Political Ignorance in Britain:

A recent survey shows considerable ignorance about US politics and foreign policy in Britain. As the Daily Telegraph reports:

A poll of nearly 2,000 Britons by YouGov/PHI found that 70 per cent of respondents incorrectly said it was true that the US had done a worse job than the European Union in reducing carbon emissions since 2000. More than 50 per cent presumed that polygamy was legal in the US, when it is illegal in all 50 states....

The survey showed that a majority agreed with the false statement that since the Second World War the US had more often sided with non-Muslims when they had come into conflict with Muslims. In fact in 11 out of 12 major conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslims and secular forces, or Arabs and non-Arabs, the US has sided with the former group....

Asked if it was true that "from 1973 to 1990 the United States sold Saddam Hussein more than a quarter of his weapons," 80 per cent of British respondents said yes. However the US sold just 0.46 per cent of Saddam's arsenal to him, compared to Russia's 57 per cent, France's 13 per cent and China's 12 per cent...

Almost a third of Britons believe that "Americans who have not paid their hospitals fees or insurance premiums are not entitled to emergency medical care"; by law such treatment must be provided.

More than half the respondents believed that polygamy is legal in some US states, while it is illegal in all US states.

The survey results suggest that political ignorance about the United States is widespread in Britain. On the other hand, some of the survey questions described are relatively difficult (e.g. - the percentage of Saddam Hussein's weapons purchased from the US). Also, there is little reason for Americans to crow too much. Survey research shows that political ignorance is ubiquitous in this country as well. I haven't seen a recent survey of Americans' knowledge of European politics similar to the above survey of British knowledge about the US. But I have little doubt that the results would be no more impressive than the British ones, and quite likely would be even worse.

One could argue that knowledge of a foreign country's policies is less important than knowledge of one's own. This is true to an extent. However, the US and Britain are longtime allies, and the foreign policies of one have major effects on the other. And American and European domestic policies are often held up as either positive or negative examples for the other. So it would be valuable for British voters to possess at least minimally accurate knowledge about the United States and for American ones to have comparable knowledge of Europe.

None of this means that the British public (or the American one) is "stupid." Political ignorance is not stupidity. Rather, the problem is that it is perfectly rational for even most highly intelligent citizens to be ignorant about politics. However, as the Telegraph article notes, such ignorance can often influence public attitudes and government policy in harmful ways.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. American Ignorance About British Politics:
  2. Political Ignorance in Britain: