The former prime minister David Cameron’s political legacy will be permanently dominated by Brexit, an event he misjudged and abhorred. But until now he could at least comfort himself with one positive foreign policy achievement to his name. He was prime minister when the UK for the first time met its goal of spending 0.7% of its gross national income on overseas aid, and also enshrined it in law in 2015, so apparently entrenching Britain’s commitment to the world’s poorest.
It is easy to dismiss Cameron’s commitment to the policy as a piece of clever Tory window dressing – something to which he could point whenever someone shouted “nasty party” at him. But from the opening speech of his bid to be Conservative leader in 2005, aid was a vehicle through which he took the party in a new direction, saying: “When the Conservative party talks about international affairs, it can’t just be Gibraltar and Zimbabwe – we’ve got to show as much passion about Darfur and the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in sub-Saharan Africa, who are getting poorer while we are getting richer.”
It was at one level an acceptance of the Blair-Brown settlement on the importance of helping Africa, symbolised by the G8 summit in Gleneagles and the Live 8 concerts in the summer of 2005.
Once in office and austerity had struck in the wake of the financial crash in 2008, Cameron chose to make an issue of defending the aid target from relentless tabloid assault. At a largely routine press conference, at the close of the G8 meeting in Deauville in 2011, he was challenged by a reporter from the Daily Mail as to why the G8’s own reports showed only the UK was so naive as to meet its overseas aid targets. Cameron suddenly came alight, saying: “I think what people think about these summits is that frankly a bunch of people in suits get together, make some promises, particularly to the world’s poorest, and then go in and have a good lunch and forget about the promises.
“I am not going to do that. We made a promise. I remember where I was during Live Aid in 1985. If we are going to try to get across to the poorest people in the world that we care about their plight and we want them to join one world with the rest of us, we have got to make promises and keep promises.”
His pitch was entirely patriotic. National pride was measured not just by military hardware, but whether Britain pitched up when it came to the big crises, “whether hurricanes or earthquakes or tsunamis or pandemics”. He matched that by appointing two committed international development secretaries, Andrew Mitchell and Justine Greening.
Since his departure, the department has churned through five different secretaries of state, some of whom spent much of their time wishing they were somewhere else, running an independent foreign policy or briefing rightwing media about how they were going to crack down on waste. Nevertheless, by 2019 the total aid budget was £15.2bn, representing about 1.7% of total public spending, a larger proportion than ever.
Since 2015, the budget has been under relentless attack. The proportion of the aid budget spent by departments other than DfID rose, leading to claims that the spending was either less transparent or less focused on poverty alleviation. By this summer Boris Johnson – who had always wanted to subsume DfID into the Foreign Office – got his way. Critics of the now merged departments will point to the fact that at the first time of asking, the Foreign Office was unable, or unwilling, to defend the aid budget from a twin attack mounted by the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence.
The issue now is whether the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, or Boris Johnson will suffer any political damage either internationally or domestically for dumping this manifesto pledge. Conservative whips claim cutting the aid budget may not be popular in some leafy Tory suburbs, but in the “red wall” areas, this is red meat for some working class voters who want the government to look after number one.
Internationally, it will not be easy for the French or Germans to complain since they only spent 0.44% and 0.6% respectively in 2019. If socialist Spain starts kicking up, they are on 0.21%.
The UK, in reality, has been an outlier along with the Scandinavians. But that, arguably, is precisely the point. British exceptionalism is too often traded in nostalgic or defunct coinage, but the commitment to help the world’s poorest, and to spend the money transparently and efficiently, was presented as a central part of the modern British identity, along with the other intangibles that make soft power. It is part of who we are, as argued by Cameron.
Finally, it would also be an invaluable tool for the UK in the battles ahead hosting the UN climate crisis summit. John Kerry, the America’s new climate emergency tsar, said on leaving the Senate in 2013 that he was conscious his credibility as a diplomat in foreign capitals rested to a large degree on what happened in the US capitol. Nothing persuades more, he said, than leadership by example.