Ever since the notion of Brexit was conjured up by English nationalists intent on cutting the United Kingdom’s ties with the third largest trading bloc in the world, part of the reasoning offered up would be that Britain could once more find its own place on the world stage. Life after the European Union would begin a new era of Global Britain, projecting British might and right around the world.
The veneer of that notion has well and truly faded, and a vote earlier this week in the House of Commons underscores that Global Britain is not in the business of helping millions of the most desperate and desolate people on this planet now — or for any time in the near future.
The Government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a Commons vote to lock in cuts to its foreign aid programme, keeping the future budget at 0.5 per cent of national income, down from the 0.7 per cent level that had long been a cornerstone of Conservative policy.
One would, of course, expect a government with a majority of some 80 seats to win Commons votes as a matter of course, but on Tuesday, there was a significant rebellion with the party’s membership. Johnson’s majority was just 35 votes — with even some of the most ardent Brexiteers such as former Brexit minister David Davis and former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt opposing the move.
Stamp of Little England
Even former Prime Minister Theresa May joined with the opposition during the divide, while Sir John Major, another former PM, described the vote as “the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain.” And he couldn’t help sticking the boot in against a proposed plan to bring back a new royal yacht to project that image of Global Britain.
“It seems that we can afford a ‘national yacht’ that no one either wants or needs, whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world,” he said.
So afraid were Johnson’s advisers of defeat on this sensitive and emotive topic that they only announced plans for the vote less than 24 hours before it was held, catching the rebels and dissenters off guard and giving them little time to engineer a potential and embarrassing defeat for the government.
Government whips — Conservative MPs who keep the party members in line — were out in full force, letting it be known that if the aid cuts didn’t pass, the government would pursue tax increases as an alternative — which would be equally unappealing for voters.
Still, despite the pressure tactics, 25 Conservative MPs did jump ship and voted against the cuts announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in a budget update last November.
Over the past eight months, there had been growing opposition to the move which rolled back the 0.7 per cent level enshrined in the Conservative manifesto and one that has been passed into law in 2015.
The government says that the need to cut overseas aid is necessary now because of the unprecedented spending pressure brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
Worst economic slump
COVID-19 has brought the worst economic slump to the UK in more than three centuries, but its economy is quickly rebounding. To cover those costs, London is borrowing at a record rate in peacetime, notching up £303 billion (Dh1.54 trillion) in debt by April 2021.
Critics of Brexit can’t help but ask too just how much of the economic malaise can be pegged on the decision to leave the EU in the middle of the pandemic.
Even in good times, leaving the EU was estimated to cause a loss of anywhere between 5 and 7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. And the only post-Brexit trade deal that the UK has signed, with Australia, will increase wealth by 0.5 per cent of GDP over the next decade.
The Johnson government says that the cuts will be restored when the time is right — and its decision to link that increase with the government being self-financing effectively means that MPs were given little room to wiggle. The cuts would take effect and would stay in place for the foreseeable future — the government wanted to eliminate any future opportunity for rebels to sabotage the measure in annual votes for the lifetime of this parliament.
The 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income that had been passed into UK law matched the goals that the United Nations sought to achieve during the 1970s — and cutting it might suggest too that the UK, a permanent member of the Security Council and wielding a veto, has little intent now of abiding by the long-standing policies of the General Assembly. Global Britain will be distinct from the UNSC and UN.
Johnson’s officials are quick to point out that the UK is the second-largest spender on foreign aid in the Group of Seven nations, behind Germany and its 0.73 per cent spending. But there are nations that spend more — and the UAE far exceeds the UN level.
According to WAM, the Emirates news agency, UAE spending on foreign aid in 2018 amounted to Dh28.5 billion (£5.6 billion) — but that was equal to 0.93 of its Gross National Income. In Europe, the Scandinavian trio of Denmark (0.73 per cent), Norway (1.11 per cent) and Sweden (1.14 per cent) all exceed the UN level too.
This week’s vote will reverberate around the most desperate corners of the globe as programmes in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Syria.