During November’s Spending Review, the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak announced the government’s intention to temporarily abandon spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA). Instead, the chancellor outlined plans to spend 0.5% of GNI on overseas aid next year, saving approximately £4bn.
With Britain facing its worst recession in three hundred years, the chancellor is in an unenviable position as he seeks to balance the books. The decision to reduce ODA spending, however, should not be viewed solely as a short-term measure to alleviate challenging economic circumstances, but as the end of the cross-party consensus on international development that has held for approximately fifteen years.
The decision to cut the aid budget, combined with the Department for International Development’s merger with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September 2020, reflects sharp disagreement within the Conservative Party regarding the level and function of overseas aid, which stretches back half a century.
These decisions are further proof that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has moved away from some of the centrist policies adopted by his predecessors and, more importantly to international allies, has a different conception of Britain’s ‘soft power’. Five former prime ministers, including three Conservative, have reportedly disapproved of Johnson’s decision to cut the aid budget.
Since David Cameron’s election as Conservative leader in 2005, the party had fully embraced the international development agenda and committed to the target of 0.7% of GNI for ODA. Support for international development was an important part of Cameron’s rebranding of the party and re-location of it to the political centre-ground after three successive election defeats. The move was not solely positional: Cameron was personally supportive of development as a moral imperative and a means of boosting Britain’s ‘soft power’. His support for international development was also shared by other senior Conservative MPs, most notably his first international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell.
Significantly, and in the face of considerable political opposition, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (2010-15) was the first British government ever to meet the internationally recognised 0.7% of GNI target for ODA in 2013. The target was then, with Cameron’s tacit support following a private member’s bill initiated by a Liberal Democrat MP, enshrined in law in 2015.
Despite this support for aid at the top of the party, there was always a dissenting faction. Not all Conservative MPs, members or aligned media were enthusiastic about Cameron’s determination to meet the 0.7% target, or indeed to retain DfID as an independent department amid public sector austerity. This dissenting faction was partly motivated by a view that development was being wrongly prioritised over more traditional Conservative commitments, such as to defence spending. Johnson’s simultaneous cut to the aid budget and increase in the defence budget is a clear indication of his relatively consistent position in this intra-party debate.
Johnson’s views on development were well known before his ascent to the premiership. For example, in 2019 he argued: ‘We can’t keep spending huge sums of taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO…The present system is leading to inevitable waste as money is shoved out of the door in order to meet the 0.7% target [for spending]’. Whereas this view was the dissenting voice against the party leadership under David Cameron (2005-16) and Theresa May (2016-19), it has now become the party orthodoxy, against which supporters of aid must argue.
Several centrist Conservative MPs have been dismayed by the decision to cut aid, with one, Baroness Sugg, resigning from her ministerial position in protest. It is likely that the government will face a parliamentary rebellion, led by Andrew Mitchell, when it ultimately introduces legislation to repeal the 0.7% spending target.
The rebels are concerned that the decision to repeal the law – despite assurance from the chancellor that the move is temporary – indicates that the government’s longer term intention is not to reinstate the 0.7% target when the public finances are restored to health. It is unclear if a Conservative rebellion in the House of Commons – or a similar effort in the House of Lords – will have the numbers to inflict a parliamentary defeat on the government. Johnson presides over a different party – in parliament and in the composition of its electoral support – than did Cameron or May.
And what about public opinion? Some polling suggests that the public broadly supports the decision to cut aid. In the context of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, with a widespread assumption that – defence and a small number of other protected sectors notwithstanding – further domestic spending cuts are likely, it is perhaps unsurprising that public opinion supports cutting aid too. The decision is, nevertheless, further evidence of Johnson’s disjointed approach to what was meant to be his Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. A symbolic decision to, as Andrew Mitchell once put it, ‘balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world,’ does not bode well for Britain’s global standing, ahead of a year in which a new US president is inaugurated and Britain has the presidencies of two prominent multilateral meetings, the G7 and COP26. After nearly eighteen months in office, we are finally seeing the shape of Johnson’s vision of the national interest and what ‘Global Britain’ will mean in practice. It is a narrower, meaner vision of Britain’s role in the world, with its ‘soft power’ diminished.
Dr Philip A. Berry and Dr Joe Devanny are lecturers in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. They write here in a personal capacity.