Cutting foreign aid is no way to respond to the floods

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid.

Nigel Farage is enjoying a surge of popularity in submerged swathes of southern England. Local radio stations claim his call to divert the foreign aid budget to shore up the flood response has got listeners chorusing their support. It is the kind of argument which understandably appeals to people facing deep uncertainty. Yet Farage’s populist instincts reveal a disconcerting capacity to cloud the vision of voters and use the world’s poorest people to animate his core vote ahead of the European elections. Politicians of other parties should close ranks to repel this latest attack on the aid budget and demonstrate why the British people can be trusted to face the facts about international development. 

The argument has morphed a little as the days have gone by. It has gone from being a call to halt all foreign aid to a more nuanced raid on smaller aspects of aid spending. Whatever way you look at it, it is wrong on at least three fronts. Firstly, it assumes the aid budget is too big. Secondly, it suggests that dealing with suffering in Britain can only be done by compounding suffering elsewhere, and thirdly, it ignores the realities of government.  

It’s easy to forget that Britain’s aid budget comes in at 0.7 per cent of our national wealth. It’s less in total than we spend on fizzy drinks in a year. With 99 per cent of our spending happening "at home", it’s not accurate to suggest that charity does not already begin at home – just look at the Red Cross for starters. Even with this relatively small amount of money we make a massive difference. The former Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, was fond of pointing out that Britain sends 5 million of the world’s poorest children to school for just 2.5 per cent of the cost of sending the same number of children to school here in the UK. A little bit goes a long way. Furthermore we are four years into a coalition government which has put results and value for money at the core of its approach to aid. Independent experts scrutinise every element of DFID spending and ministers don’t hesitate to turn off the taps at the first sign of corruption overseas. So while it has never been perfect, when you look at aid in perspective, it’s not such sizeable drain on our resources.

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid on a budget which supports people who are the poorest of the poor. These are people who struggle to manage a meal of basic carbohydrate a day, have no permanent shelter, drink from puddles and, in some cases, are dodging militia that rape and kill at will. The idea that the same British people who dug so generously into their pockets to support the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (which affected 9 million people) or refugees from the Syrian conflict (around 2.5 million) would want to see that money sent back because of the recent floods (directly affecting around 10,000 people) is nonsensical. There are thousands of British people suffering right now, but it doesn’t make sense to meet misery with more misery. It would mean giving with one hand and taking with the other – and there are no insurance policies, government agencies or campaigning media for the world’s poor to call on.

It is no surprise that people coping with the threat that flooding brings to homes and livelihoods feel that the government should be doing all it can to support them – and it should. But there are at least three government departments with a responsibility towards the UK flood victims. The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs is one. If you consider the fact that the floods are increasingly thought to be linked the climate change, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is another, not to mention the contingency funds held by the Treasury for dealing with expensive unexpected circumstances such as these. If we’re looking for ways to find extra money, cutting existing subsidies on the use of fossil fuels might be a good place to start.

As Eric Pickles noted, part of the aid budget is used to fund efforts to deal with the cause and effects of climate change in other parts of the world – which contribute to climate change here in southern England. If for a minute you took the suggestion of diverting funds seriously, you would see that while the government’s decision not to enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment in law means that, technically, the UK could turn off the aid taps, the reality of such a decision would jeopardise jobs and livelihoods across the world. It would take months, if not years, to take effect, by which time hopefully the effects of the floods will be a memory not a reality. Such dodgy accounting might win short-term popularity but it’s a recipe for long-term problems.  Not to mention how it would damage the effectiveness of remaining aid spending.

The aid budget is not a perfect tool for helping people in Africa but using it to try and fund flood relief in Somerset would be like choosing to bail out their backyards with a thimble. It might do the job eventually, but surely we’ve got something better suited to the task. Starting with the Treasury’s contingency budget, which, at 2 per cent of national spending, is far bigger than the aid budget. Any serious politician should know that.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

Nigel Farage wades in water as he visits a flooded property at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels on February 9, 2014 near Bridgwater. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.