Bread, Bandages and Bullets


The Conservative government makes recent cuts to the foreign aid budget. Chancellor attempts to "balance the books" on public spending while the Prime Minister wants more Battleships

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Image by UK Department for International Development

By James Fraser-Abbott

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has again cultivated the attention of the National press in the onset of a drastic proposal to withdraw £5 billion of International development spending from the Foreign aid budget. The reprisals of opposition newspapers, party officials and former party leaders were swift and without mercy. Mr. Sunak’s spending reviews have provoked immense public scepticism over the prime minister’s ability to reclaim Britain’s global standing in the aftermath of Brexit negotiations.

The move to decrease foreign aid spending by 0.2 per cent has been denounced by Five former prime minister’s, over 200 charitable organisations and the Archbishop of Canterbury, claiming that the move was setting a poor example to future global trading partners, that such actions will frustrate Britain’s reputation as an “international pariah” by failing to live up to its obligations. Justin Welby felt compelled to comment also on the ethical dimension, stating that "helping the world's poorest is one of the great moral…achievements of our country".

However, are these comments fair and justifiable in the given economic environment imposed on the United Kingdom by the global Covid-19 pandemic? Supporters of the proposed cut, such as the Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray, have derided critics by pointing to the obvious necessity of fiscal cut-backs to tackle the projected record levels of government borrowing, which by the financial year’s end is estimated at £372.2 billion. Of which, a lion's portion has been utilised for the extension of the government furlough scheme.

Concerns have been raised over the paradoxical aims of the current government’s spending plans with regards to the public services. Boris Johnson has pledged, alongside the controversial Public sector salary freeze, a record level budget boost of £16.4 billion on Defence over the next four years. The purpose of which is alleged to instigate a renewal in Britain’s shipbuilding capabilities, dubbing it a possible naval “renaissance” with the development of new type 31 and type 26 frigates, championing and rivalling the maritime capabilities of the country’s European allies.

Prime-Minister Johnson has stood by this proposal, outlining that a strong Navy is crucial to the success of future trading arrangements with partners in the Pacific region and vital in generating employment post-Covid by creating 40,000 jobs within the British armed forces and boosting peripheral businesses in declining industrious coastal communities. The case has been made that by committing with this investment, the government would make up for the loss in International aid spending, as much of the operational remit of the armed forces is to distribute and provide aid to developing nations in peacetime and amidst moments of humanitarian crises.

Mr. Sunak has also stated that with the greatest respect, that while the United Kingdom may appear to be backing down from its manifesto pledge of maintaining its commitment to international aid at 0.7 per cent Gross National Income, the government will be the second-highest spender on aid among the rest of the G7. What is seemingly apparent, however, is a lack of clarity surrounding the temporal nature of such a proposal, whether the government was seeking to extend the period of cuts or if they intend on further cuts in the future. The Archbishop of Canterbury has described the government's intentional vagueness on the longevity of reducing aid as a “wrong and shameful” act.

To make matters worse, to extend the cuts is far punitive than it may initially appear, by amalgamating the Department of International Development with the Foreign Office, foreign investment was slashed by £2.9 billion earlier this year. It has been accentuated by the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace however, that the government is not “abandoning the battlefield of foreign aid to pay for a 24 billion military war chest”. This is to say, that no matter where the money has come from, the Defence secretary remains adamant that any funds that would have otherwise been utilised for the provision of International aid will now hold the British armed forces firmly to its commitments abroad, providing essential relief efforts in conflict environments and climate-related natural disasters.

In need of an amendment to the government’s mandate, a vote will be held in the House of Commons to press forward with the Chancellor’s proposal. As we approach the division in the House, the government is gearing up to considerable opposition both within and without the Conservative party, with a sizeable moderate One Nation wing, led by former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP seeking to rebel against the government’s cuts and challenge the Foreign Secretary head on over his refusal to implement a sunset clause which would dispense with the cuts after a year.

(Andrew Mitchell, Former Secretary of State for International Development, Image Credit: Chatham House)