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Research into public attitudes to trade reveals that people in the UK believe that economic growth and non-economic objectives, such as supporting human rights and combatting climate change, are both important when making decisions about trade.

When asked to rank the most important objective overall for trade policy, people valued economic growth. However, when asked about specific trade-offs, the majority prioritised workers’ rights, human rights, data privacy and maintaining food standards over more trade.

Professor L. Alan Winters, Co-Director of CITP who has been working on the project alongside other CITP colleagues explains that:

The 101 research participants joined five ‘citizens’ juries’, each representative of their locations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were presented with hypothetical scenarios looking at different trade-offs involving both economic and non-economic outcomes covering trade and human rights, balancing regions and sectors, food standards and privacy and data. They spent 16 hours over four weeks partly learning about the issues but mainly discussing among themselves in small groups how to tackle these issues. They voted on a few issues, but mainly it is their discussions that have informed this research.

In all juries and across all scenarios, participants said how complex they found it to make the necessary trade-offs, but their deliberations made it clear that the general economic objective of international trade is not always the most important.

For example, participants were shown a hypothetical trade deal between the UK and India. The deal would improve Indian workers’ rights but would have mixed economic outcomes for the UK and India.

Most people prioritised the promotion of workers’ rights abroad, suggesting that they do think the UK should use trade to promote human rights abroad and are willing to accept higher consumer prices to achieve this.

Similarly, on food standards, participants were presented with a hypothetical trade deal between the UK and Australia that would result in a decrease in the price of imported food, but an increased risk that the food contains pesticides banned in UK food production. Most participants were not willing to compromise on UK pesticide standards despite the potential benefit of reduced food prices because of the health risk. Participants’ views were driven by their assessment of the health risk and their levels of trust in UK or Australian food standards.

Given the current cost of living crisis, the willingness of many people to accept higher prices in return for maintaining food standards is notable.

“These juries allow us to better understand how the general public grapples with trade — and what they think about how trade policy should be made. For CITP this is a fantastic opportunity to design research that addresses the questions our participants had (on standards and fairness for example) and analyse how citizens across the UK handled the trade-offs we presented them with.” Explains Dr Viviane Gravey, Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

Analysis of the participant’s reasoning, as they decided how to make the trade-offs proposed to them, reveals that fairness, national or regional interest and favouring long-term over short-term outcomes were key considerations.

Across all scenarios, a significant number of participants selected the ‘don’t know’ option when asked to decide about these complex trade-offs. This uncertainty meant that participants struggled with how and in what way to assess relevant risks, such as the probability that sharing (anonymised) medical data abroad would boost medical research materially, or how many new jobs in business services might be created in a trade deal that reduced agricultural jobs. To navigate these uncertainties, participants across all locations wanted ‘experts’ to inform trade policy decisions.

Experts included both those with ‘on the ground’ relevant experience who can offer ‘real world’ experience in how deals will impact things day to day and independent specialists such as scientists and academics to provide an honest assessment of the risks involved, as well as unbiased assessments of the benefits of each deal. In this context, independence was understood as not gaining financially from a deal.

Finally, the research participants asked who they trust to make decisions on trade. Whilst the UK Government and international organisations were most popular, many caveated their preference for the UK Government with the assertion that they do not trust the government or politicians in general.

“When citizens generally distrust politicians – and the government – developing policies that garner their support can be challenging. This challenge is especially strong in a technically complex field like trade policy” commented Professor Dan Wincott, Blackwell Professor of Law and Society at Cardiff University.

The research, which was conducted by NatCen, used a citizens’ jury-style method involving 101 people from five different locations across the United Kingdom (Reading, Doncaster, Paisley, Belfast and Bridgend), with each jury being representative of its area.

The juries consisted of five workshops in total: four online, each lasting two and half hours, and one face-to-face all-day session. These took place over a period of four weeks with the opening online session on the evening of 11th January 2023 and final face-to-face workshops on Saturday 3rd February 2023. In the online workshops, participants learnt information about trade before deliberating with others from their location about what they had learnt. CITP researchers gave presentations about key topics of trade policy as well as the economic and non-economic consequences of different trade decisions.

Ceri Davies, Director of NatCen’s Centre for Deliberative Research said: “Trade decisions can feel distant, but they have profound implications for our daily lives; from the food we buy to the jobs we do. To support the CITP in exploring how people think about these decisions, NatCen’s Centre for Deliberative Research delivered a series of workshops which gave members of the public the time, space, and information needed to engage with evidence and opposing points of view on trade policy. The results illustrate the unique insights deliberative research gives on how the public thinks and will allow the CITP to continue a genuinely inclusive conversation on trade with the public going forward.”

Trade-offs in trade policy: What the public thinks and how they think about them

NatCen Final Report (pdf)

The CITP will conduct further analysis of this preliminary research, which will help to inform further research by the Centre.

About the CITP

The Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy (CITP) launched in April 2022 and is the first research centre dedicated to trade policy to be funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Centre is built on the precept that trade policy should be inclusive in both policy formulation and outcome and focuses on four dimensions of inclusiveness: geography, political domains, society and generations.

The Centre is led from the University of Sussex and brings together researchers from all four UK nations – including from the University of Nottingham, the University of Strathclyde, Queen’s University Belfast, Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge – and several overseas universities. The team comprises scholars from economics, law, business management, politics and international relations at all stages of their careers, and is committed to listening to the voices of all parts of UK society. It aims to be a centre of excellence for innovative trade policy research.

About the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to make life better through high-quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

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