Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What do we really think about trade?

The country is pro-free trade, but the public thinks that the EU is holding us back, concludes Chris Curtis

At times, both sides in the Brexit debate have made arguments based on the need for free trade. Either it is necessary for Britain to leave Europe so we can strike trade deals with the rest of the world, or it is better to remain and continue frictionless trade with other European Union countries. However, there has been little polling on what the public actually think about free trade itself.

The results of a new YouGov survey show that Britain is, broadly speaking, a nation of free-traders. Given a choice between a more pro-free trade position and a more anti-free trade one, nearly half (46 per cent) say that ‘Britain should cut tariffs to lower prices and encourage freer trade between countries’, compared to just 27 per cent who think that we ‘should put up tariffs to stop cheap imports and protect our industries’. The remaining 27 per cent answer ‘don’t know’.

Support for free trade is consistent across the main parties. Around half of Liberal Democrat (50 per cent), Labour (48 per cent), and Conservative (47 per cent) voters back the pro-free trade position.

The public are also more likely to think tariffs have a negative effect on the economy (30 per cent), than a positive effect (14 per cent). However, it should be stated that a majority either think they have no real effect either way (21 per cent) or are unsure (34 per cent).

Yet when it comes to how these views interact with attitudes to Brexit, the picture becomes slightly murkier.

First, the public do not perceive EU membership to be particularly good for free trade. While a third (33 per cent) think we should prioritise trade with other European countries, they are outnumbered by the combined proportion of people who would rather focus on either other advanced economies (27 per cent) or newly industrialised countries (16 per cent). ‘Leave’ voters see other advanced economies (42 per cent) as a higher priority than European countries (13 per cent).

Second, when it comes to making these trade deals with other countries, the European Union is generally seen as more of a liability than an asset. Just 37 per cent of the public think that Britain is better able to negotiate better trade deals with the rest of the world as part of the bloc, compared to 48 per cent who think we can negotiate better on our own outside the EU.

Finally, liking the idea of free trade is not enough to trump other concerns that voters have, particularly around control and immigration. When we asked the public what they think the United Kingdom’s top priorities should be in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, ‘British companies still having tariff-free access to the EU’ comes sixth (on 15 per cent) behind: Britain having control over immigration (28 per cent); Britain not having to follow EU rules and regulations (20 per cent); Britain not having to pay towards the costs of EU membership (20 per cent); British people still being able to live and work in the EU (19 per cent); Britain being able to negotiate its own trade deals (16 per cent).

So while it is true that the public are generally pro-free trade, those campaigning to keep Britain in the EU will find this does not help their cause in the way they might have hoped.


Chris Curtis is international politics research executive at YouGov. He tweets @chris__curtis


Photo: by Rept0n1x [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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