31 August 2018

Is Britain a nation of protectionists?


Having looked at public opinion on different economic systems and big business, the third part in the CapX battle of ideas polling series explores attitudes towards markets that cross national borders.

International trade has existed for as long as international travel has, and it matters. Trade has made the world richer and been held responsible for the building of empires and the provocation of wars. And as Britain prepares to the leave the EU, one of the current unknowns is what future trade policy will look like, both with the continent and the rest of the world. But how free should trade be?

To be sure, there are aspects of free trade that are clearly popular – people like being able to consume things that aren’t built, grown or practised in their own country. But trade has also taken the blame for the economic decline of areas that find themselves struggling to compete internationally.

To keep things simple, we asked about one of the most straightforward form of protectionism, tariffs on imports. We first asked “would you support or oppose introducing tariffs (taxes on imports) to protect British industries?”. Almost half (46 per cent) said they would support tariffs, with little variation among demographic lines.

We then asked “would you support or oppose tariffs if they meant you would have to pay more for basic goods?” When asked in those terms, nearly half (48 per cent) now opposed tariffs. Opposition was slightly stronger among younger people, but represented pluralities across the board.

These results are a case study in question framing. And if the framing effect looks extreme, that’s because it is. Trade policy, at least in the UK, is what pollsters call a ‘low salience’ issue. In other words, it’s one that’s not just missing from dinner table conversation, but, even though Brexit has pushed it up the agenda, remains relatively niche. That means that the framing effect can be far larger than on the sorts of topics that people think about regularly.

That said, it’s perhaps still notable that tariffs are opposed by a fifth (21 per cent) of Brits even with favourable framing, but supported by a quarter (26 per cent) even if it hit them in the pocket. Sixteen per cent changed from support to opposition between the two question wordings.

One thing the poll can’t tell us is how UK opinion has changed over time. But in the US, a GfK survey on trade for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has been running since 2004, saw an all-time high in support for trade this year, with 85 per cent saying that international trade benefited “consumers like you”, up 15 points since 2016.

As Dalibor Rohac wrote earlier this week, this may well be a Trump effect, given that the increase is entirely accounted for by voters identifying as Democrats and independents.

Closer to home, there was limited variation by party, with the exception of Lib Dems, who were evenly divided. But there was a substantial difference along EU referendum lines. Tariffs had net support of +41 among Leavers compared with only +10 among Remainers on the first question, and -5 versus -36 on the second. Put simply, Brexit supporters are much more likely to be protectionist.

As these questions were asked to the same set of people that took part in earlier polling in this series, we can also break down the results by the answers to the earlier questions.

Yet there was actually no consistent relationship at all between peoples’ answers to the earlier questions and their attitude to tariffs. Surprisingly, whether or not someone is positive or negative on socialism or capitalism, whether they view business favourably or not, doesn’t predict their attitude towards free trade.

Instead it seems that, despite being a fundamentally economic issue, trade divides people more along social liberal versus social conservative lines than their attitudes to domestic economic policy.

The numbers also cast doubt on the prevalence of the “Global Britain” leavers – those who back Brexit and prefer freer trade than the UK has had as an EU member. That is an image that senior Brexiteers have been keen to project, but it is not one that is especially popular among the Brexit rank-and-file.

While this group were probably numerous enough to have been a necessary component of the Leave coalition, they are very unrepresentative of Leave voters as a whole. Leavers are generally not obsessed with free trade, and a third of them are in fact so in favour of protectionism that they would be prepared to pay more for their staple goods if that were the price.

Among the electorate as a whole, it’s true that this is a case of “ask a different question, get a different answer”. Yet it’s also true that the idea of taxing imports to protect domestic industry is rather more appealing to voters than the thought of actually paying those taxes from their own pockets.

Matt Singh is the founder of NumberCruncher Politics.