Friday 19 March 2021

Morality in trade


There’s nothing particularly new about the idea that morality, standards, and values have a role to play in deciding whether, and with whom, to negotiate international trade deals. Whilst trade usually promotes greater prosperity, the impact of that on the way a country is governed is a lot less obvious. On the one hand, increasing prosperity may help to legitimise a regime and encourage people to be less critical of their own government; on the other, people who aren’t spending their whole lives scratching a bare living can find they have more time for involvement in debate and politics, and greater international links can help them to understand better the freedoms which they don’t have. So, whether increasing trade helps to suppress or encourage opposition to unpleasant regimes is far from being clear-cut – both sides in the argument can draw on some evidence for their point of view.

The question has come to the fore over recent weeks as the UK attempts the hopeless task of replacing what were, until this year, extremely close trading links with near neighbours with necessarily looser links with countries much further away. And there are some pretty unsavoury regimes involved. Some MPs in all parties have been questioning whether the UK should continue to seek trade deals with countries run by authoritarian regimes, countries which outlaw dissent, and countries which don’t respect human rights or international law. The concerns are valid; not all countries can be depended upon to uphold the same standards, and the issue, at its simplest, is to what extent any country should be signing deals with countries which adopt lower standards than itself.

The UK has, though, come up with a novel approach which could eliminate the question, and which is entirely in line with the Brexit way of thinking. It is that the UK should lower its own standards to match more closely those of the regimes with which it wishes to do trade deals. More authoritarianism, less democracy, clamping down on protest and dissent, opting out of human rights legislation, and breaching international treaties and laws – these are the core elements of the current government’s programme. Whilst this might remove any need for moral considerations when the UK is negotiating trade deals with similarly unsavoury regimes, that English sense of exceptionalism which characterises the current government’s approach may be preventing them from seeing the slight little problemette which may arise as a consequence, which is that other countries may simply add the UK to their own lists of countries with which signing trade deals raises some serious moral issues. Believing that morality in trade is a uniquely British value, and that morality can therefore be defined as being whatever the UK does, might just turn out to be as silly in practice as it sounds in theory.


dafis said...

"unsavoury regime" - neat description of that mob in Westminster, or is it something that they aspire to but is currently a work in progress ? I guess the answer depends on how unsavoury they aim to be.

Spirit of BME said...

There are good observations in your post.
After doing business in most part of the world, I concluded that what I was taught,- that there is only one moral universal code and it was ours, was not the case.
There are several moral codes based on somebodies Holy Book or script and distilling the difference I conclude that each have a different view of the value of life.
There are in our view ghastly regimes that sign international treaties on Human Rights in good faith, but they view their obligation through a different lens, most view their religious teaching as trumping any man-made agreement.
So, when HMG demands that other people adhere to our view, so that they can have the privilege of trading with us, there is something of ‘make the world England ‘about it and being Welsh that makes me rather queasy.