Behind Global Britain: Public Opinion on the UK’s Role in the World

By Edward Elliott and Sophia Gaston

A new report from the British Foreign Policy Group and the Henry Jackson Society, shows Britons are deeply divided about Britain’s future role in the world. Despite the government having adopted the ‘Global Britain’ mantra championed by Brexit campaigners to guide its foreign policy strategy, the report finds that those who voted Leave in the EU Referendum are consistently the least likely to support an active international role.

The report, BEHIND GLOBAL BRITAIN: PUBLIC OPINION ON THE UK’S ROLE IN THE WORLD is based on a new survey conducted with BMG Research. It reveals stark differences in preferences about the UK’s international role, based on age, education, geography and political affiliation – and highlights the role that inequalities in access to international opportunities play in shaping how Britons see the world.

Foreign Policy Spending and Priorities

65% of the British public is interested, to some degree or other, in what the UK does internationally, and 43% believe they are informed about foreign affairs – an increase of 7% and 5% respectively from when BFPG asked the same questions 18 months ago. Yet, a significant proportion of Britons remain uninterested and uninformed about the UK’s international activities.

  • Britons who claim to be the most informed are older (54% of over-65s), men (54%), from higher socio-economic groups (50% of ABC1s), with degrees (52%), and Conservative Party voters (59%).
  • 48% of Leave voters and 54% of Remain voters claim to be informed about foreign affairs.
  • The young (38% of 18-to-24s), women (33%) those from lower socio-economic groups (32%), those without degrees (38%), UKIP supporters (37%) and non-voters (21%) are the least informed about foreign affairs.

The UK’s Role in the World

  • Over half of Britons (56%) view Brexit as one of the most important international issues facing the UK.
  • Immigration (42%), international terrorism (39%) and climate change (38%) are also considered important, with issues such as global wars (i.e. Syria) (16%) and territorial disputes (4%) considered less so.
  • Older Britons are most likely to think immigration, terrorism, international crime and Brexit are critical issues, while the young disproportionately prioritise global wars, humanitarian crises and climate change.
  • A third (33%) of Britons think the country’s policies should be driven primarily by what is in the UK’s economic and strategic defence interests, while 14% think it should be driven more by values such as human rights and democracy, and 39% think they should be driven by an equal balance of the two.
  • 76% of Britons think the UK should stay in the United Nations, 73% in the Commonwealth, 71% in the WTO and 69% in NATO. The IMF (59%) and World Bank (54%) are less popular, but there is less name recognition.
  • Remain voters are consistently more likely to support membership in international organisations. However, Conservative voters are more likely to support NATO, the WTO and the Commonwealth than Labour voters.
  • The EU has the lowest level of support (46%) of multi-lateral institutions, with a clear 40% in favour of leaving – although, this is a smaller proportion than during the 2016 Referendum.
  • 49% Britons think the UK should be seen as a country that puts the interests and welfare of its people first.
  • 40% of Britons think the UK should be a promoter of free trade.
  • Twice as many Britons would rather the UK stay out of foreign conflicts (19%) than intervene (9%).

Foreign Policy Spending

  • 27% of Brits want to increase the UK’s foreign policy spending, while 24% want budgets to be cut, and 36% think it should stay the same.
  • Trade (44%) and defence (31%) are the most popular areas for increased spending, with diplomacy (16%) and international development (9%) seen as lower priorities.
  • 33% of Remain voters back greater international spending, versus 23% of Leave voters. The splits between Labour (32%) and Conservative (43%) voters, and those with (34%) and without (23%) degrees, are similar.

Mobility, Networks and Identity

The second paper captures a nation divided down the middle between ‘global citizens’ and more rooted Britons, who have distinct lifestyles, values and priorities, and hold fundamentally different views about the country’s role in the world. Clear demographic and geographic distinctions can be observed:


  • 31% of Britons live in the same town or city where they were born, rising to 37% of those without a degree, and 39% of lower socio-economic groups – compared to just 23% of the degree-educated.
  • 40% of Britons did not travel for leisure at all in 2018. This number rises to 61% of those living in social housing, but falls to just 30% of those living in higher socio-economic households.
  • A quarter of Londoners travel abroad frequently, compared to just 3% in the West Midlands, and 5% of those in the East of England.
  • 46% of Leave voters did not travel at all in 2018, compared to 32% of Remain voters.
  • 60% of those who did not travel abroad for leisure in 2018 describe themselves as ‘very uninterested’ with the UK’s international engagement, and 44% see immigration as one of the UK’s most significant international issues, compared to only 6% of those who travel abroad frequently.


  • 44% of Britons identify as ‘global citizens’. Around a third of citizens do not, and a fifth are unsure.
  • Only 27% of Leave voters see themselves as ‘global citizens’, compared to 64% of Remain voters.
  • 56% of Britons identify as ‘patriots’, although a not-insubstantial 27% of the population do not.
  • 78% of those aged over-65 identify as patriots, compared to just a third of those aged 18-to-24.
  • 75% of Leave voters identify as patriots, compared to 54 % of Remain voters.
  • 49% of Britons identify as European, and 41% do not. Britons from higher socio-economic groups, with higher incomes and degrees, are considerably more likely to see themselves as European than other citizens.
  • Half (50%) of Britons identify as Commonwealth citizens, a third (33%) do not, and 17% are unsure.
  • As opposed to other ‘international’ identities, older Britons are most likely to describe themselves as Commonwealth citizens (two-thirds of over-65s vs. around a third of younger Brits)
  • Older Britons, Conservative and UKIP voters, those who don’t identify as ‘European’ or ‘global citizens’, are the most likely to support migrants to the UK holding an exclusive British identity.
  • Half of Britons (49 %) are uninterested in the ‘Tebbit Test’ about sporting allegiances. 18% of Brits expect migrants to support the UK and their home country equally, 14% favour migrants solely supporting the British team, and 12% think they should support their country of birth.

In the Words of the Authors

“The Government has been steadfast in its commitment to the Global Britain aspiration, but these findings reveal the country is in fact tremendously divided about our future role on the international stage. It emphasises the tremendous demographic and geographic disparities of access and exposure to life outside of Britain, and how these lived experiences of mobility and networks shape citizens’ attitudes and identities. Should the Government wish to strengthen Britain’s global influence after Brexit, it must accept that public opinion is tremendously divided on this issue, and consider how to extend international opportunities more widely throughout the population.”

Sophia Gaston

‘Global Britain’ was initially put forward by Government as a way of signalling to the world that the UK is still outward looking and internationally engaged. Whilst Britons are on average supportive of the UK maintaining global aspirations these findings show the complexities and variances in these opinions across the country.  Since ‘Global Britain’ ‘s inception it has progressed towards a more defined aspiration and strategy – but its success will ultimately be defined by the direction and conviction of the UK’s foreign policy after its departure from the European Union. One of the main obstacles the Government faces for ‘Global Britain’ to be a success is the considerable number of people uninterested and uninformed about the UK’s international affairs. Greater national discussion of the priorities and the benefits an international outlook bring to the UK would go a long way in addressing key concerns from the part of the public, and creating greater alignment between public opinion and government policy on international issues that are fundamental to the UK’s prosperity, security, and influence.

Edward Elliott

According to the Trade Secretary

As we leave the European Union, we have a golden opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world and international trade is a vital tool in helping us to make the most of this. It is extremely encouraging to see such high public support for our efforts to promote free trade and act constructively as a founding member of the World Trade Organization. Now is the time for British government and British businesses to engage openly on the world stage as we forge independent trade policy to benefit people across the whole of the UK.

Rt Hon. Dr Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for Trade


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