it’s viewed as less of a threat than Russia, Iran and Korea. And polls also show the public is enthusiastic about a trade deal with China (although, to be fair, this is partly because of a belief that China is an existing and future economic powerhouse).
What does all this mean for British politicians? People aren’t stupid; they don’t want some sort of very serious confrontation with Russia. But they will expect senior politicians to speak the truth as they see it: to blame Russia for aggressive acts where necessary and to construct diplomatic and military alliances that defend the country (and those that live within it) from hostility. Many in the Labour Party, and some in the Conservative Party, seem to enthusiastically back a multipolar world to counter the economic and military power of the US. That’s not something the British people will support, if that means the promotion of Russian power and influence.