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Iraq, The Last Pre-War Polls

Date:21 March 2003
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research
Keywords:Iraq War, Opinion polls
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The final polls to be published before the war in Iraq started, conducted last weekend, all found a shift in public opinion in favour of British involvement in the war but still found a majority disapproving, both of military action and of Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq crisis.

ICM's poll for the Guardian received more attention than MORI's for The Sun, probably because ICM's seemed to show a more dramatic shift in opinion than MORI's. But since ICM's previous comparable poll was a month before, much of the swing it detected was already accounted for in the MORI poll a fortnight ago; viewing the polls together it looks as if the more dramatic increase in support was in the last two weeks of February, with less movement - though still a statistically significant swing - in the first two weeks of March.

Over that period MORI found a 3% swing [see note] in favour of British troops joining American-led military action without a UN vote in favour of war or proof of Iraq hiding weapons. A quarter of the public (26%) said they would support British troops being used without proof that Iraq is hiding weapons or a new Security Council resolution, while 63% would oppose, net support of -37; at the end of February, the figures were 24% support, 67% oppose, net -43.

Q Would you support or oppose British troops joining any American-led military action against Iraq in each of the following circumstances?

The UN inspectors do not find proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction, and the UN security council does not vote in favour of military action

  28 Feb-2 Mar 14-16 Mar Change
  % % ±%
Support 24 26 +2
Oppose 67 63 -4
Don't know 10 11 +1

This figure of 26% support is substantially lower than the 38% approval of an attack which was ICM's headline figure, but this probably reflects difference in question wording. ICM asked simply "Would you approve or disapprove of a military attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein?". Their 38% therefore probably includes some who think the UN should vote to authorise such an attack but do not think there should be a war without UN approval, and it may also increase the approval figure not to have specified the involvement of British troops. Despite the apparent discrepancy in the headline figures, the attitude patterns found by MORI and ICM seem well in line.

Questions about what should happen if a second UN resolution passed or if Hans Blix and his team find proof the Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction may seem pretty hypothetical now that the war has begun with neither having happened; but the responses to these questions are revealing of the underlying pattern of opinion. Support for British involvement in a war if there were a UN resolution and the weapons inspectors found proof of Iraq hiding weapons has not significantly changed - three-quarters would in favour (74%, compared to 75% two weeks ago), and one in six (17%, compared to 18%) opposed.

Q Would you support or oppose British troops joining any American-led military action against Iraq in each of the following circumstances?

The UN inspectors find proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction, and the UN security council votes in favour of military action

  28 Feb-2 Mar 14-16 Mar Change
  % % ±%
Support 75 74 -1
Oppose 18 17 +1
Don't know 7 7 0

Source: MORI/The Sun
Base: c. 975 British 18+ in each survey

The steadiness of these figures is a reminder that it is judgement of the particular circumstances rather than an outbreak of mass pacifism which is behind the majority opposition to the present war. Most of the public accept in principle that it may sometimes be necessary to take military action against a particular regime, but many of them nevertheless require proof of the threat and/or endorsement of their judgment by the international community before they will approve a specific action. The slight movement towards acceptance of the war over the first weeks of March did not involve winning over the die-hard opponents of any action against Iraq, but changing views of the relevance of the UN and of proof from the inspectors that Iraq was hiding weapons.

The biggest shift, in fact, was the 5% swing in favour of British involvement if the UN did vote in favour but the inspectors didn't find proof of Iraq hiding weapons; the swing in the fourth scenario (the inspectors find proof but the UN doesn't vote for war) was only 3%. If as this suggests the inspectors are beginning to be seen as less important, this implies that it is attitudes to Iraq and Saddam Hussein that have hardened, while there has been less weakening of belief in the importance of UN approval of an otherwise good case.

Q Would you support or oppose British troops joining any American-led military action against Iraq in each of the following circumstances?

The UN inspectors find proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction, but the UN security council does not vote in favour of military action

  28 Feb-2 Mar 14-16 Mar Change
  % % ±%
Support 46 48 +2
Oppose 41 37 -4
Don't know 13 15 +2

The UN inspectors do not find proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction, but the UN security council votes in favour of military action

  28 Feb-2 Mar 14-16 Mar Change
  % % ±%
Support 41 46 +5
Oppose 46 41 -5
Don't know 12 12 0

Source: MORI/The Sun
Base: c. 975 British 18+ in each survey

In contrast to the increased support for military action, however, over the same two week period we found a 3% swing in public opinion against approval of Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq crisis, though this consisted entirely of a switch from "approve" to "don't know", with no significant change in the number disapproving. At the end of February, 53% disapproved of his handling of the situation and 36% approved; by 14-16 March, disapproval was still at 54% but approval was down to 30%. If we add in the evidence of an ICM poll for the News of the World, which asked the same question on 6-7 March and got almost identical responses (29% approve, 53% disapprove) to our poll on 14-16 March, it looks as if we can pin down the fall in approval of the Prime Minister to the first week of March.

Q Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is handling the current situation with Iraq?*

  MORI MORI MORI MORI ICM MORI
  Sep 2002 Oct 2002 Jan 2003 28 Feb-2 Mar 2003 6-7 Mar 2003 14-16 Mar 2003
  % % % % % %
Approve 40 35 26 36 29 30
Disapprove 49 47 62 53 53 54
Don't know 11 18 13 12 18 16
Net approve -9 -12 -36 -17 -24 -24

Source: MORI/various clients, ICM/News of the World
*(ICM Q wording "…current situation regarding Iraq")

Gender differences in attitudes to the war and the chief players have widened slightly. Twice as many men (28%) as women (14%) approve of President Bush's handling of the situation; 61% of men and 69% of women disapprove. Men are also almost twice as likely to approve of Mr Blair's handling of it: 39% of men approve and 47% disapprove, while only 21% of women approve and 61% disapprove.

In the present situation (no proof of Iraqi weapons and no UN vote), men are also twice as likely as women to agree to war: 35% of men would still support British troops joining American-led action, but only 18% of women would do so; 58% of men and 68% of women would be opposed. The gap would be smaller, however, with a "smoking gun" and UN endorsement: four men in five, 79%, would approve of British troops joining a war if there were proof that Iraq is hiding weapons and the UN Security Council were to vote in favour; 69% of women would approve in similar circumstances.

Labour and Conservative supporters are most likely to agree to war without proof or a UN vote - 33% of Labour and 30% of Conservatives said they would support British involvement in those circumstances, though 57% and 60% respectively would be opposed. Lib Dems oppose such a war by 79% to 16%. Labour supporters are split on the Prime Minister's performance: 46% approve of Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq situation, while 41% disapprove. Conservatives disapprove by 56% to 34%, and Lib Dems by 71% to 16%. On the other hand, it is Tories who are more likely to approve of President Bush's handling of Iraq: 32% approve and 58% disapprove, whereas only 25% of Labour and 9% of Lib Dem supporters approve of the President's handling of it.

Now that the war has started, though, opinions on all these matters may change significantly. Past experience of British involvement in wars suggests that approval of the action tends to rise once British troops are in action, although that experience may be an unreliable guide as none of those previous wars were as unpopular with the public beforehand as this one. Opinions will also, naturally, be affected by the success or failure of the military operations, as well as the reporting of them - a completely different world, of course, from the reporting of the Falklands War or even the 1990-1 Gulf War. The best that can be said is that the future direction of public opinion is unpredictable. We can only wait for the next poll.

NOTE:

Swing. Swing is a measure of net change in opinions, and is defined as the average of the rise in one figure (e.g. support) and the fall in another (e.g. oppose). It is most often used in political analysis to express changes in support for political parties, where the size of one party's lead over another is a key figure - in that case, the swing is half the change in the lead, and it represents the percentage of the population who would have to switch directly from one party to another to cause an equivalent change in the lead. While it may seem less intuitive to use swing to analyse situations like the Iraq crisis, where one does not naturally think in terms of one side's lead over the other, it is nevertheless a useful single figure by which the overall change of opinions can be judged. In this case it is a measure that combines the government's success in winning support for its policy and in reducing opposition; these two are of course not the same, since the number of don't knows may change.



     
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Dr Roger Mortimore
Dr Roger Mortimore

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