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Brexit Britain: Financially destitute and morally bankrupt

Britain's shaky record as a global human rights defender will be fatally undermined if and when Brexit goes ahead as it rushes into deals with Middle East regimes
Anti-Brexit activists hold placards as they demonstrate outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London on 14 February, 2019 (AFP)

I know what you're thinking. Britain - the nation that spent a couple of centuries adventuring around the world, stealing land and resources at the barrel of a gun, killing untold numbers of indigenous people in the name of empire - is now worried about human rights?

But the truth is that the United Kingdom has long cultivated a binary, oxymoronic (and at times, just moronic) global endowment, spearheading the development of a legal framework guaranteeing freedoms while institutionalising a worldwide system of oppression and ridiculous sports.

A leading role

In 1215, Magna Carta - the world's very first human rights law - was signed by King John. Granted, it didn't exactly mean much for your everyday medieval peasant, but it fundamentally challenged the "divine right of kings" to do whatever they wanted. They, too, were now subject to the rule of law. 

The document went on to influence much of the Western world's body of law, not least the creation of the United States Constitution, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest legal declarations of human liberty.

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It was in Britain, too, that habeas corpus - the basic right that someone can't be imprisoned without appearing in a court - was codified, and despite recent attempts to scrap it in the name of counter-terrorism, it remains a fundamental right in law.

Over hundreds of years, Britain has built a dual and self-conflicting legacy; warlord and pioneer of liberty, concentration camp constructor and advocate of the rights of man, slave-taker and slave-freer

Britain, which played a lead role in creating the slave trade, also led the way in its abolition, with courts freeing thousands of slaves in the 1770s - nearly a hundred years before the Thirteenth Amendment passed through the US Congress.

British lawyers played a leading role in crafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights; British diplomats played a leading role in its adoption and ratification around the world.

Also at the United Nations, the UK sits on the Human Rights Council - though the legitimacy of that body has understandably been questioned since it admitted the head-chopping, journalist-dissolving Saudi Arabia.

Over hundreds of years, Britain has built a dual and self-conflicting legacy; warlord and pioneer of liberty, concentration camp constructor and advocate of the rights of man, slave-taker and slave-freer.

But this era of global leadership - on paths both great and terrible - is in its final days.

The great mistake

On 23 June 2016, in a massively deluded act of national self-harm, Britain voted to give up its place on the world stage. It was a vote that once again reaffirmed the insular nature of this little island; a vote won by an inward-looking backwardness that longs with phoney nostalgia for a past that never really existed. 

Though there were many other causes, the vote to leave the European Union was dominated by those who were cooking up fears surrounding immigration, preying on those who wish there were more traditional bakeries on the high street - and fewer kebab shops.

A man walks past the flags of Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 12 February, 2019 (AFP)
A man walks past the flags of Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 12 February, 2019 (AFP)

And after two years of total failure to mitigate Brexit's worst aspects, Britain is set to crash out of the EU in just a few short weeks with no sort of deal. Economists have predicted carnage. Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, predicted house prices collapsing by 35 percent.

And those who are struggling to get on the housing ladder are short-sighted if they think a contraction of this sort is a good thing. Because the rest of the economy stands to collapse as well. The IMF is predicting that GDP, which is currently stagnating with growth of just 0.2 percent, faces a fall of between five and eight percent. 

That's equivalent to a shock in the UK economy on a similar scale to the 2008 banking crash, following which as many as 3.7 million people in Britain lost their jobs. But 11 years ago, most of the world was hit by the global downturn.

This time round, it's just Britain sinking on her own. The pound is set to plummet, meaning a sharp rise in inflation - everyday things and luxury items alike becoming more expensive - and economic growth will slow, if not reverse entirely for a protracted period. 

At the mercy of a chequebook

There are no guarantees that flights or trucks will be able to cross into or from the EU. The government is stockpiling medicines. Ordinary people are hoarding tinned goods, fearful of shortages and sudden price rises. Even my wife has squirrelled away a stash of pasta that will supplement our diet for a few post-Brexit months.

Britain is at the mercy of anyone with a cheque book

In short, Britain is economically vulnerable. Desperate. Geopolitically isolated and pretty much bankrupt. Britain is no longer a world power.

It continues to have a seat on the UN Security Council solely because of its possession of nuclear weapons - and our potential use of those most awful things depends on the White House occupant anyway.

Britain is at the mercy of anyone with a chequebook.

The audaciously inept prime minister, Theresa May, has already begun offering up Britain's begging bowl, forlornly trying to secure trade deals to compensate for the UK's departure from the world's largest trading bloc. 

April 5, 2017 shows Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud receiving British Prime Minister Theresa May in the capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud receiving British Prime Minister Theresa May in the capital Riyadh on 5 April, 2017 (AFP

She's had some successes, shamelessly pledging to use UK aid and development funding in Africa to support private sector investment in exchange for token deals with the relatively small economies of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Mozambique. 

Total trade (imports plus exports) with these five nations totals £500m ($645m). Trade volume with South Africa does, however, add a further £8.7bn ($11bn).

A drop in the ocean

To put that into perspective, total annual UK imports from the EU are valued at £318bn ($411bn), and exports to the EU stand at a further £236bn ($305bn). No one is seriously suggesting that all trade with the EU will cease after Brexit - but it's clear that the tiny deals struck by the government are a drop in the ocean when it comes to making up the Brexit shortfall. 

And so, Britain is looking where the money is. With no reason to trust the stability of the Trump administration with its fondness for trade wars declared over Twitter, London is looking towards the resource-rich Gulf nations of the Middle East.

Britain, desperate for post-Brexit Gulf investment, has agreed to provide military experts to help Gulf nations, notably Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, strengthen their security structures

In December 2016, May went cap-in-hand to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held in Bahrain. As the first female national leader ever to address the six-nation bloc, did she fight hard for women’s rights? Did she at least making some passing reference to the treatment of women in the Gulf? Of course she didn’t.

She did discuss furthering deals to sell advanced weaponry, however. Weapons to be used either in Yemen, which was already the poorest Middle East nation before it was bombed into devastation, or on Gulf nations’ own domestic dissidents.

Silence equals complicity

And, desperate for post-Brexit Gulf investment, Britain has also agreed to provide military experts to help Gulf nations, notably Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, strengthen their security structures.

And in what Downing Street would no doubt would say is a total coincidence, these countries’ repression of political activists and journalists has seen a marked uptick in the past couple of years.

Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab remains in one of Manama’s jails for a series of tweets which officials deemed were “insulting public authorities”. While Bahrain gets a new British naval port, Rajab gets nothing from Britain. Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the al-Wefaq opposition movement, is serving a life sentence after being convicted on trumped-up spying charges.

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The government of Britain, once proud of its human rights leadership, issued a two-paragraph statement from its Middle East minister - which made a point of saying Bahrainis had the right to appeal such rulings.

Britain has also agreed to maintaining a permanent defence staff in Dubai, likewise helping the Emirates bolster its military capabilities at a time when the UAE is propping up Saudi Arabia’s disastrous and deadly endeavours in Yemen.

The UAE has meanwhile been begged to shut down its network of secret prisons in Yemen, into whose torture-fuelled dungeons disappear any number of protesters, activists, or anyone else Abu Dhabi can label as “terrorist supporters”. 

But, of course, the British government keeps shtum, with an annual £17.5bn ($23bn) of UK-UAE trade at risk (an increase of 12 percent in 2017 alone). In 2018, the UAE pledged an investment target of £25 billion ($32bn) in UK business by 2020.

And so Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s inhumane abuses continue in Yemen with no whisper of protest from London.

Domestically, Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith and Mohammed al-Roken - three of the UAE’s most prominent human rights defenders - languish in jail with barely a word from the UK authorities.

The "UAE 94" - a group of 94 reformists from all walks of life rounded up, tortured and put in front of a farcical show trial five years ago - remain in prison. But Britain’s BAE Systems has made a killing selling top-end surveillance technology to the UAE, so a few more British jobs are safe.

You might be seeing a theme developing here. 

Moral bankruptcy

Riyadh’s on-off-on-again-off-again IPO of Saudi Aramco is, of course, the crown jewel of the global cash-for-silence industry. If it ever happens, it’ll probably be the biggest deal in history, and the most lucrative ever for the lawyers who broker it.

Selling off just five percent of the Saudi state-owned oil company could raise huge amounts, with the Saudis valuing the company at more than $2 trillion. Trillion. With a ’t’. Financial capitals around the world are competing to be the market in which it happens, with governments shamelessly sucking up to Riyadh as a result.

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Entire books have been written on the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia. The rape and torture of women who campaigned for the right to drive, the execution of peaceful protesters, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the ongoing crimes in Yemen - and these are just examples from the past few months.

But the pathetic British government, staring down the barrel of the Brexit gun with its own finger on the trigger, dare not speak out.

Britain's first post-Brexit trade deal was inked last month with Israel, with not a mention of the occupation of Palestinian lands, human rights abuses, expanding settlements and the apartheid nation-state law.

And all this is without mentioning the abuses of regimes in Egypt, Turkey, or, probably the most significant of all, China - on whose largesse a post-Brexit Britain will also be dependent.

Brexit Britain has shown it is not just financially destitute, but morally bankrupt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

James Brownsell was formerly managing editor of The New Arab and Europe editor at Al Jazeera English. He spent several years living and working in the occupied Palestinian territories and Qatar, and has reported from at least half a dozen other places. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell
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