Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

UK needs more distance from US: poll

BRITISH PUBLIC SPEAKS The survey finding follows criticism of Prime Minister Tony Blair for echoing US caution about the practicality of a ceasefire in the Middle East


Britain should take a much more robust and independent approach to the US, according to a Guardian poll published yesterday, which finds strong public opposition to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's close working relationship with US President George W. Bush.

The wide-ranging survey of British attitudes to international affairs -- the first since the conflict between Lebanon and Israel started -- shows that a large majority of voters think Blair has made the special relationship too special.

Just 30 percent think the prime minister has got the relationship about right, against 63 percent saying he has tied Britain too closely to the US.

Conducted in the wake of the accidental broadcast of the prime minister's conversation with President Bush at the G8 summit, the poll finds opposition to this central element of the prime minister's foreign policy among supporters of all the main parties.

Even a majority of Labour supporters -- traditionally more supportive of Blair's foreign policy position -- think he has misjudged the relationship, with 54 percent saying Britain is too close to the US. Conservative voters -- 68 percent -- and supporters of the Liberal Democrats -- 83 percent -- are even more critical.

And voters are strongly critical of the scale of Israel's military operations in Lebanon, with 61 percent believing the country has overreacted to the threats it faces.

As pressure grows for a change of strategy, the poll finds that only 22 percent of voters believe Israel has reacted proportionately to the kidnapping of soldiers and other attacks from militant groups in southern Lebanon. Israel has repeatedly sought to assure the world that its actions are a legitimate response to threats to its own territory, including missile attacks on the north of the country.

The finding follows more than a week in which Blair has come under fire for echoing US caution about the practicality of an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East and for allying himself too closely to Israel.

At a press conference in London yesterday Blair defended his position and expressed sympathy for the plight of the Lebanese.

"What is occurring in Lebanon at the present time is a catastrophe. Anybody with any sense of humanity wants what is happening to stop and stop now," Blair said.

He added: "But if it is to stop, it must stop on both sides."

This did not amount to switch in policy but a change in emphasis, in part to answer critics who accuse him of being indifferent to the plight of the Lebanese.

A British official said: "He wants to make it clear he has the same feelings as everyone else but the job of government is to find an answer. The proof of the pudding is if we are able to find a way through."

Unlike other international leaders, Blair has refused to describe the Israeli attacks on Lebanon as disproportionate. But the official said there was a difference between what Blair said in public and what Blair and other members of the government said to the Israelis in private.

Public unease about Israel's approach is reflected in public attitudes to the Iraq war, with support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein falling to a record low since military action began in March 2003.

Although a solid core of Labour supporters -- 48 percent -- still think the war was justified, overall only 36 percent of voters agree, a seven-point drop since the Guardian last asked the question in October 2004.

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