Our wariness of Europe reveals deeper issues about our identityby Peter Kellner / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
See the results of YouGov’s survey in full here
Why have Britons always been so wary of the European Union? Polls consistently report a three-to-two majority for withdrawal. How come? Do we scorn continentals as inferior to us? Is there a lingering hatred of the Germans? Do we find the French untrustworthy? Is it our island status that makes us want to keep our distance? In a special survey for Prospect, YouGov explored our underlying feelings.
Our results dispose of two myths. First, we found few signs that we think Britain is best at tackling major social problems. Asked who provides better state schools, just 22 per cent say Britain, while 50 per cent say “other major European countries such as France and Germany.” We also think we lag far behind our fellow EU states on controlling immigration, on “creating a strong economy with low unemployment” and, more narrowly, on reducing poverty. On only one issue do the figures—just—go the other way: by a small margin, we think we are better at “providing sick people with good healthcare.” On each of these issues, the views of EU enthusiasts and EU sceptics are broadly similar, so our hostility to the EU does not spring from any widespread sense that membership damages our social fabric.
Second, forget any lingering influence of the second world war. By a two-to-one margin we think Germans are friendly rather than unfriendly. Here, there is some difference between the pro and anti-EU camps: just 19 per cent of those who favour EU membership regard the Germans as unfriendly, compared with 39 per cent of those who want us to quit the club. But far more people think France is unfriendly: 42 per cent among pro-EU voters, 64 per cent among the antis. Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister famously insisted that France is our permanent enemy, while Germany has been only occasionally hostile. Many Britons seem to agree.
By a margin of three to one, we regard Germans as trustworthy (and again, any lingering memory of the war has no bearing: out of all the age groups, those aged 60 or above deemed Germans the most trustworthy). We also asked about two non-EU countries. A big majority of us trust Australians (76 per cent), while the figures for Americans (62 per cent) are similar to those for Germans. But the French are very different: 46 per cent of us deem them trustworthy, while 37 per cent say they are not—and there is marked difference between the pro and anti EU camps on this.
However, our findings suggest a much bigger factor at play. Before probing feelings on the EU, the survey asked a more fundamental question about how Britain should relate to the rest of the world. We offered two options: “Many of the world’s problems can be tackled only if Britain joins forces with other countries, and often agrees to compromise in order to secure international agreement,” or “The value of international agreement is often overstated. With very rare exceptions, Britain should do what it thinks right, regardless of what other countries decide.”
Now, it is perfectly possible for someone to prefer the internationalist answer and still want Britain to leave the EU, on the grounds that the EU is over-mighty, and Britain should retain the right to make deals with other countries on a case-by-case basis. However, this view is held by just 12 per cent of those who want Britain to quit the EU. Fully 77 per cent of them think Britain should normally go it alone.
Contrast that with the views of people who want us to remain members of the EU: 63 per cent think we should join forces with other countries and often compromise, while just 27 per cent prefer the go-it-alone option. This question produced by far the biggest difference between those for and against EU membership. It suggests that those against membership are motivated partly by hostility towards the continent, but more by a disdain for any kind of international co-operation. A strong streak of isolationism runs through the British psyche.
Or should that be English psyche? Our survey asked people whether they considered themselves mainly as English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British or European. A mere 2 per cent said they were “European.” Most, 63 per cent, said they were “English,” while 19 per cent regarded themselves as “British.”
When we compared the attitudes of “English” compared with “British” respondents, we found something odd. English voters want to leave the EU by a margin of 58-26 per cent—but “British” voters favour remaining members by 46-37 per cent. And while English voters overwhelmingly prefer an isolationist foreign policy, British voters divide fairly evenly between going it alone and doing compromise deals to tackle world problems. (The views of Scottish voters are closer to British than English; and we had too few Welsh respondents to be sure of their stance.)
All told, the poll suggests our views on EU membership are largely shaped by how we in these islands think of ourselves. What distinguishes people who call themselves “English” is a passion for keeping other countries at arm’s length. Whisper it softly, but is Englishness these days a source not just of pride but also insecurity?
To see a full-size version click here
See the results of YouGov’s survey in full here