During Easter week, most of the UK papers ran a photograph of a relaxed-looking Liam Fox in Manila. He had stopped off there in the course of visiting the Far East with a view to signing as many post-Brexit trade agreements as possible, and added the off-the-cuff remark that we shared a good many values with the Philippines and would love to do more business with them. You could be forgiven for thinking that, to a small extent at least, all was well with the world: this was exactly what a Secretary of State for International Trade ought to be doing.
But no – at least, not if you’re a member of the progressive chattering classes. However happy the Filipino business community might be with a deal, an insurmountable problem for the progressives was the President, Rodrigo Duterte. This gentleman, although fairly elected and actually rather popular with the Filipino working class, has a colourful past, some highly unpleasant habits and some very primitive ideas on crime, punishment and drug addiction (they include an unhealthy number of extrajudicial executions). That was quite enough for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who promptly jumped in to condemn the talks.
They accused the Government of sacrificing fundamental British principles and grovelling to sinister dictators in a vain attempt to make Brexit work. The Director of Amnesty International added her bit (see here), saying that any agreement was a slap in the face of opponents of Duterte’s style of government, that the Philippines didn’t share our values of fairness and the rule of law, and that as far as she was concerned human rights must have an “absolute role” in determining who we did trade deals with.
This sort of talk may go down well at Islington dinner parties. It also slips down very nicely indeed in the corridors of power in Europe: a little-known fact about the EU is that whenever it generously opens some of its markets to a developing country by way of a trade treaty under the GSP Scheme it demands as a matter of course that that country sign up to no less than 27 human-rights-related treaties dear to the hearts of rights zealots in Brussels and Strasbourg. It is is dangerous twaddle nonetheless.
For one thing, whatever the views of the Filipino government we do share a good many values wit Filipinos generally – a belief in hard work, preference for business to be left to get on with the job with as little hassle as possible, and – by no means least – religion (the Philippines is by far the largest overwhelmingly Christian nation in Asia).
For another, the naysayers would do well to remember that bilateral trade agreements are signed by governments, but not for governments. They are there to make life easier for businesses who provide the taxes that keep governments going. They deal with such arcane but vital matters as tariffs, quotas, standards, type approvals, licences, eligibility for public-sector contracts, and so on. In saying that we should refuse to sign them with countries whose governments they dislike, the great and the good are therefore actually saying this: “I believe passionately in human rights; to show you how passionately, I’m even prepared to take it out on UK businesses and UK jobs.” In other words, they are doing what they like best: grandstanding their own high-mindedness at somebody else’s expense.
It’s not even as if this posturing will do any good for people in the Philippines. However much you may disapprove of the President and his sometimes murderous habits, it is hard to see how a single life will be saved, or one more judicial remedy obtained, by declining to remove the obstacles that make it more difficult for Filipinos to do business with UK companies. If anything, the more contact a country has with the outside world, the more likely its government is to act in a decent way.
Nor yet does injecting human rights into our practice on trade agreements do anything whatever to improve our reputation as a country, as it is sometimes piously suggested. There’s nothing wrong with the UK being known as a nation that, within reason, will trade with any nation while making no secret of its views on the way its government treats its citizens.
By contrast, if we make the easing of trade barriers dependent on agreement to our view of what human rights should look like, the UK risks being known as a collection of self-important, bullying, insufferable prigs. Rather like Labour, the Lib Dems and Amnesty International, come to think of it.
(Image: World Trade Organization)