James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

What do Americans think about Britain? Very little, we’re often told. The Special Relationship is said to be meaningless outside the minds of a few Conservative politicians. And it’s suggested ambivalence towards Britain, together with fundamental scepticism towards free trade, makes securing a UK-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) more difficult than British optimists hope. But is any of this true? Together with Washington-based agency FP1 Strategies, my agency Public First decided to test American and British attitudes towards a potential deal and key related issues in a poll with YouGov. The results will surprise many. (Full British tables here and full American tables here).

To the people, the Special Relationship is real. Americans see Britain as their top ally in the world, and British people see the US as their top ally in the world – and both by a great distance. Furthermore, Americans think that they have most in common culturally with Britain. Twice as many British people named the US (59 per cent) as Britain’s top ally compared to the next closest country, Australia (28 per cent). Far more Americans chose Britain (54 per cent) than the next closest country, Canada (38 per cent). Asked who their countries had the strongest cultural relationship with, and British people very narrowly named Australia as their top pick (42 per cent), over the US (40 per cent). Americans named Britain top (52 per cent), above Canada (42 per cent).

People support an FTA. There is hardly any opposition to a UK-US FTA; in fact there is huge support in both countries. Sixty-four per cent of British people support a new Free Trade Agreement being signed, compared to just seven per cent who oppose such an agreement (with 29 per cent saying “don’t know”). In the US, 67 per cent of people support an agreement, compared to nine per cent that oppose it.

The British aren’t as worried about US food standards as people imagine. Last year’s furore over the possibility of chlorine washed chicken entering Britain hasn’t excessively worried British consumers. Given a list of concerns British people might have with a possible FTA – and this should be read in the context of strong support, of course – only 15 per cent named food standards. This isn’t to say people aren’t concerned at all, but it suggests “concerns about concerns” have been over-played. (We’d need to test this further, but it presumably reflects the fact massive numbers of British people have visited the US on holiday and happily eaten American food and seen the swathes of decent restaurants and chains serving chicken to the masses).

Americans support free trade. There’s no denying President Trump is giving off protectionist signals to the rest of the world. Given the fact he was elected, it’s not unreasonable to assume the US public must have protectionist tendencies. That’s not what this poll shows. Not only do Americans back an FTA with Britain but very clear majorities say free trade has been good for the US and for their own community. Seventy-four per cent of British people and 69 per cent of American people say free trade is good for their country as a whole, while 61 per cent of British people and 64 per cent of American people say free trade is good for their community. People in both Britain and the US see the main benefit of any possible FTA between the two countries as it being easier to export to each others’ markets.

What does all this mean for us? Firstly, that there are political opportunities for American politicians in supporting an FTA because American voters are positive towards a deal and towards Britain generally. That means British ministers can meet American legislators with confidence. Secondly, it means that, while there will be a load of noise from hostile NGOs attacking a proposed deal, much of it focused around food safety, there are also clear political opportunities for British politicians in advocating for a new FTA – and very few downsides. The public want a deal and concerns, while meaningful, are overridden by their hopes for a deal. Thirdly, and finally, that British politicians should feel confident in talking about the Special Relationship without feeling self-conscious. They should forget the sneering of commentators; the electorate on both sides of the Atlantic will welcome positive, optimistic language.

Finally, a short disclosure notice. If it wasn’t obvious, Public First and FP1 are in a commercial partnership. But I thought the poll was too interesting not to share with ConservativeHome readers.

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