Labour accuses Tories of reviving memories of apartheid with South Africa aid decision

Ivan Lewis says the move to end aid will leave a "bitter taste", comparing it to the Tories' decision to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

Did the UK announce the end of aid to South Africa without having the courtesy to inform the South African government first? The British government and Pretoria are offering very different accounts this morning. The South African international relations department said that "proper consultations" had not taken place and denounced the "unilateral" decision. Its statement read:

This is such a major decision with far reaching implications on the projects that are currently running and it is tantamount to redefining our relationship.

Ordinarily, the UK government should have informed the government of South Africa through official diplomatic channels of their intentions and allowed for proper consultations to take place, and the modalities of the announcement agreed on.

But on the Today programme this morning, William Hague insisted that the move "shouldn’t have been a surprise" since discussions had been going on "for some months". He added: "No doubt there is some confusion or bureaucratic confusion about that, perhaps, on the South African side. But I’m not going to fling accusations about that. "

International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced the decision to end direct aid, currently worth £19m a year, at a conference of African ministers and business leaders in London yesterday. "I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development," she said. 

"It is right that our relationship changes to one of mutual co-operation and trade, one that is focused on delivering benefits for the people of Britain and South Africa as well as for Africa as a whole."

In the context of an international development budget of £11bn, the decision to end £19m of aid to a country worth $408.2bn (GDP) might not seem particularly notable, but Labour has seized on the accusation of bad faith. The shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis declared this morning that it would "reinforce some of the feelings about the apartheid years", later tweeting: "Tories opposed sanctions against apartheid S africa and now end aid to democratic S africa in shabby way. Leaves bitter taste". In a statement issued last night he said: 

Justine Greening has serious questions to answer – her claim that her decision was made with the agreement of her South African counterparts has been completely contradicted by the South African Government.
 
This looks like a serious breach of trust with one of our most important strategic partners. Justine Greening must explain why she is saying one thing about her conduct while the South African Government is saying another.
 
Behaving in what looks like a high-handed and patronising fashion towards South Africa is no way to treat one of the world’s key emerging nations and is not in Britain’s national interest.
But beyond the question of whether the South African government was properly consulted, there is a bigger argument here about whether the UK should continue to provide aid to so-called "middle income countries". Having previously ended aid to India, Greening has made her position clear, but as Lewis pointed out on Today this morning, 75 per cent of the world's poorest people now live in middle-income countries, not poor countries. "If we are going to withdraw from every middle-income country in terms of our aid programme, we are not going to be getting to many of the poorest people," he noted.
 
This argument has the benefit of moral consistency but it's not an easy one to make when the public are already so sceptical of aid spending. A recent ComRes poll showed that just 8 per cent believe the aid budget should be increased, while 77 per cent believe it should be cut. 
 
The figure of £19m may not appear economically significant but the Tories will use this as another example of why Labour would still be big spenders, not wise spenders.
South African president Jacob Zuma speaks with David Cameron on July 18, 2011 during a press conference in Pretoria. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.