Theresa May in Bahrain: How should human rights influence post-Brexit trade policy?

Theresa May is today in Bahrain to attend the the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit. She will sit down with the leaders of  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emrates and discuss, among other things, a potential new trade deal with the region.

Saying anything concrete and specific in these discussions will be difficult, for exactly the same reasons I discussed in a recent post about Theresa May’s visit to India for trade discussions.  Until potential trade partners know what the UK’s post-Brexit trade relationship is with the EU, it is difficult to negotiate. Most importantly, unless the UK leaves the Customs Union,  the UK government won’t be doing a trade deal with the GCC because it will not be able to offer reductions in tariffs and all the other goodies that such countries want from the UK.

But putting these concerns aside, the trip to Bahrain raises questions about the ethics of the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy. Human rights groups have raised concerns that commercial interests are what is driving the trip, and that Theresa May will fail to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly in Bahrain. In a statement, the groups reported that “[s]ince June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has dissolved the largest political party in the country, stripped the citizenship of the country’s most senior Shia cleric, prosecuted human rights activists and prevented them from travel, and placed an entire community under constant police blockade.”

Theresa May said before she left for the Gulf that “There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights. But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.”

Since 2012, the UK has been providing technical assistance to Bahrain to work towards the reform of the police and judiciary. But the human rights situation seems to have got worse and not better over that period. And we should be wary about signing a trade deal with countries like Bahrain while at the same time ‘engaging’  over human rights issues. There are serious dangers that commercial concerns will then be prioritized over human rights abuses. My own research into processes of dialogue in EU trade agreements on social and environmental issues within trade agreements shows that these dialogues are under-resourced and ineffective.

We are at a crucial point in the development of our post-Brexit trade policy. For leaders of countries in the GCC to take the UK seriously in trade negotiations, Theresa May would have to tell them that she plans to leave the Customs Union. It seems wrong that they might know this before the UK population does. It also seems deeply worrying that our trading relationships may be shifting fundamentally away from Europe and towards regions like the Gulf, without any discussion about the underlying values that trade policy should be based on.




Causing a scene over a £5 note

I caused a small scene today with a woman in her seventies at a Christmas Craft Fair in Leamington Spa. And its all because of the new £5 note…


I’ve been a vegetarian for 24 years. When I started out, there were often awkward social situations. Restaurants or pubs would have nothing on the menu for me. Friends would serve me chicken and then look bemused when I explained that vegetarianism extended beyond beef and lamb. I remember once trying to explain the concept to a group of elderly relatives and being told, to nods of approval all round,  “what utter nonsense”.

But times have changed. There are now millions of vegetarians in the UK. Getting good vegetarian food is easy in restaurants, supermarkets and dinners at my friends’ houses. I can buy vegetarian wine, shoes, even belts. People (at least appear to!) listen earnestly when I explain my concerns about the way animals are treated in our industrialized agricultural system.

So it was a shock last week when I read that our new £5 notes contain beef tallow. And today, doing my Christmas shopping, was the first time since I heard the news that I was confronted with one. A lady on a craft stall gave my change. And there it was, a fleshy fiver. “I am afraid I am a vegetarian” I blurted. She just looked confused. And the more I spoke, the more confused she looked. In the end I just took it.  I was beginning to feel like a mad conspiracy theorist talking about the meat in our money.

Vegetarians in the UK have complained in large numbers – a petitionagainst the new note now has more than 125,00 signatories. I read this evening that the inventor of the £5 note has called UK vegetarians ‘absolutely stupid’. The amount of tallow used in making the £5 note is apparently very small, and the new fiver may have other environmental and health benefits.* But what he doesn’t understand is that for me and others like me, the point of vegetarianism is to be able to say “not in my name”, to refuse to participate in systems of production that do not  have respect for animal life. And avoiding the use of bank notes is a little tricky….

I failed to say “not in my name” today to the new £5 note. It defeated me where the pubs, restaurants and elderly relatives of two decades ago failed. But what gives me hope is the uproar it has caused. There is the petition, the vegetarian restaurant refusing to accept new fivers, the Bank of England feeling the need to say it is “looking for solutions”.  There are no guarantees for what happens next (and I’ll be watching carefully to see what solutions appear). But if alternatives are found, then perhaps we can start looking at other products which perhaps don’t need to be made from animals either.


* I have read nothing that suggests the tallow is essential to the process, and that vegetarian alternatives could not be found. If anyone does have different information, I would be very interested to know.