What’s another broken promise? Boris Johnson’s government has doubtless lost count of all those left strewn in its wake. So the news that Britain is abandoning its pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, enshrined in law by David Cameron and reaffirmed in the Conservative manifesto only a year ago, is not as surprising as it should be. The dismantling of the Department for International Development, now folded into the Foreign Office, demonstrated where things were heading despite denials that funding would suffer. The almost 30% cut is highly unlikely to be, as some hoped, a temporary measure.
The moral case for preserving the promise was clear. Even putting aside for a moment the historical rationale, or the extraordinary current levels of global inequality, the effects of reneging on a commitment to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will be devastating. Lady Sugg, a Foreign Office minister, resigned over the decision. Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former international development secretary, has called it outrageous, laying out its likely impact: a million fewer girls receiving an education; 3.8 million people left without access to clean water; 5.6m fewer vaccinations – and 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children.
To do this in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, with the World Food Programme warning of the prospect of famines of biblical proportions, is especially repugnant. The government’s argument is that it is precisely the pandemic that has forced it to tighten its purse strings – though the impact on GDP had already cut billions from the spending budgeted for this year.
Cynically put, the pledge may be felt to have outlived its usefulness. Writing the promise into law helped Mr Cameron to rebrand the nasty party. Mr Johnson has a different electoral strategy. Rightwing MPs have welcomed the move, and the calculation is that “red wall” voters will agree that charity begins – and ends – at home.
But Tory rebels are already vowing to vote down the cut, pointing out that every MP bar the DUP members stood on a manifesto promising to maintain the 0.7% commitment. The government may also be in danger of underestimating the public: support for Mr Cameron’s pledge actually rose despite austerity. It is hardly surprising that voters chafe at the cost if you tell them that British aid has been treated as “a great cashpoint in the sky”.
It is not difficult to make a pragmatic as well as principled case for development funding. The government has just committed to a four-year £16.5bn surge in defence spending. Though the increase has been sold as a necessary modernisation of the armed forces, including through the improvement of cyber capabilities, these spending choices betray a bizarrely old-fashioned, even anachronistic, view of security. These days especially, Britain’s safety depends in part on the stability of places thousands of miles away. We can decide that our sense of humanity ends at our own borders, but we cannot expect dangers to respect those boundaries.
Nor is weaponry alone enough to protect and project our status: Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the defence select committee, warned that Britain is diminished when our hard power is not matched by soft. Business groups too have warned against the move. The narrowly instrumental view of aid already espoused by Mr Johnson – tying it to diplomatic and economic objectives – was a bad enough mistake. In slashing funding and reneging on our pledges we also throw away our claim to global leadership.
Britain’s departure from the European Union has already damaged our international standing and credibility. This decision will reinforce perceptions that we are unreliable as well as ungenerous, both insular and isolated. It is foolish as well as astonishingly callous.