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 and the chair of the Prime Minister's Policy Board. 

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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