The former Prime Minister Gordon Brown described globalisation as a runaway train, out of control, heightening the insecurity people feel about the future and reawakening in people a need to belong. This intervention was one of few during the EU Referendum that sought to acknowledge the anxieties one had about globalisation whilst still characterising it as humanity’s greatest route to prosperity. But if someone looks at the world today, it’s tempting to conclude that this brand of globalisation isn’t a runaway train, out of control but one that should never have been in service and is going in the wrong direction.

The liberal doctrine on globalisation foresaw a very different reality, one in which the growth of democracies and encouragement of free trade would create the sort of tolerance and openness required to sustain peace. The reality of it is an inversion of this, the spread of peace, tolerance and openness all worth sacrificing at the altar of free trade – to which no human rights abuse is ultimately heinous enough to challenge. 

An example of this can be seen in New Zealand’s trading relationship with China. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand’s Labour Party is treated by many western progressives as a shining symbol of some liberal-left resistance to the march of the populist right. This image is as superficial as it seems, not least because Arden’s Labour party first entered government via a coalition agreement that made the leader of the right wing, populist party New Zealand First her Deputy Prime Minister. 

The ultimate expression of this superficiality could be seen earlier this year when the New Zealand parliament, at the behest of Arden’s Labour party, refused to debate a motion labelling the human rights abuse of the Uyghur Muslims in China as genocide. This is something New Zealand has struggled with because of its trading dependency on China who account for more than $33bn of New Zealand’s total trade and nearly 30% of exports.

The European Union is slightly better on this issue but given the enormous economic disparity between it and New Zealand, more should have been expected. A major investment deal between the EU and China, which was first due to be signed this year, was suspended after both imposed sanctions on the other because of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Though this may appear in sharp contrast to the actions of New Zealand, there are signs that the EU are hoping to resume discussions on the investment deal and conclude it swiftly. Put simply, human rights matter but trade matters more.

To look to a supposedly “Global Britain”, our government recently rejected a genocide amendment to the Trade Bill 2019-2021. This would have involved far greater scrutiny of China’s policies towards the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang when pursuing a trading relationship – by allowing British courts to determine whether a genocide was taking place. This, however, was defeated in the House of Commons. Though there were Conservative backbenchers who have championed the Uyghur cause, the government remains desperately lacking on this issue.

Far from strengthening international solidarity, the current model of globalisation has engendered the worst kind of politics: a mix of capitalism-driven cowardice and a pandering to nativist populism within the western world. The ease with which China tightens its economic grip on the world, despite its terrible record on human rights and labour conditions, shows that liberal democracies, for all the celebration of values of freedom and openness, are vulnerable to the economic realism of the world they find themselves in. Countries that once produced materials such as steel found importing from China, which they decry as an illiberal one-party tyranny, preferable to subsidising their own industry. In doing so, they relinquished much of their economic independence, became reliant on a dictatorship, and created a marginalised class of formerly blue-collar workers.

Joe Biden understood this in his recognition of how the blue-collar alienation was partly a product of a liberal consensus that didn’t see an issue with substituting domestic steelmakers for imports from China. Areas such as Pittsburgh once relied on steel production as primary source of employment had been undercut badly. As in Britain, there was a deep local malaise that spread once goods were no longer being produced domestically. On a wider level, countries who become overly dependent on imports also make themselves more dependent on the exporter. The issue, of course, is that it’s easier for a country like the USA to defy this than New Zealand.Globalisation hasn’t led to solidarity rooted in a sense of a shared humanity. It’s progressive advocates claim the problem with globalisation is that it doesn’t have any leaders. But be it in New Zealand or the EU, many progressives have ultimately decided that they can accommodate human rights abuses and even genocide if the reward is freer trade. The runaway train suits them fine, as long as it hits someone else.