Trade and National Identity after Brexit

February 17, 2020
Foreign Affairs

With the United Kingdom now having left the European Union, the nation can freely set its own tariffs and negotiate its own independent trading relationship with the rest of the world. A heretofore underappreciated division between Leavers, indeed between all UK voters, that is at last coming into the picture concerns what sort of trading stance a post-Brexit Britain should take with its trading partners.

During the EU Referendum in 2016, one camp argued for Leave on the basis that the European Union was a protectionist bloc and that, outside of the EU, the United Kingdom could in fact secure better free trade deals with other nations all over the world. The front cover of The Spectator magazine epitomised this view, its headline stating in clear terms “Out and into the world.”

For those who campaigned for Remain, on the other hand, one camp argued that membership of the EU, which was so large a trading partner for the UK, represented the best opportunity to trade as freely and openly as possible with the rest of the world. “Stronger in Europe,” they said. Altogether, both of these camps adopted opposing arguments on the basis of economics and the advantages of trade.

Yet there were two other camps of Remainers and Leavers, campaigners who did not argue on the basis of the principle of free trade and Ricardian comparative advantage or any economic principles at all, but on the basis of national identity. These sides believed that several aspects of economic liberalism were more of a threat to UK than a positive thing.

On this plane of debate, one side argued for leaving the EU in order to reverse or, at the very least, stop the damage of de-industrialization, large-scale immigration and the dilution of a British identity for a European one. The other side argued that membership of the EU enhanced Britain’s standing in the world, because it brought European nations together, preserved hard-earned rights and was something British citizens ought to be proud of.

These pairs of arguments occupying different planes often intersected. In the past election, for instance, free-trade Brexiteers were often rebuffed with accusations that the United Kingdom would, outside of the EU, be exposed to such as evils as: sub-standards goods like chlorinated chicken, deregulation, the loss of worker’s rights and the potential sale of the NHS. Remainers who fretted about the economic costs of leaving, meanwhile, were told that they did not get it and that the freedom and sovereignty regained from being outside of the EU was worth any price.

While Brexit is now subsiding into the background, the tension between the principles of economic advantages and the principles of national identity that undergirded the referendum debate still exists. In order to highlight and make sense of this tension, Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked respondents in a recent national poll of 1,216 eligible British voters what their Government should prioritize while it sets forth its new trading policy with the rest of the world:

The continued survival and success of UK industries, even if some goods may be more expensive for UK consumers overall

OR

Making goods cheaper for UK consumers overall, even if some local businesses may struggle

Of course, it may be possible for the Government to both ensure the success of local industries and make goods cheaper for consumers. More often than not, however, trade-offs will have to be made. For instance, should the Government give the UK’s steel industries a much-needed boost by putting a tariff on imported steel and other construction materials? Or should they reduce construction costs by allowing steel to be cheaply imported from China?

What about produce and foods that can be made in the United Kingdom? Should a tariff be placed on those goods––beef, for example––to ensure shoppers at supermarkets pick locally produced foods first?

In our poll, respondents overwhelmingly chose the continued survival and success of UK industries (57.6%), while exactly a quarter of respondents (25.0%) preferred making goods cheaper overall. For 2019 Conservative voters, this difference proved even greater, with nearly three quarters (69.9%) preferring a more protectionist outlook. The group of voters closest to prioritizing cheaper costs for consumers were Labour voters (34.0%). Even for this group, however, a plurality (48.9%) preferred greater support for local industries.

After Brexit, the UK will be able to pursue a new trade policy across the world. Deciding upon such a path may involve trade-offs. What should the UK’s Trading Policy prioritise?

It may be that the way we phrased the two opposing priorities did not go far enough in capturing the trade-offs inherent in setting a new trading policy and tariff schedule. While it may sound nice in theory and in general to support UK businesses, respondents in a future poll may answer differently when asked about specific goods and whether and how much they would be willing to pay more for those goods to be made locally.

Nevertheless, we believe that this question still captures an overall sentiment about voters’ concerns with respects to trade. At the economic level, it may be that voters no longer believe in the stated benefits of free trade. After all, comparing the state of the UK economy to where it was a quarter of a century ago to that of, say, China in the same time span may have led voters to ask, ‘Has it truly been worth it?’

It could also be that people opinion’s on trade policy are informed by feelings of national identity and pride. Citizens can be prouder of a nation that produces rather than consumes. In that sense, they are willing to pay a higher cost for the sake of their national community.

We saw a similar range of support for a completely different issue that exhibited the same sort of logic. When asked in the same poll whether they would be willing to pay more in tax to support the NHS, 57.9% of respondents agreed and 19.1% disagreed. Again, we see a majority of voters willing to sacrifice a little themselves for the wellbeing of the whole.

 I would be willing to pay more in tax so that the NHS could be funded more.

For the UK trade negotiators, now working hard this year to secure trade agreements with the EU and the United States, they should also consider the cost and benefits of the UK’s future trading framework in this regard. That is not simply as what’s best for the largest sum of individuals but what’s best for the nation as a whole. That is not just what fulfils the economic needs of individual voters but also their need for a sense of justice and of pride in their communities.

Data tables for this research can be found here. To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.