Photo of the London eye wheel
All eyes on London. London Eye Photo ©

Under licence from CC Creative Commons, adapted from the original

June 2017

One year on from the referendum, and as Brexit negotiations begin, the British Council launches a major new report on how the UK is viewed around the world - and what difference the vote has made to those views. Overall, perceptions of the UK across the G20 may not have changed very much. The results highlight some serious potential risks arising from negative reactions within Europe. They also suggest possible opportunities from more positive reactions in countries beyond the Continent. Meanwhile it is striking that the most negative views of the likely impact of the referendum on the UK’s attractiveness are found amongst young people in the UK itself. The British Council’s Head of Insight, Mona Lotten, argues that to become a truly global Britain, the country needs to understand what foreign publics find attractive, and face the world with confidence.

A Political Earthquake

The question of the UK’s role in the world is back, following the political earthquake of the referendum a year ago. Much of the public debate since then has been dominated by economics, including arguments about the merits of “soft” versus “hard” Brexit. Perhaps, as the Foreign Secretary said this week, what is more important is whether the UK secures an ‘open Brexit’. Ideally, this would be a Brexit that seeks to strengthen the UK’s cultural and educational connections with Europe and beyond. Such ties can provide a supportive backdrop for interactions around the questions of trade deals and security co-operation.

The best strategies tend to be those built on accurate pictures of the starting point. In thinking about how the UK might pursue strong international relationships it should be asked how others see us now and what they want from us as a nation. Is the UK an attractive proposition? Are we trusted? Do others want to engage with us? How does it compare to other countries? 

Accordingly, the British Council commissioned surveys across the G20 with samples of over 19,000 young educated 18-34 year olds: the pool from which the future’s movers and the shakers will emerge. The survey was carried out both before and after the referendum. The surveys represent one of the biggest studies to date to measure international levels of trust and attraction towards the UK and how they have been affected by Brexit. 

Indeed the country appears to have enjoyed a slight increase in its standing as a global power since the vote

The results show that, on average, the UK has maintained its status as an attractive country in the eyes of young people in the G20 (71% found the UK attractive before and after the referendum). Indeed the country appears to have enjoyed a slight increase in its standing as a global power since the vote (65% to 66%). It is perhaps no coincidence that the nations perceived as most attractive among the G20 were also those which were the most highly developed, democratic and open.

Infographic showing UK Attractiveness
Still attractive? Perceptions of the UK’s attractiveness before and after the vote. Source: fieldwork by Ipsos Mori

Equally, the UK enjoys high levels of trust among the young people surveyed – British people were trusted by over 60%. British institutions were trusted by 59%, more so than government (at 53%). However, small but statistically significant declines were seen for trust in people (1%) and in government (2%) following the referendum. It was in the EU and Commonwealth countries that trust in UK government dropped furthest, from 56-48% and 65%-61% respectively. There were small but negative shifts of 2-3% fewer respondents agreeing that the UK demonstrates respect and tolerance to those of different beliefs, that its people value diversity, and are open and welcoming, and its government works constructively with other governments. 

The most positively perceived British characteristics were institutions – notably universities and cultural organisations. Indeed there has been a small but significant increase in agreement that the UK has world leading universities (from 69%-71%) and that it has world leading arts and cultural institutions (66%-67%).

Broadly, the greatest danger signs seem to be found within the EU countries, whereas the greatest opportunities appear to point to the Commonwealth and the rest of the G20

Asking people to consider the effects of the UK’s vote to leave the EU on their perceptions and intended future engagement revealed a mixture of potential opportunities and threats for the UK. Broadly, the greatest danger signs seem to be found within the EU countries, whereas the greatest opportunities appear to point to the Commonwealth and the rest of the G20.

Respondents reported a net negative impact of Brexit in the EU (19% net negative impact on the UK’s attractiveness). Conversely, there was a net positive effect in the Commonwealth and the rest of the G20 countries (13% and 18% respectively). This suggests there are important and serious risks to the UK’s relationship within Europe but significant opportunities beyond it.

The same pattern appears with the impact of Brexit on intended future engagement with the UK. Young Europeans indicated a net negative impact while those in the Commonwealth and elsewhere indicated a net positive effect. This applies in all but one important area: Trade. Across the whole G20 the vote to leave the EU had a net negative impact on young people’s perceptions of the likelihood of pursuing business/trade with the UK.

It is crucial that the UK takes on board the worrying views expressed by young people in the EU about the implications of Brexit. To address these concerns, effort and resource will need to be committed to maintaining meaningful connections between UK and European people, organisations and institutions, as they represent important future markets and allies.

The research suggests that friendship with British people and engagement with British culture are less likely to be affected by Brexit than business/trade and education engagement. These could prove the best channels through which to maintain broad-based, positive connections with the people of Europe when negotiations on political, economic and security questions might at times become challenging.

The Commonwealth countries’ positive perceptions and high levels of trust in the UK are striking. To the extent they are affected by the Brexit vote, these are also in a positive direction overall. Indeed, the vote is associated with a net positive impact on intentions to engage with the UK (except in the area of trade) – probably reflecting the historical personal, cultural, institutional, political, and linguistic ties between these countries and the UK. In G20 countries outside the EU and Commonwealth the levels of trust in the UK are somewhat lower. Yet levels of trust and attractiveness here are also positively affected by the Brexit vote. From these countries perspectives the vote may have been interpreted as an openness on the UK’s part for international engagement beyond European partners. The reported impact of Brexit on their likelihood of doing business/trading with the UK trade is the only area where there is a net fall. A case could be made for building broader bilateral ties, for example through “softer” engagement - via cultural, educational, and personal connections, to build a platform on which trade could develop.

Internationalising Our Youth for a Global Britain

Of course the UK’s international success will not just depend on the attitudes of people globally. It also depends on the country’s ability to understand and connect with them. This requires British people to develop the skills needed to connect globally – including languages and knowledge of other cultures and markets. The extent to which British people can connect in their interactions with people abroad or foreigners at home will no doubt be reflected in how they are in turn perceived.

The survey revealed that British young people have a more negative perspective on the impact of Brexit than their G20 peers – even than their peers in the EU. By investing in young British peoples’ ability to think and engage internationally, it might be possible to turn this pessimism into confidence and active international relationships – exactly what is needed for the UK to take on a more global role.

The good news is that the UK has no shortage of attractive assets which can attract others. Many of these can be found within its arts and culture, education system, language and people. It is in the UK’s national interest to make the most of these assets whether in Europe, the Commonwealth, or the rest of the world. 

Protecting British democracy, civil society, economic prosperity, plurality and openness is not only an imperative for the success of British people. These qualities continue to be powerful for establishing new connections and maintaining old international relationships regardless of the structures in place for governing the UK’s relationships overseas. Indeed, the UK has a long track record of sharing the best of its pluralistic and democratic society with the world and must continue to do so.

The UK voted to leave. But the future model for the UK’s relationship with the EU and the manner of leaving will both be significant for its reputation. The vote itself has had a subtle but significant effect on attitudes to the UK in the G20 – some positive and some negative. It is how the UK proceeds from this point that will have a more lasting impact on its reputation and influence. This study suggests that there are opportunities as well as risks. Confidence and optimism are prerequisites for success – among the UK’s people and institutions, as well as in its government.

Mona Lotten, Head of Insight, British Council

See also