Commentary: British public opinion on war

By IAIN MURRAY  |  March 21, 2003 at 5:58 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- For weeks on end we kept hearing that, despite the support of Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and a host of Eastern European leaders for the U.S. stance on Iraq, popular opinion in Europe stood against military action. Fox News Channel correspondents regularly reminded us of a poll taken in Britain that showed that only 10 percent of the British public supported immediate military action. Things looked dire for Blair, we were told, and his political future was on the line.

It hasn't turned out like that. Late on Tuesday evening, despite a rebellion by a third of legislators from his own Labor party, the British prime minister won a parliamentary vote authorizing military action by the handsome margin of 396 votes to 217. Yet even before this vote -- which was not needed under the British Constitution -- the British public attitude had changed noticeably. A telephone poll for the Daily Telegraph newspaper and the ITN news network conducted during Tuesday found 50 percent of Britons backing war.

What had changed? Actually very little. The polls that showed little enthusiasm for war were more nuanced than American reporters made them out to be. The really interesting figures were not those who agreed that war was necessary now, but those who felt that war could not be justified. In a poll for the Channel 4 television network taken during the height of the diplomatic campaign in early February, for instance, only 11 percent of respondents thought that Britain should under no circumstances support military action against Saddam.

That poll also showed that most of the British public believed all along that Saddam did possess weapons of mass destruction, with 61 percent agreeing not only that he possessed such weapons but that he might give them to terrorists. They also agreed that the American evidence of his possession of such weapons was genuine, but did not feel it was conclusive proof. It might be argued that the British leaned towards the French position that more time was needed.

But there was no real support for the French contention that the weapons inspectors should have been given as much time as necessary. Only 30 percent agreed with that view. The British public was much more happy with the idea that a deadline should have been set for Saddam to disarm, the view that the British government tried to propose in its abortive second resolution. Britain was always willing to go to war if diplomacy failed.

The hardening of attitudes in Britain, therefore, seems to have more to do with what the British public sees as the failure of French diplomacy at the United Nations. In the Daily Telegraph poll, 68 percent felt French President Jacques Chirac's announcement that he would veto any new resolution under any circumstances was the wrong thing to do. Indeed, 50 percent blame France for the U.N.'s failure while only 35 percent blame President George W. Bush.

The bizarre upshot of this is confidence has increased in Britain that Bush will do the right thing. A poll for the liberal Guardian newspaper taken over last weekend, which identified a swing towards approval for war even then showed 53 percent trust him to do the right thing over Iraq.

It is too early to say whether this swing will be replicated in continental Europe. None of the countries there is committing large numbers of troops, and so the natural desire to back the country's troops as they head into battle will not have much effect on the poll figures there. It is too early to say what the effect of the last few days' activities will be on those nations. The analysis there is more likely to be retrospective in the sense that the polls will ask whether the Franco-German-Russian stance was right in hindsight. That will depend on what the coalition forces find if and when they liberate Iraq.

Yet it is safe to say from the previous polls that the British swing in favor of war should have been expected. Now that the U.N. distraction is over and Parliament has voted, we can expect to see a further swing in favor of action as Briton backs its "Tommies" in the face of conflict.

There may be a backlash if there are any disasters, such as the loss of the warship HMS Sheffield during the Falklands campaign, but assuming the war goes as planned, British support should remain strong throughout the period of engagement.

A period in which advance is bogged down might also strain support, but it would probably take a series of disasters for British support to evaporate. And if Saddam uses the weapons of mass destruction he claimed he did not have, remaining opposition to the war should dissolve as quickly as general opposition has over the last few days.

(Iain Murray, who writes the "Recent Research Suggests ..." column on statistics and scientific research for UPI, is a British writer living in Alexandria, Va., and secretary of The Anglosphere Institute.)

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