In the decade that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have never voted against the Government. There have been times when I have been queasy about my party’s position, but politics is a team sport and a long game. One unpalatable policy is frequently part of a wider, worthwhile agenda. However, and with a heavy heart, I am closer now to breaking the loyalty habit of the last decade than ever before. And the cause of this anguish? The Government’s proposals to abandon our commitment to maintain aid spending at 0.7 per cent of GNI.
My colleagues and I were elected on a promise to uphold our aid commitment. Breaking my word to the electorate, or to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, is a very big deal. So it’s about political principle, but its also about what we wouldn’t be doing.
The cuts proposed amount to roughly a third of the aid budget. If applied across the board, it’d mean a third fewer children immunised each year, saving about 100,000 fewer lives; it’d mean nearly a million fewer children per year supported through education; and two million fewer people reached with emergency assistance in crisis.
The devastating impact that such a cut would have is a reminder of the phenomenal impact that our aid makes. As the world deals with a pandemic that is the biggest humanitarian crisis of my lifetime, and its myriad secondary impacts that hit the most vulnerable hardest, there couldn’t be a worse time to withdraw this support.
The Conservative-led government that took office when I was first elected to Parliament in 2010 was faced with a long list of difficult decisions in the aftermath of the financial crash. One of them was, in the words of Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development at the time, not to “balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest”, and not to cut aid.
Ten years on, another global crisis and another Conservative government has taken the opposite view. Yet this cut would do little to balance the books. In the bigger picture of government spending its but a drop in the ocean, but for the impact we can achieve in the toughest places in the world it’s a colossal difference.
I’m also concerned about what this move would say about the role the United Kingdom seeks to play in the world – our “Global Britain” agenda. We look to the Biden administration to re-engage the United States with the world and, newly out of the European Union, we seek to present ourselves as their partner of choice.
In May, Samantha Power, appointed by the incoming President to lead the US Agency for International Development, in evidence to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said “Your development commitment speaks for itself really. The way in which that has been sustained over successive administrations speaks to a desire to change the world for the better”.
High praise for our Global Britain aspiration. Yet this will no longer be the case if the proposed cuts are carried through. Instead of seeing a country intent on changing the world for the better, our most important ally will see our country stepping back when it should be stepping up.
I don’t think I could reasonably be described as a habitual thorn in the Government’s side. I’m proud of what Conservative prime ministers have achieved over the last ten years, proud to have served as a minister and proud of the agenda that this Government has set out. But if it is intent on a U-turn on our party’s commitment to international development, then what choice will I have?
Mark Garnier is the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest
This article was published on Conservative Home on January 22 2021.