Iain Overton reflects on the Government’s policy of Free Trade Deals with countries regardless of their human rights record

Years ago, I was given a job with the global trading company Jardine Matheson – my role? To sell Scottish whisky in Malaysia, a largely Muslim country. 

Jardines, as it is known, forms part of a legacy of Britain’s trading empire. And this Georgian-era company, renowned for once having traded Indian opium to Chinese addicts in exchange for tea and silk, was happy with its complicated past. Its actions that once led to the Opium Wars of 1839 and lay behind a long period of British interference in China – something the Communist party calls its “century of shame” – were never discussed in-house. Jardine’s website still does not mention its opium roots.

Rather, the company then clung to its less dark traditions. It still fired the Hong Kong Noon-Day Gun, ran a ‘chummery’ apartment for all single British ex-pats working for the firm, and still – legend had it – required those men to ask the CEO for permission to marry, in case they foolishly lost their hearts in the tropics. It was, at least in 1996, a company unreformed and unabashed for it.

My own experience working for this ancient Scottish trading company was marked by the realisation I was, in essence, employed in the business of addiction. Whisky sales were everything, and those tired old Chinese businessmen that I’d sing ‘My Way’ beside in karaoke clubs, with their yellow-stained eyes and trembling hands, were my prime customers.  

It was a trade devoid of any moral complexity. I had no responsibility for my whisky drinkers’ problems. And in this light, Jardines was true to its Georgian opium roots – at least a quarter of a century ago. I am sure things have improved since, but, then, the business possessed a Georgian sensibility. It reflected, as one mid-18th century writer framed it, how: “to the instrumentality of Commerce alone, the Britannic empire is most particularly indebted.”

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This Georgian spirit of trade alone – without moral complexity – has all the hallmarks of post-Brexit Britain. A promise that was there at the very beginning of the Brexiters’ vision of a free-spirited, buccaneering trading nation, free from the shackles of EU tyranny. It harked to a mythical Georgian trading era – a time that gave birth to the song ‘Rule Britannia’ – and lay at the heart of Vote Leave’s vision for a post-Empire future. British trading companies like Jardine’s were viewed as inspirational. 

So amoral commerce it was. It’s a fact most evidenced today by the reality that the UK Government has already signed, or has plans to sign, Free Trade Deals with eight of the 31 countries on its list of Human Rights Priority countries. That list of countries where the UK Government is particularly concerned about human rights issues” has not stopped deals being struck with Colombia (May 2019), Egypt (December 2020), Israel (February 2019) and Palestine (February 2019).

Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are also under negotiation with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (as part of the UK-Gulf Cooperation Council); whilst association agreements have been signed with Nicaragua (July 2019) and Zimbabwe (January 2019). 

In February 2019, the then Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, said that the UK had resisted attempts by some countries to reduce the human rights provisions in trade agreements as the UK. But this does not fully explain why, since the Brexit referendum, Britain has also approved exports of military goods to 80% of the countries on its own embargoed, sanctioned or trade-restricted list. Of the 73 destinations that the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) lists as “subject to an arms embargo, trade sanctions and other trade restrictions”, 58 have had approval to receive goods that fall under ‘military use exports’ in the last five years. 

‘Not Actually Very Good’Britain’s Post-Brexit Trade Agreements with Japan & Australia

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A spokesperson for the Department of International Trade said: “the UK is a leading advocate for human rights around the world and we remain committed to the promotion of universal human rights. We take our export control responsibilities seriously and operate one of the most robust and transparent export control regimes in the world.”

But any glance at the Human Rights Watch reports of any of the eight countries we are happy to sign FTAs with quickly shows what strange bed-fellows Brexit’s economic misery stands to acquaint us with. 

This is not a surprise. In a post-Brexit world where the promises of bountiful deals have failed to materialise and existing trade deals offer a tiny proportion of what was lost in trade terms leaving the EU, there was never going to be much room for something as awkward as morality. And, as a House of Lords summary on post-Brexit trade deals ended: “it has also been suggested that trade agreements may not be the best means to address human rights issues, and that the approach is “new, unproven and not well understood”.”

Of course, Brexiteers would argue that more trade would lead to improved human rights. Theirs is a sentiment that echoes the Georgian writer and Birmingham businessman William Hutton. ‘Civility and humanity are ever the companions of trade,” he wrote. “A barbarous and commercial people is a contradiction”.

There is, however, scant evidence the reformative ethical power of trade happens, at least with regard to our own FTA deals. Perhaps equal inspiration must come from a Georgian poet who wrote in 1773 that the unfettered quest for trade brings its own consequences: ‘Low-thoughted Commerce! heart-corrupting trade! / To blast pure morals and true Virtue made’.

Heart-corrupting trade seems, at least for the moment, the toxic Brexit dividend. After all, selling arms to human rights abusers isn’t that morally different from flogging opium to Chinese addicts, is it?

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