The UK retains its position as the most attractive country for young people across the G20. Alistair MacDonald, British Council Senior Policy Advisor, discusses the findings of the latest edition of the British Council’s global perceptions survey.

Our latest global perceptions survey, undertaken for the fifth time since 2016, offers insight into how young people’s views of the attractiveness and trustworthiness of G20 countries have shifted over time. 

These perceptions matter as they drive people’s behaviours, with significant implications for a country’s prosperity, security and international influence. This is something that the UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy recognises is core to the success of Global Britain in a Competitive Age.

Essentially, people will buy British because they trust the UK. They will choose to invest in, study in and visit the UK because it is an attractive destination.

Methodology and Headline Findings

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake the survey of 1000 educated adults aged 18-34 in each of the nineteen G20 countries in autumn 2021. To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive survey of young people’s views of the attractiveness of the G20 nations.

The survey results are clear – the UK continues to be the most attractive country in the world.

Last year, perhaps to the surprise of some, the UK emerged as the most attractive country in the G20, having just pipped Canada to the top spot. This year, the UK retains the top spot in the rankings for overall attractiveness, though now shares the podium with Italy, with Canada slipping into third place.

In 2016, before the UK voted to exit the European Union, 71% of educated young people across the G20 rated the UK 6-10 out of 10 for overall attractiveness. In 2020 the score was 74%. It now stands at 75%.

In our 2016 survey, undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the UK was fourth for overall attractiveness, though importantly the UK’s rating was unchanged on 71%. At the time Canada (76%), Australia (75%) and Italy (72%) all scored higher than the UK.

The corresponding scores in 2021 show the UK now with a score of 75%, Canada (74%), Australia (70%) and Italy (75%). The data appears to show that perceptions of the UK and Italy are improving, while views of Canada (now third) and, in particular, Australia (now ranked eighth) are in decline.

There is further good news when it comes to levels of trust

In 2020 Canada held the top spot across all three of our trust metrics (trust in people, institutions and government), but the UK is now first for trust in institutions (56%) pushing Canada into second place (54%) with Germany in third (53%).

The UK government has also risen one rank to be in joint second place, with Germany, for most trusted in the G20 (51%), just behind Canada (52%). The UK is second for trust in people (57%), again just behind Canada (58%) with Germany third (54%).

 This is important, as trust is vital to the success of Brand Britain. Attractiveness, while important, is in some ways a superficial phenomenon. In certain circumstances it can lead to transitory, transactional interactions rather than lasting, meaningful relationships. Trust, on the other hand, fosters robust, mutually beneficial relationships built on friendship, understanding and loyalty.

Trust is essential in business and diplomacy – indeed in any meaningful interaction, even if the parties involved are powerful countries negotiating a complex trade treaty. Where trust exists between parties, there is a much better chance of reaching an amicable, lasting agreement when entering negotiations.

The survey also reveals that young people across the G20 are more favourable to the UK than they are towards any other G20 state.

Two in three view the UK as a positive influence in the world, with more people identifying the UK as a positive global influence than any other country.

And while the USA is by far the most familiar country to people across the G20, the UK is in second place, significantly ahead of other P5 and G7 states. 61% of respondents said they know a lot or a fair amount about the USA. The UK rating on the metric of familiarity is 49%, ahead of Japan (43%) and China, France and Germany (all at 37%). 

These are a highly significant set of results for the UK, revealing that “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” were and continue to be wrong about how the UK is viewed internationally.

Runners and riders

That is not to say that the UK’s position is uncontested; far from it. When it comes to overall attractiveness, ‘Marca Italia’ is clearly giving Brand Britain a run for its money.

Complacency born of success could be highly detrimental to the UK’s international standing, with other leading nations keen to secure the economic and strategic benefits of high levels of attractiveness and trust, what we would term ‘soft power’.

The Australian experience is important here - its ranking for overall attractiveness has dropped from second to eighth in just five years.

Also worthy of note is that the difference between first and eighth place in the overall attractiveness ratings is a mere five percentage points, meaning the race is closer than ever.

Interestingly, there is a wider gap of 13 percentage points in the ratings between Australia (in eighth place at 70%) and ninth placed South Korea (57%). There is a clear pack of frontrunners jostling for the top spot. For the remainder of the rankings the difference between individual countries narrows once again, varying between one and four percentage points.

Despite Italy’s strong showing on overall attractiveness, it is significantly behind the UK when it comes to trust. When it comes to trust in government the UK is second on 52%, while Italy scores 42%, placing it in eighth place.

Canada and Germany score much closer to the UK on trust while also scoring very well on attractiveness, leaving them well placed to challenge the UK in future years across these metrics.

Germany is also second to the UK on both whether it is perceived as a positive or negative influence in the world (64% think Germany is a positive influence, just behind the UK on 66%) and on favourability (66% rate Germany favourably, with the UK on 68%). This consistency across multiple metrics makes Germany the closest challenger to the UK’s position overall.

What the countries in the survey identified as the most attractive and trustworthy have in common is that they are all capitalist, democratic, free, liberal, rich, and stable societies.

They are the countries that are seen as working constructively with others towards the common good and for their support for the rules-based international system.

The lower half of the rankings is populated by states viewed as authoritarian (as a guide, these are countries that are rated as ‘partly free’ or ‘not free’ by Freedom House) and/or are middle-income countries (as defined by the World Bank).

What we see is that perceptions of individual freedoms and wealth continue to be critical to a country’s soft power, with the top eight countries in the various rankings covered above rated ‘free’ by Freedom House and ‘high income’ by the World Bank.

Change is gradual, except when it isn’t

In general, the year on year changes in the scores in the polling are small. However, the closeness of the ratings does mean it is possible for a country to move several places up or down the rankings through only a small change in their scores or the scores of their competitors.

Some changes though are more dramatic. In 2018 the US government was the most distrusted of any country in the G20. While distrust remains high, with 31% of respondents distrusting the US government (they rated the US government 0-4 out of 10 for trust), this is a significant improvement on the score of 42% distrust recorded as recently as last year.

In fact, on the trust metric the US government has returned to pre-Trump era scores. In early 2016 the US scored 47% for trust and 29% for distrust (compared with 45% for trust and 31% for distrust this year). There has been a very clear ‘Biden bounce’ when it comes to trust in the US government.

By way of comparison, in 2021 distrust in the UK government stands at 19% for the UK, an improvement on last year’s score (22%).

Attractiveness and trust are essential elements in any successful brand, including and perhaps especially for Brand Britain

Even a single percentage point change in the scorings for trust and attractiveness will have implications to a country’s soft power status and national economy. Soft power augments a country’s global influence, supplementing, enhancing and legitimising its hard power. Being viewed as a trustworthy international actor gives a country influence or at the very least the opportunity to be heard on a global stage.

An attractive, trusted UK will find it easier to strike trade deals and, as we have seen with COP26, build the necessary international alliances to respond to global challenges like climate change.

The importance of international cultural institutions

Internationally respected cultural institutions, like the BBC World Service and the British Council, play a vital role in fostering the connections, knowledge and trust that power Brand Britain.

Fully 60% of young people completing the survey, who were drawn from the general population of each of the countries included, said they had engaged in a cultural or educational initiative with a UK institution at least once.

Of these 32% claimed to have done so through the British Council. That is a massive reach and impact that other states can only dream about. And it has a substantial impact on perceptions of the UK:

While the average score for trust in the UK government across the sample was 51%, amongst those that had engaged with the British Council it was 66%.

This is important as our research has found that young people who trust the UK are almost twice as likely to say they intend to do business/trade with the UK (the Value of Trust).

In the 2019/20 financial year, the British Council’s gross value-added contribution to the UK economy was estimated at £1bn.

Maintaining the UK’s global reach and level of engagement through international cultural and educational exchange will be vital to holding the top spot in the years ahead. If Brand Britain is to continue to thrive, HM Government must invest in institutions like the British Council.

It is worth taking a moment to celebrate the news that the UK is the most attractive country in the G20, but it also needs to be recognised that the hard work of maintaining that lead, of building Brand Britain, is never done.

Technical details 

Ipsos MORI interviewed a sample of 20,616 adults aged 18-34 in the 19 G20 countries between 24th September 2021 and 29th October 2021, with fieldwork conducted online. Data has been weighted for each individual country to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, and each country has been given equal weighting within the G20 dataset. All surveys are subject to a range of potential sources of error.