British public opinion on Syria

Thursday 5 September 2013

For many of us who support military intervention in Syria primarily on humanitarian, internationalist, and moral grounds, the arguments in opposition to strikes can be frustrating and even baffling, particularly those made on the Left.

No war? But there is a war already, and will continue to be one even without UK action. And as the war continues, it’s not the embassies of those fully committed to the war, Syria or their Russian allies, that Stop The War campaigners target, but that of the US, a country which has not yet dropped a single bomb in Syria.

Yet though Stop The War and their fellow marchers may be the loudest on the anti-intervention side, and though they may be the most obnoxious to left-of-centre interventionists in their claim to being of the Left, they don’t represent the majority view of those British people opposed to military action by the UK. Focusing on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Leftist anti-war activists probably misses the main  causes of British antipathy to intervention.

Norman Geras pointed to an interesting analysis by Peter Kellner in the Sunday Times of a YouGov poll conducted between Friday noon and Saturday morning:
It finds that by more than four to one (68% against 16%) we think parliament took the right decision - an even wider margin than the two to one opposition to military action recorded before Thursday’s debate.
The BBC and ICM Research conducted a similar poll showing 71% in favour of the MP’s vote and 20% against. But as Peter Kellner points out, it seems most of those against UK action in Syria are not against the US doing the job. From the Sunday Times poll:

We asked people whether Britain should help America if President Barack Obama ordered an attack and requested our help. By huge majorities we want Britain to share intelligence information about Syria (by 70% to 15%) and to support America at the United Nations (by 64% to 16%).

By a smaller but still clear margin (48% to 31%), we would be happy to give access to Britain’s military base in Cyprus to US forces attacking Syria.
It’s not just the British that think like this. Support for intervention just so long as someone else does it is also the dominant view in Germany. An old story no doubt.

The parties that took the firmest stand against UK intervention were small parties such as the Green Party, UKIP, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, some Northern Irish parties, and the far right BNP. These mostly represent varieties of nationalists, with the exception of the Greens. With that in mind it’s interesting to compare the polls of opinion on Syria with polling of British public opinion on immigration.

Recent polling commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of the Conservatives shows responses hostile to immigration ranging from 60% to 81% depending on the particular question. See the complete survey or reports in the Sunday Times and Independent. If we overlay this survey and the YouGov survey on intervention in Syria, the minimum overlap between those opposed to UK action and those with a negative view of immigration ranges between 28% and 49% depending on which immigration question is asked. This means that the majority of those opposed to UK strikes against Assad also hold some negative views on immigration, and by implication quite likely hold some negative views of foreigners.

Without more detailed polling it’s impossible to be conclusive on a link between a degree of xenophobia amongst the British public and their aversion to expending British resources and endangering British lives for the sake of Syrians. But the correlation such as it appears suggests that arguments based on mercy or justice for Syrians may not be the most effective way to shift public opinion.

As unpleasant as it may seem to anyone who’s moved primarily by reports of hundreds of Syrian children gassed in their beds, or by the thousands of children slaughtered by other means, British opinion is more likely to be responsive to any perceived danger to British people in Britain. So talk about how Assad’s war breeds extremists and how his broken borders won’t hold them, talk about millions of Syrians now on the move and maybe coming this way, talk about how effective sarin gas is in a modern subway system, but don’t waste too much time talking about Syrian victims.