By Elizabeth Cameron, Policy Analyst, British Council

23 June 2017 - 15:36

'If the next generation overseas sees the UK as less welcoming, the attractiveness of the UK will suffer.' Image ©

Unsplash, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

As part of long-term research into trust in the UK and its attractiveness, the British Council's new report From the Outside In looks at how young people across the G20 nations view the UK. Elizabeth Cameron explains the results.

How did the survey work?

There were actually two surveys: one before the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union in June 2016, and another after the 'leave' result. Both surveys asked educated young people what they thought of the UK. They were both done by the polling firm Ipsos MORI.

What were the main findings?

Overall, the survey showed that the UK is perceived very well. It ranks in fourth place with France, behind Canada, Australia and Italy. The overall attractiveness of the UK did not decline following the EU referendum – in fact, it remained exactly the same, with 71 per cent of people finding the UK attractive.

The UK was also seen to have world-leading universities by 71 per cent of people, and 67 per cent also agreed it had world-leading cultural institutions. This actually increased by one to two per cent following the referendum, showing how well-regarded the UK is in higher education and the cultural sector.

The survey also asked about trust in the UK’s people, government and institutions – such as the police and media. Overall, trust in people was the highest, with 61 per cent of those surveyed saying they trusted the UK’s people. This only declined by one per cent following the referendum.

The UK ranked in second place overall as a country whose people can be trusted, behind Canada. Trust in the UK’s government was the lowest compared to trust in people or institutions, with 53 per cent of people saying they trusted the government, falling from 55 per cent before the referendum.

Did the referendum seem to have any negative impact?

Yes. The survey showed elsewhere that, following the referendum, the UK’s people were perceived more negatively. When people were asked to agree with whether people from the UK valued diversity, were open and welcoming and tolerated those with different faiths and beliefs, the levels of agreement fell by two per cent after the referendum, which was statistically significant.

The rise in hate crimes by 41 per cent in July 2016 compared to the previous year, and the associated debate on immigration, are not only concerning in themselves, but also because they can affect how people around the world view the UK. Perhaps this is even more cause for concern, given that the UK's people were trusted more than its government or institutions in the survey.

The UK government was also perceived more negatively following the referendum. Fewer people agreed that the UK government works constructively with others around the world (this fell three per cent, to 50 per cent), that it treats the UK’s people fairly (this fell two per cent to 48 per cent) or that it contributes its fair share of aid to developing countries (this fell three per cent to 42 per cent), despite the UK being one of just two countries among the G7 that spent the full 0.7 per cent target of their gross domestic product on aid in 2016.

Were there differences between countries?

There were big differences between countries and regional groupings. For example, in the EU countries that were surveyed (France, Germany, and Italy), people were generally more negative about their future engagement with the UK - particularly in business and study.

But the story in the Commonwealth nations (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa) and the rest of the G20 was more positive. These countries reported seeing the break with the EU as a positive factor in increasing the UK’s attractiveness.

Overall in the G20, when people were asked about the EU referendum’s effect on UK attractiveness, 32 per cent of people said it made the UK more attractive, 36 per cent thought the decision made no difference and 21 per cent thought it had a negative impact: a net positive view.

What did people in the UK say?

The survey also asked young people in the UK whether they thought the decision to leave the EU would affect how others perceived the UK. The views of young people in the UK were markedly more negative. They thought people in the G20 would be 30 per cent less likely to visit the UK, whereas in fact, only 11 per cent of people in the G20 said they were less likely to do so.

Across all areas, such as doing business, studying, enjoying UK arts and culture, people in the UK overestimated by at least 50 per cent the negative impact of the referendum. This British pessimism carried through to the subject of making personal contacts and friendships with people from the UK. Most people in the G20 (62 per cent) said that the referendum made no difference to this. But almost a quarter of young people in the UK (23 per cent) thought people overseas would be less likely to form personal contacts or friendships with them.

Do people still want to connect with each other overseas?

Our survey showed that in most countries, making friends with people from other countries is the third most popular reason for interacting with other countries, behind visiting other countries and enjoying their arts and culture. More than 50 per cent of people wish to make friends with people from other countries.

What else did you notice?

When we asked people about the positive and negative characteristics of people from the UK, 22 per cent said that people from the UK were friendly and 35 per cent said people were polite and good-mannered.

But when asked about negative characteristics post-referendum, there was a marked increase in the number of people mentioning that people from the UK were ignorant of other cultures (up two per cent to 25 per cent) and too nationalistic (up one per cent to 27 per cent). People from the UK were also seen as being intolerant towards people from other countries. This rose from 22 per cent to 25 per cent following the EU referendum.

The survey also showed that around half of those surveyed had no friends or family from the UK, living in the UK, or in their own country. What's more, only nine per cent of those surveyed had ever participated in a school exchange with the UK.

What can you say in summary?

Since the UK voted to leave the EU, much attention has been given to what this might mean in economic terms, for the UK’s businesses and universities. But there's been little focus on the importance of maintaining and increasing connections between people.

If we are to draw any conclusion from these figures, the survey shows how important it is for the UK's people to make global friendships and connections, and for the UK's institutions to continue to make international opportunities available. UK people are well-liked, but if the next generation overseas consistently sees them as less open and welcoming, the attractiveness of the UK will surely suffer in the long term.

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