Armed Forces / Public opinion over time

Public opinion over time

Another contextual question that arises from our findings about the popularity of the Armed Forces is whether the public's goodwill has remained constant or altered over time. Given the extent of controversy over the deployment in Iraq, we might wonder whether attitudes towards the military have improved at all since UK Armed Forces personnel were withdrawn in 2009. As the British Social Attitudes survey has not previously asked the public for their general opinion of the Armed Forces, we asked respondents to say if they thought their view had changed over the last few years. Their answers show that while a majority of people, almost eight in ten, report that their attitude has stayed the same, a significant minority (18 per cent) say their opinion has improved (Table 8.5). By contrast, only five per cent say they have formed a lower opinion of the military in recent years. Older people and those without qualifications are the least likely to report that their attitude has changed. Among political sympathisers, Conservative supporters are somewhat less likely to say their view has changed, while those who incline towards the Liberal Democrats are a little more likely than others to report that their opinion has become more positive (Table 8.5).
 

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Another possible way of examining changes in people's perceptions is to compare responses to our new question about respect for the military with replies to a question in earlier surveys about pride in the Armed Forces. Respondents in 1995 and 2003 were invited to say how proud they felt of Britain in different ways, including the military. Clearly pride and respect are not identical concepts and the questions were asked in different contexts. Comparisons must, therefore, be treated with caution. It is, nevertheless, interesting that the questions about pride in the Armed Forces were asked at the time of multilateral peace-keeping operations in Bosnia (1995) and in Iraq and Afghanistan (2003), while replies to our question about respect were gathered after the British military mission in Iraq had ended but the Afghanistan campaign continued. We can cautiously estimate how public opinion responds to the active engagement of the UK Armed Forces in military conflicts.

In both 1995 and 2003, around half of all respondents said they were "very proud" of the Armed Forces, with only a slight upward increase between the two years. In the latest survey, three out of four people said they had "a great deal of respect". While we cannot accurately estimate public esteem for the military prior to 2012 from these data, it is likely that goodwill towards the UK Armed Forces previously stood at a lower level than it does now and that there has been a strengthening of public support for the military throughout the duration of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions.

Thus far we have seen that public opinion is generally very supportive towards the Armed Forces. We have also found evidence from two different sources that people's respect for the military is likely to have increased in recent years. However, we have also discovered interesting nuances in the way that people in different demographic groups react to different questions concerning their views. In particular, the discernible differences between younger and older people in their general opinion of the military are less marked when it comes to the concept of respect. One possible explanation is that responses to the latter question may be more indicative of attitudes towards the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, while the former tells us more about people's opinions of the military as an institution. This leads usefully towards our next group of questions concerning British military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here it will be important to find out whether similar or even greater distinctions exist between the public's view of the Armed Forces and the controversial combat missions in which they have been deployed.

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Notes
  1. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1596810.stm
  2. A police estimate of numbers. Protest organisers suggested a figure nearer two million. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm
  3. 'Armed Forces Covenant recognised in law for first time', Ministry of Defence, Defence News, 3rd November, 2011, available at www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/ArmedForcesCovenantRecognisedInLawForFirstTime.htm
  4. A report by the former Liberal Democrat leader and career soldier Lord Ashcroft (2012) recently cast some light on public attitudes towards the Armed Forces, but owing to its sampling strategy the findings were not necessarily representative of the UK population as a whole.
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