REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH; supporting girls’ education; the provision of clean water; the prevention of HIV/AIDS; humanitarian assistance to war-torn Yemen and Syria. Question: what links these morally unimpeachable, almost tediously worthy causes? Answer: they have all been deprioritised as part of Westminster cuts to foreign aid. Whatever we are spending money on, it’s apparently more important than all of the above.
Historically, the UK hasn’t been among the world’s stingiest donors, even if British aid does come wrapped in shady geopolitical agendas. Equally, it doesn’t take a woke warrior to understand that the UK’s history makes it uniquely complicit in many of the world’s miseries. With Yemen, for instance, British culpability is both historical and urgently contemporary. Any provision of emergency relief was always outweighed by the UK’s logistical support and arms sales to the genocidal Saudi war effort.
The best contribution Britain could have made to global development, looking back, would have been to stop meddling. Take any post-colonial conflict worldwide and chances are the UK sided with forces of reaction and repression (especially where a truly progressive offer presented itself). Our bonfire of sovereignty in the Middle East set the whole region ablaze. And much of our “diplomacy” has meant selling arms to the world’s most despicable regimes.
However, since we don’t live in an ideal world, foreign aid must suffice as compensation for the UK’s larceny overseas. Yet even these meagre reimbursements have been cut to the bone: in the case of Yemen, which the UN styled as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, and where our own complicity needs little introduction, this year aid was cut from £197m to just £87m.
Credit where credit’s due, a rebellion by dozens of Conservative backbenchers is threatening to derail the cuts. It’s a motley group formed of the ghosts of cabinets past, including Andrew Mitchell, Jeremy Hunt and David Davis. None could be characterised as bleeding heart liberals, which only reinforces the doubts about what these talks mean for British identity.
After Brexit, there was much hifalutin talk of “global Britain”. Remainers squealed that this was a “neo-colonial project”, forgetting, perhaps, the explicitly imperial romanticism of the Europhile Blair years. Brexiteers themselves, meanwhile, indulged in Mittyish daydreams of a Thatcherite revival based on competitive cuts to regulation and taxation: “Singapore on Thames”.
All of which missed the point. “Global Britain” was an empty marketing slogan, papering over the UK’s (and Europe’s) massively reduced status in a multipolar world of conflicts framed around the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Where once Britain could preen as the moral pivot between Europe and America, nowadays, it’s a largely redundant function.
In the cynical Blair years, Britain would grandstand as the world’s saviour, boasting about “ethical foreign policy” and parading around with Bono and Geldof, while in practice doing more harm than good, with “interventions” that destroyed political order and arms sales that emboldened strongmen against neighbours and their own populations.
Today, the UK lacks the clout, the cash or the authority to play these old games. Having left an erratic and crisis-prone EU, its relationships with the world are foggier than ever. The aid cuts are the latest sign of retreat, which is why they are so alarming even to arch right-wingers in the Conservative backbenches.