When it came to fighting terrorists, Count Alexandre de Marenches, the legendary former head of France’s intelligence services, knew what he was talking about. In a prescient book published just after the end of the Cold War, he was the first to warn that a fourth world war had already begun — a war waged by ‘small, highly deadly units of terrorists’ with ‘the very real prospect of ending civilisation, at least Western civilisation, as we know it’. A lone voice, Marenches was ignored in Britain and America; it was far easier to believe in reassuring theories about the ‘end of history’ and the supposedly inevitable victory of liberal democracy in the great ideological conflicts of the 20th century.
But times have changed, and so has the state of public opinion. The dramatic extent of this shift is revealed in an exclusive new Spectator/YouGov poll which demolishes much of the received wisdom about the public’s perception of the struggle against terrorism, and shows surprisingly high levels of hawkishness. Almost three quarters of the British public are now convinced that we are fighting a new world war against extremist Islamic terrorists — and although they may not recognise the names, on this issue at least, most are in the same camp as leading US conservatives such as Eliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz and Newt Gingrich. The public is also deeply concerned at how this new conflict is developing, with four out of five judging the West to be losing and the terrorists to be winning. Almost nobody believes that last week’s foiled plot to blow up a large number of transatlantic flights will be the last such attempt, or that the police and security services will be as effective next time; 86 per cent of respondents believe that Britain is likely to suffer a major terrorist attack within the next year.
What will stun Westminster most, however, is that the public is convinced that the key to winning this new global war against terrorists lies in a much more aggressive foreign policy, as well as in severe reductions in civil liberties in Britain. One of the most important lessons from the Spectator/YouGov poll is the growing chasm between the views of large portions of the chattering classes, including most of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and the views of the population at large.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the public’s extraordinary dismissal of civil libertarian arguments. In a bitter blow to the Conservatives and the Labour Left, who have long opposed the policy, the public supports Tony Blair’s favourite option of detaining suspects without charge for up to 90 days by three to one (69 per cent to 23 per cent). When asked whether Britain should change its foreign policy in response to terrorism, just 12 per cent say that it should be made more conciliatory, against 53 per cent who say it should become more aggressive and 24 per cent who don’t want to change the current relatively tough stance.
Perhaps most controversially of all, the Spectator/YouGov poll reveals that by a majority of 55 per cent to 29 per cent the public supports the introduction of ‘passenger profiling’ by the authorities in airports. There is also mass support for tougher security at airports, regardless of inconvenience: almost two thirds say they feel safer as a result of increased airport security.
Despite endorsing passenger profiling — which would inevitably mean that Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian appearance would be singled out — half of respondents said that most British Muslims are moderates, which is good news for the future of community relations. However, over a quarter (28 per cent) disagreed and almost as many said they didn’t know; the mixed messages from Islamic ‘community leaders’ in the aftermath of last week’s terror plots — when their condemnations of terrorism were accompanied by carefully worded disclaimers, as well as by the increasing support within the community for the view that 9/11 and 7/7 had nothing to do with Muslims — may have helped fuel suspicions.
Another fascinating revelation is that 73 per cent of respondents agree that ‘the West is in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten our way of life’ while only 8 per cent think that ‘Islamic terrorism is a regional problem that poses no real threat to the West’.
This could be good news for Israel if its struggle with Hezbollah and Hamas is seen as part of a wider conflict. People are increasingly preparing for a long, bitter and potentially bloody struggle, with 60 per cent of respondents saying they expect the threat from terror groups to worsen over time. Only 6 per cent of respondents said they thought the conflict against Islamic terrorists would last five years or less; only 18 per cent believe that it will be over within ten years.
The good news for the government is that, again contrary to the widespread scepticism of sections of the media, fewer than a quarter of respondents accuse British politicians of deliberately exaggerating the threat; and only a small majority think Tony Blair should have returned home to oversee the emergency. However, they do think that more should have been done by the government to increase airport security before 10 August; personal experience combined with tabloid stories demonstrating how easy it has been to thwart security will have bolstered this view.
However, in one crucial respect the findings of the poll make dreadful reading for the hawks and supporters of Tony Blair’s close alliance with the White House. When offered the choice of maintaining the close relationship with the US, switching to closer links with Europe or an unspecified third course of action (which could be an independent foreign policy), the public turned en masse against America. A mere 14 per cent of respondents believe that Britain should continue to align herself closely with the US, against 45 per cent who said that we should position ourselves closer to Europe instead, and 27 per cent who support neither option. The public believes it can have it both ways: it wants to intensify the campaign against terrorists, but it wants to do so in concert with Europe, not the US. The poll reveals that the public is able to separate its hawkish and interventionist views from support for America. The difficulty, of course, is that there would be very few, if any, takers among the mainstream European political establishment for the aggressive foreign policy the British public advocates, and especially not in the largest countries.
Stephan Shakespeare, co-chief executive of YouGov, has an explanation for this apparent inconsistency. ‘The British people now feel that they are in a global war with terrorism, and one that will last ten years or more. But that doesn’t mean they have bought into the American “neocon” view of the future — even though they recognise the threat, and want a more aggressive response from the UK,’ he says. Instead, Shakespeare says, the public would rather that this more robust response from Britain came ‘from within the group of European nations rather than with the United States. They appreciate the scale of the conflict we are in, but see it as safer to be identified with Europe.’ There are strong similarities here with the public’s initial support of the war in Iraq. ‘In the period before the Iraq war, people approved of military action, so long as it was sanctioned by the United Nations. That was a similar attempt to accept the reality of the danger, without accepting all the consequences of being out there exposed alongside the leading player,’ Shakespeare says.
A complementary explanation to Shakespeare’s is that the British have unfortunately become increasingly anti-American, or at least dislike President George W. Bush, and are therefore reluctant to be seen to be closely involved with the US. On balance, however, the Spectator/YouGov poll reveals a British public increasingly convinced that it is involved in a war against Islamic terrorists, and determined to do what it takes to win. Politicians foolish enough to expect to gain mileage by downplaying the threat from the extremists will be in for a nasty surprise.
Allister Heath is associate editor of The Spectator and deputy editor of the Business. YouGov interviewed 1,696 respondents online, weighted to be representative of Great Britain’s population, on 14 and 15 August 2006. YouGov abides by the rules of the British Polling Council.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 19, 2006