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Britain increasingly in favour of free trade

09 February 2018 | Tags: Free trade, Brexit

Britons are increasingly embracing free trade and becoming less supportive of protectionism, new research from the National Centre for Social Research reveals.

The report, “Embracing the World? Changing attitudes to trade”, draws on data from NatCen’s award winning Panel, as well as the British Social Attitudes survey, and shows that public support for a liberal approach to trade is higher than it has been at any time since research was first conducted in 2003.

Almost two thirds (63%) of people now believe that “free trade leads to better products becoming available in Britain”, up from 57% in 2003. Alongside this, there has been a decline in people saying that “large international companies are doing more and more damage to local business in Britain”,  a view now held by 53%, down from 62% in 2003.

Attitudes towards free trade


More explicit protectionism has also declined, with only around a third (36%) of people agreeing that “Britain should limit the import of foreign goods to protect its national economy”, a considerably lower figure than was reported by the BSA in 2003.

Furthermore, it appears that the increase in support for free trade has been driven mainly by younger people, which suggests that the trend is likely to continue. Less than half (43%) of 18-34 year olds are concerned about the impact that big business have on local economies, compared to over 60% of those over 55.


What does this mean for Brexit?

On the one hand this apparent increase in support for a liberal approach to international trade will make things easier for any government trying to sign new trade deals after Brexit. Indeed, the figures seem to repudiate a view of the British public turning away from the outside world following the EU referendum.

However, what may be more challenging for Theresa May is the fact that those who voted Leave in 2016 were far more likely to be in favour of protectionism than those who voted Remain.

As many as 50% of people who voted for Brexit in 2016 are now in favour of limiting the imports of foreign goods in order to protect the British economy, compared with just 24% of “Remainers”. This may make selling future trade deals to the core Brexit support base a tougher task.

Opinions on free trade


Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research said:

"These new findings are rather reassuring for the Government. They show a British public increasingly comfortable with the idea of free trade with the world, believing it leads to better products and only a minority feel we should impose limits on imports of foreign products. One note of caution is that a half of Leave voters believe in a more protectionist approach."