As Britain seeks new trade deals, can we learn a lesson from Poldark?

Poldark’s Kitty Despard is right to warn against ‘the single-minded pursuit of profit’. Trade deals should have human rights and environmental legislation at their core

Poldark season 5 trailer

“There has never been such scarcity, could more be done?” asks Demelza in the current series of Poldark. Thankfully for the people of Cornwall, the answer for Ross and Demelza Poldark is, of course, yes.

This fifth and final series of the Cornish saga is perhaps the most dramatic and ambitious to date. Rarely have so many huge themes – slavery, racism, poverty, health, education, charity, child labour, decent jobs, mental illness and trauma – been broached. All on top of the usual mine disasters and thwarted love affairs.

As the miners and farmers of Cornwall get poorer, the rich are shown wanting to keep their money, power, and prejudices even closer. But thankfully that doesn’t apply to everyone. An episode of Poldark wouldn’t be complete without Ross and Demelza showing that compassion and charity were alive and well in the 1800s.

In this series that means realising the potential of education, by granting poor, working children a few hours each week to learn to read and write. “True difference betwixt commons and gentry is simply that: learnin’,” explains Demelza.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that Poldark’s efforts for justice and equality can be confined to the history books. Although this type of charity has in theory been converted into human rights – to education, health, a childhood – in practice we are far from fulfilling them, in the UK or internationally. In 2019 more than 4 million people in Britain remain trapped in deep poverty, according to the latest figures from the Social Metrics Commission.

This series of Poldark is set at the turn of the 19th century, when political events are picking up speed, including the anti-slavery movement. In the early 1800s, Britain’s burgeoning international trade “deals” benefited hugely from slavery and exploitation, helping people like the show’s latest bad guy – the rapacious mahogany merchant, Ralph Hanson – get very rich.

As the drama reaches out for the first time to Central America, those in Cornwall start to become aware of others whose lives are connected to theirs.

In episode one we saw Catherine, or Kitty Despard – a former slave from Honduras, whose character is based on a real person of the same name – speaking at an abolitionist meeting, where she proposes “the single-minded pursuit of profit” as being behind corruption, violence and slavery. “How long can this continue?” she asks.

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Skip forward 200 years, and, though discussions are now focused on trade in goods and services, rather than people, Kitty’s cry of profit over all else still rings true.

In 2019, as the government attempts to turbo-charge new trade deals – and President Trump claims new US-UK deals could be up to five times more lucrative than current ones – we shouldn’t forget: how we trade is just as important as how much we trade. The exchange of goods and services must be based on dignity, human rights and protection of the environment.

The last thing any of us wants is chlorinated chicken from the United States; likewise, the poorest people around the world don’t want trade deals that plunge them further into poverty or force them from their homes. Trade should bring benefits for everyone involved.

When negotiating with countries such as Colombia or Brazil – where many goods are exported from the Amazon region, or from lands subject to continuing title disputes – we must ensure trade deals have human rights and environmental legislation at their core, so that new imports of agricultural products don’t do more harm than good.

As Demelza says, it’s all about learning. Wherever we are on 1 November, we need to ensure our trade deals actively help to reduce poverty and inequality, both in the UK and around the world, rather than fuel it.

Laura Ouseley is world news officer at CAFOD

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