8 June 2021

The British people back farmers to compete, even if the NFU doesn’t

By

Just a few weeks ago Britain’s free trading future appeared in doubt. There was vocal opposition to the UK’s trade deal with Australia emerging from the National Farmers Union (NFU) with the backing of some senior cabinet ministers and certain sections of the media. The rhetoric reached apocalyptic levels with NFU boss Minette Batters writing that Australian beef imports “could spell the end” of British farming.

New polling from the Adam Smith Institute and C|T Group has shown that the public backs British farmers to compete on the world stage, even if the farmers’ own trade union doesn’t. It’s also clear that the NFU’s false claims about Australian food standards have fallen on deaf ears. Britons want to trade more with Australia and consume Aussie products; they believe Australia has high standards, and strongly back a comprehensive tariff and quota-free deal.

Brits rank Australia as a top priority when it comes to increasing bilateral trade. Two-thirds (65%) back a free trade deal and just 5% oppose it. Strikingly, there is majority support across all key demographic groups in the UK, and across the political spectrum.

It’s also worth noting that the British public support a particularly liberal deal. Almost two-thirds said they wanted tariffs and quotas to be abolished (65%). Similar numbers (63%) would also like the UK to simply recognise Australia’s farming standards as equivalent; two-thirds of Brits (66%) believe Australian food safety and animal welfare standards to be extremely strong. It’s perhaps no surprise that if Brits had to choose an alternative to British beef, they would opt for Aussie beef (52%) over EU beef (24%).

Importantly, Brits don’t just back free trade in the abstract. They continue to support it when fairly presented the trade offs on the most difficult issues. Almost two-thirds (64%) would back a trade deal with Australia that increases consumer choice and provides freer movement even if that means more competition for farmers, lower profits and the potential for some farmers to go out of business. Just one-in-five (20%) would block a trade deal to protect farmers from competition.

Brits also want British farmers to compete globally (71%) and not be protected from competition (22%). This finding underlines the global opportunities for the industry, not just from the Australia deal but also opportunities presented by joining the CPTPP with 11 major Pacific Rim countries all with a growing middle class. There are huge numbers of people who recognise the quality of British produce that would almost certainly like to purchase if given the opportunity.

We have found that the British public, and in particular Brexiteers, are far more liberal about these matters than often given credit. The strongest support for freer trade with Australia came from Leavers — with an ironic twist that when it comes to trade with Australia it is Remainers who tend to adopt a ‘little Britain’ mindset.

Brits are far too familiar with Australia to fall for the NFU’s self-interested propaganda. Many have friends and family Down Under. A majority (52%) said they would not want to be denied access to Australian farming goods produced at a lower price. Brits want to drink more Aussie wine (57%) and eat more Aussie beef (52%) and lamb (50%). There’s even some interest in my personal favourite snack, Tim Tams (28%), and kangaroo meat (23%),

Similarly, we also found that Australians back the deal (69% back the deal, 3% are opposed). Trade Secretary Liz Truss will be delighted to hear that Aussies want more British cheese (53%), as well as shortbread (59%), jam and marmalade (51%) and Scottish whisky (45%). Two-thirds of Aussies would consider purchasing a British-manufactured car (68%) – a more affordable opportunity if the deal abolishes Australia’s unnecessary tariffs on imported vehicles left over to protect a car industry that no longer exists.

The key point about free trade is that consumers and producers from both sides benefit. Indeed this is broadly understood, almost three-quarters of Brits (74%) and Aussies (73%) said that they believe both sides would benefit.

In the end agriculture, and even trade in goods, is just one small part of the deal. Brits and Aussies are interested in a wide array of benefits. They have a number of priorities for the deal including new business opportunities (87%), making it easier for British service companies, like finance and tech, to operate in Australia (84%) and ensuring the likes of nurses do not have to train when they move between countries (84%). There is also strong support for making it easier to move between countries (79%).

The Australia-UK trade deal is being brokered not just between two like-minded governments, it is a deal between two like-minded peoples. It is a popular deal that enhances the bonds between two peoples who already feel a deep affinity.

Haters gonna hate free trade. But, once again, the British people are shaking them off.

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Matthew Lesh is Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.