Two months on, the opinion polls show the British public is largely undecided about the Libya war, undecided and unenthusiastic.
The first two polls were contradictory. A Comres poll showed greater opposition than support: 35 per cent in favour of the military action and 43 per cent against it. A YouGov poll showed 45 per cent of people supporting action by Britain, the US and France, and 36 per cent stating that it was wrong. One showed eight per cent more opposition than support; the other nine per cent more support than opposition, a 7% swing!
Two explanations for the discrepancy might be that the two polls were taken at slightly different times (Comres was carried out between 18 and 20 March; YouGov was carried out two days later, between 20 and 21 March), and they had slightly different questions. The Comres question (“[Do you agree or disagree that] It is right for the UK to take military action against colonel Gaddafi’s forces in Libya”) implied UK unilateralism, while YouGov (“Do you think Britain, France, the US and other countries are right or wrong to take military action in Libya?”) stressed international participation in the war. On the other hand, Comres mentioned Gaddafi, who is a hate figure in the UK, while YouGov did not, which may go some way to evening out the biases in the questions.
Neither poll, carried out just after British pilots started their bombing runs, showed more than 50% support for the war, when, as Peter Kellner of YouGov pointed out, 53% of Britons supported the invasion of Iraq immediately after the war had started.
The lack of majority support was surprising, because there tends to be a “rally-round-the-flag” effect when British personnel actual engage in combat, a “support-the-troops” knee-jerk reaction.
The contradictions between Comres and YouGov didn’t stop on 22 March. The trends were also not consistent.
As the first few weeks went by, support declined, according to YouGov, from 45 per cent to 38 per cent support for the war in a poll taken over 4-5 April. Opposition grew from 36 per cent to 43 per cent.
According to Comres, support for the war increased from 35 per cent (18-20 March) to 43 per cent (25-27 March) and then declined slightly to 41 per cent (13-15 April), still higher than at the outbreak of war. Opposition also increased from 43 per cent to 47 per cent, and then declined to dramatically 39 per cent.
Again, the timing of the these polls means they cannot be compared directly, but overall the polls tend to show instability and uncertainty and a decided lack of enthusiasm. If they are averaged out, they show 40 per cent support and 42 per cent opposition, which might best be understood as a 41:41 even split, with nearly one in five Britons saying they were undecided.
When we break down the results, we find some standard patterns, and some surprises.
There is a marked gender gap in support for the war, with one Comres poll (data taken 25-27 March) showing 52 per cent support for the war among men, but only 35 per cent support among women. Alternatively, there was only 42 per cent opposition to the war among men, with 52 per cent of women opposed to the armed action.
Class and anti-war opinion correlate closely, with anti-war sentiment declining as wealth increases. So in the 25-27 March Comres poll, opposition to the war ran like this:
AB 44 per cent
C1 40 per cent
C2 51 per cent
DE 57 per cent
AB is the top professional class; DE refers to unskilled manual labour; while C1 and C2 designate lower middle class and skilled working class sections of society.
Both of these results are in line with other polls on foreign policy issues.
More surprising were the breakdowns for age and party affiliation.
Not all the polls were this clear-cut, but the Comres poll we’ve just been looking at had a straight line correlation between age and opposition to the war, with young people much more supportive of the war. As we go up the age range, opposition grows:
18-24 years old: 39 per cent
25-34 years old: 40 per cent
35-44 years old: 48 per cent
45-54 years old: 51 per cent
55-64 years old: 50 per cent
Over 65 years old: 52 per cent
This is untypical.
Also surprising is the party affiliation breakdown.
Opposition to the war was strongest among supporters of the BNP (74 per cent), the anti-EU UKIP (58 per cent), the SNP (54 per cent) and Labour (52 per cent).
Opposition to the war was lowest among supporters of the Conservatives (39 per cent), the Greens (28 per cent) and Plaid Cymru (27 per cent).
One explanation of part of these contrary results is that the “humanitarian intervention” argument was successful among young people and idealists such as the Greens (it’s possible that Greens have a younger support base than other parties).
Incidentally, there was virtually no correlation between people’s perceptions of the risks of a prolonged war “like Iraq” and their opposition to the war. In the following table, the first figure refers to the degree of opposition to the war, and the second figure refers to the degree of concern that Libya might lead to a prolonged war “like Iraq”.
Party: Anti-war feeling / concerned about prolonged war
BNP: 74 per cent / 19 per cent
UKIP: 58 per cent / 34 per cent
SNP: 54 per cent / 86 per cent
Labour: 52 per cent / 76 per cent
Lib Dems: 43 per cent / 75 per cent
Conservatives: 39 per cent / 69 per cent
Greens: 28 per cent / 38 per cent
Plaid Cymru: 27 per cent / 26 per cent
There are a lot of other interesting features of the Libya polling. I’ll just mention one last finding. In this same 25-27 March poll, Comres asked whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement: “The decision to commit British armed forces to action in Libya shows that we should not be planning to cut spending on defence”. 68 per cent agreed. Only 25 per cent disagreed.
The war has been a tremendous boost to the forces of militarism, even if it has failed to gain more than tepid support.