Government’s Role

John Locke and Brexit - What will Happen to the UK’s Greatest Ever Export?

29 March 2017

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

Today, the UK Government has triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which formally begins the process of disentangling the UK from a body that Churchill himself helped inspire. Whatever the rights and the wrongs of the decision, it is happening. What will it mean for trade and human rights, given the host of new bilateral trade and investment agreements that will now need to be negotiated and agreed in the next two years?

The Influence Today of Britain’s Greatest Export
So will the UK make human rights protections a priority item when pushing through its own bilateral trade agreements? It is very tempting to answer this question immediately and in the negative.

The Englishman John Locke (1632-1704), widely seen as the “father of liberalism”, is perhaps Britain’s greatest contribution to enlightenment thinking. His influence on other great Europeans, such as Rousseau and Kant, as well as those who produced the US Constitution - that did indeed make America great back then - is difficult to under estimate.

Nearly 400 years after Locke’s birth, we should reflect on what might become of his legacy now that the UK wants to rewrite its trading relationships with the EU, and the rest of the world, within just two years. Perhaps the UK’s trade debate embodies two of Locke’s greatest legacies: free trade (as channeled through Adam Smith and his ideas) and human rights (the result of natural rights thinking).

A range of international trade- and investment-related standards increasingly address human rights risks associated with investment, including through the incorporation of express human rights provisions and human rights-related reporting requirements.

When asked about human rights factors in international trade, the UK Government has cited the importance of negotiating future agreements within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Such a multi-lateral agreement would be the most level of all level playing fields upon which John Locke or Adam Smith might smile.

The former Director-General of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, while still in office stressed that both human rights and trade rules, including WTO rules, were based on the same values: ‘individual freedom and responsibility, non-discrimination, rule of law, and welfare through peaceful cooperation among individuals. However, making this alignment of values a reality in global trade negotiations has not been a priority for many WTO members for almost a generation and is unlikely to move far in an era of greater nationalism and protectionism.

Protecting Human Rights in Practice

So will the UK make human rights protections a priority item when pushing through its own bilateral trade agreements?

Here are four indications that John Locke’s legacy might still have some leverage in the corridors of Whitehall

It is very tempting to answer this question immediately and in the negative. Two years is barely enough time to get to know your trade lawyers, let alone secure complex and competitive deals. Surely to include human rights in such deals is a pipe dream, when the European Union has struggled to do so consistently in all of its own trade deals (compare, for example the EU agreements with South Korea, with Vietnam, with Colombia and Peru)?

Here are four indications that John Locke’s legacy might still have some leverage in the corridors of Whitehall:

The UK’s biggest trading partner

The most important of all the UK’s bilateral trade deals will be the one with the European Union itself – 44% of UK exports and 53% of UK imports are with other parts of the EU. Some kind of trade deal within the next two years is the stated intention of both sides.

It is inconceivable that such an agreement can undercut the social standards already in the place across the EU and underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights – which the UK will not be leaving.  Undermining such standards would not pass most European national Parliaments let alone the European Parliament itself – it would be seen as a blatant attempt to undercut the level playing field. So, either explicitly or implicitly, human rights will very much be part of any UK-EU trade deal.

Bigger trading partners

Beyond the EU, the UK’s other major trading partners are Norway, Switzerland, the USA and China.

The first two are likely to insist on human rights as any EU member, perhaps more so.

The new US administration has made its priorities America, America and America – in that order. But much of America does care about human rights and the last thing that US workers want is to be undercut by foreign competitors enabled by free trade agreements. Human rights might well find themselves in any US-UK trade agreement and it might be the blue collar workers of the rust belt that make it so.

And, we should not assume for one moment that a China-UK agreement is necessarily a human rights free zone. China has human rights firmly embedded in their overseas mining guidance and is benchmarking against international standards as well as developing their own.

Smaller trading partners

Then we come to all those smaller trading partners the UK might wish to pursue through bilateral agreements that replace existing EU agreements, or get there before Brussels does.

The Gulf States or India are often cited as examples of this. Will the UK Parliament really accept a bilateral trade agreement with Saudi Arabia or Qatar that omits any reference to human rights at all?

Bilateral agreements do not sit in a vacuum

The UK Government has entered into a range of business and human rights commitments some of which it helped create, from the Ethical Trading Initiative to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. It helped lead the charge at the UN to create the mandate that produced the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, was the first to establish a national action plan for their implementation and has committed to uphold the UN ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ Framework through bodies as diverse as the OECD to the G7 to the Commonwealth Games Federation. The UK Modern Day Slavery Act was personally championed by the current UK Prime Minister as was its supply chain transparency requirement which has led the world. Increasingly, thought is going into how export credit and public procurement can align with these commitments as well.

Bilateral agreements do not sit in a vacuum and Britain’s negotiators cannot pretend none of this exists.

The UK might be leaving the EU, but it cannot leave its legacy of international rules and fundamental human values - unless it wants to forget itself completely.
Locke’s legacy

On a day of quiet reflection such as today, perhaps we should remember John Locke - the greatest British export of all. The UK might be leaving the EU, but it cannot leave its legacy of international rules and fundamental human values - unless it wants to forget itself completely.

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