There is a Conservative case for overseas aid. We should make it

Our aid commitment, properly targeted, is first and foremost about our own security and economic interests.

The UK is set to join a select group of countries this year by becoming the first member of the G8 group of rich nations to meet the 0.7% GDP aid goal set by the UN in the 1970s. George Osborne says "we should all take pride in this historic moment for the country”. Many Conservative MPs and constituency activists disagree. UKIP have successfully used the aid issue as illustrative of a wider critique of a disconnected political class foisting its metropolitan predilections on an electorate which needs a government that puts it first. 'Charity starts at home' is the cry. 'Why are we giving money to overseas countries when we're cutting here at home?' So is there a Conservative case for international aid at a time of austerity?  I believe so. We should make it.

As with so much of the Cameron modernisation project, the language and political framing of our aid commitment needed to be reframed when the financial crisis hit. It changed everything. I believe the scale and urgency of our economic challenge, and the need for us to  forge a more sustainable model of growth based on trade, rather than booms in the City, housing and public sector, makes the aid budget more, not less, important. But the political case for it has subtly changed. Rather than being a good thing simply because it demonstrates modern Conservatives are progressive, compassionate and internationalist, the best justification for a British electorate worried about their, and the country’s, economic future, is that our aid commitment, properly targeted, is first and foremost about our own security and economic interests.

The scale of the crisis we face means we have to regear our economy around the fastest emerging economies in the world. Our aid budget is key to our trade and our national security. Rather than sell the aid commitment as a demonstration of the moral compassion of modern conservatism, we should tell a harder truth. It's vital for our future security – political and economic.

In the new world (dis)order, it is widely accepted that the biggest security threat we face is now from global terrorist movements, rogue states and the regional conflicts they feed on. At the root of so many of these threats is a toxic mix of extreme economic poverty and corruption. The best long term security policy is that which tackles the root causes of instability - so that the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, the western Sahara and the other parts of the world which feed jihadist and other radicalised anti-western movements are starved of the oxygen of resentment.

Economically, we are in a global race. We can no longer merely rely on the sclerotic eurozone, laden with debt, structurally uncompetitive, and politically gridlocked, to drive our economy. Growth prospects in the Eurozone look fragile at best. As a trading nation we need to be regearing our trade around the fastest growing emerging markets around the world- the 'BRIC11+' nations identified by Jim O’Neill at Goldman Sachs as the markets whose growth is shaping the new world economy, and political order.  These economies are growing at around 8% per annum. That's doubling every ten years. If we want to grow our way out of debt and QE dependency we need to unlock this huge trade opportunity. But we are competing with every other mature nation who are doing the same.  We should think of our aid budget as an investment in the security, democracy and economic development on which we will depend in the years ahead.

Take the emerging African nations in sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Commonwealth nations with whom we have strong links, experiencing extraordinarily rapid development. Many of these countries will go through agricultural and industrial revolutions in the next 30 years that we went through in 300. Helping these countries to establish appropriate systems of governance based on free trade and the rule of law, and to embrace the new technologies in areas such as food, medicine and energy in which we lead and they need, we can help seed, feed and fuel the markets of tomorrow. And we can help create huge export markets for our scientists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, biomedical, cleantech and food and farming businesses.

This is not just aid. This is "aid and trade". By better integrating our aid and trade missions, as the US did with the Marshall Plan, we can create new markets for our goods and services while helping these emerging nations adapt to the global market place. The Marshall Plan was once described as the most "altruistic plan in history". In fact, it was hugely favourable to the US economy. Nowhere is our opportunity clearer than in the field of life sciences: the appliance of science to tackle the biggest challenges faced by mankind in the three big markets of food, medicine and energy. By 2050 the world’s population is set to double, and we need to double world food production using half as much land, water and energy. Britain is home to a disproportionate number of the world’s leading research centres in biomedicine, nutrition and cleantech. The global development challenge is our market opportunity.

Take Kenya, which I visited recently for the funeral of a young British conservationist in the frontline of the battle against poaching, pioneering new models of community conservation based on the mutual interest of local tribes, intensive farms and safari tourist lodges in the conservation of the landscape in N Kenya.  Kenya is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Twenty years ago I hitchhiked from N Kenya to Cape Town and, of all the countries I visited, it had the worst prospects. A perfect storm of tribalism, corruption, Aids, poaching and out of control population growth threatened to make it a failed state. Today it is a rapidly emerging powerhouse in Sub Saharan Africa, and rapidly developing a free market economy and liberal democracy, as well as a middle class who have seen the future and do not want to go back. The UK is the single biggest trading partner with Kenya.  But the Chinese are moving in, offering aid and lucrative trade deals (and, by the way, a blind eye to the ivory trade and the Somali bandits who protect it.) The UK’s presence in Kenya, through well co-ordinated DfiD and FCO programmes, with a small military outpost, is an important part of why we remain a key player in the country and the region.

I do believe there is a strong moral obligation behind our commitment to our foreign aid budget. I agree with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who said that the UK has a moral obligation to help "eradicate the unnecessary suffering of others." This is particularly true of Africa, where we have a historic obligation to do all we can to alleviate suffering and provide the opportunities for development. But we should not be ashamed of linking our moral case for aid with the potential benefits to UK PLC, and it does not diminish our commitment if aid is provided in mutual self-interest.

David Cameron, Andrew Mitchell and Justine Greening are right. As was Lynda Chalker in the 80s who led the way in making the Conservative case for well targeted 'progressive aid'. Let’s focus our aid budget on the countries where we see we can have most positive impact for us both. Let’s link our aid to good government, anti-corruption, human rights and the best protector of our liberty and prosperity: trade.

George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk, Government Adviser on Life Sciences, and Chair of the All Party Group on Agricultural Science and Technology. 

The residents of Nairobi's Kibera slum tend to vegetable planted in sack-gardens. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk, Government Adviser on Life Sciences, and Chair of the All Party Group on Agricultural Science and Technology

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.