Theresa May's foreign policy: trade first, human rights never

The Prime Minister's approach puts trade ahead of anything else, says Tom Brake.

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The government’s Brexit strategy includes courting favour from countries with appalling human rights records, whilst cold-shouldering our biggest allies in Europe.

Liam Fox’s outrageous comment this week that we have “shared values” with the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is just another example.

Britain holds firm in our principles of tolerance, democratic accountability, and a proud legal tradition. Duterte shares no such values. His nickname ‘the Punisher’ has been well-earned.

The Philippines’ leader’s war on drugs has meant a complete disregard for basic human decency, inciting members of the public to kill drug addicts, and pushing to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine.

While Fox flew half way around the world to grovel at Duterte’s feet, Theresa May has been currying favour from Saudi Arabia, a country which has been murdering civilians in the Yemen using cluster bombs sold to them by Britain. The Saudis’ record on human rights at home is also a matter for great concern, yet according to the Government, our arms sales figures are more important.

Following the Prime Minister’s visit to the White House earlier in the year, she flew straight to Turkey to speak to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not only is the Turkish leader attempting to transform his country into an autocratic state, he is also guilty of several human rights’ violations, from religious freedoms, to freedom of speech and ethnic persecution.

I believe in free trade, and completely understand the need to create strong trade relationships. But surely there is a line which must not be crossed? Surely human rights should be prioritised along with economic gain?

If the government truly wanted a trade relationship for the good of the British people, they would be doing everything they can to stay in the Single Market: the biggest economic market in the world, and on which our country’s prosperity depends. Just to put this into perspective, in 2015 we traded more goods with Belgium than with Japan, India, Brazil and Australia put together.  

How can we rely on the unpredictable countries the Government is courting to provide us with enough trade to make up for inferior access to Europe? This strategy will not create the jobs which Britain needs in the long term. People will say ‘what about the US?’, but I won’t be holding my breath for a deal with the protectionist and erratic Donald Trump.

Using other countries as bargaining chips we aim to bring to the table during EU negotiations, we are surely going to leave as the laughing stock. No amount of pandering to corrupt regimes can replace our membership of the Single Market, and that much is clear.

We must stand tall in support of human rights, not cower to corrupt regimes. The United Kingdom does not crawl in order to secure minimal trade deals, we fight for the values which have governed us for centuries.

If this is truly the Tory vision of global Britain, then don’t expect me to sit by idly and let Dr. Fox’s vision become a reality.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.