Always at War

British Public Narratives of War
Thomas Colley

Examining narrative as a public opinion tool illuminates a truer picture of how a nation sees itself at war


Compelling narratives are integral to successful foreign policy, military strategy, and international relations. Yet often narrative is conceived so broadly it can be hard to identify. The formation of strategic narratives is informed by the stories governments think their people tell, rather than those they actually tell. This book examines the stories told by a broad cross-section of British society about their country’s past, present, and future role in war, using in-depth interviews with 67 diverse citizens. It brings to the fore the voices of ordinary people in ways typically absent in public opinion research.
Always at War complements a significant body of quantitative research into British attitudes to war, and presents an alternative case in a field dominated by US public opinion research. Rather than perceiving distinct periods between war and peace, British citizens see their nation as so frequently involved in conflict that they consider the country to be continuously at war. At present, public opinion appears to be a stronger constraint on Western defense policy than ever.

"Thomas Colley presents a fascinating analysis of how members of the British public understand their country’s security and defense policy, with a particular focus on their narratives of past, present, and future wars. The author provides a valuable contribution to work in this field by outlining how ordinary UK citizens narrate their understanding of military intervention."
—Alister Miskimmon, Queen’s University Belfast
"This is a work for both scholarly and practitioner audiences. For the former, those doing work on foreign policy analysis, security studies, IR theory, emotions, public opinion, and other issue areas will find this of interest. For the latter, the narratives themselves should be useful for understanding the ‘populist’ moment as well as for anyone interested in how people translate elite narratives to their everyday lives."
—Brent Steele, University of Utah
"This is a book that seeks to elucidate the phenomenon of public toleration of war and attitudes towards it. Thomas Colley draws people out in a deep conversation so that the true nature of their feelings, understandings and reservations is illuminated. He reveals for example a public acceptance of the idea of a condition of permanent conflict, or that we have a kind of inherited moral mandate to be militarily engaged. In doing this he also demonstrates that people hold contradictory beliefs, they may be misinformed (for example the commonly held view that the Afghan war was somehow about oil). Thus, via a method that analyses public opinion archetypes and the rhetorical devices via which people distil clarity out of complexity, Colley offers some alarming insights. His central claim is that driving citizen understanding is the imperative to integrate complex phenomena into a narrative. Coherence is sought at the expense, often, of truth and rationality. What he achieves therefore is what he promises, that is to say a subtle and nuanced account of the realities, complexities and contradictions of attitudes to war and, ultimately, a rich explanation as to why we have been consistently so accepting of its occurrence and continuity."
—Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, Queen Mary University of London

Thomas Colley is a lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London.

Praise / Awards

  • "The wide-ranging views on Britain’s imperial past revealed by Colley’s interviews is one of the most compelling and illuminating aspects of the analysis."
    -H-Net Reviews

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 284pp.
  • 1 table.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2019
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-13144-0

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  • $84.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03869-5

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  • $29.95 U.S.

  • Audio Download
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-00425-6

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  • $9.99 U.S.

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