Mark Garnett, a politics professor at Lancaster University and author of the book "From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience", believes the cuts will mostly target projects deemed unjustifiable.
Sputnik: Boris Johnson has called 2021 a “hugely important year for global Britain”. What do you think will be the consequences of the budget cut for the Conservative government’s effort to expand its network of partners outside the EU?
Mark Garnett: On one hand, the government will be trying to improve its relations with other countries and trying to work. I think that 2021 has probably started quite well for Boris Johnson, because Joe Biden, the new US president, does seem to want to work with Boris Johnson. So that's a good start. But he might say that if the government goes ahead with the cuts in overseas aid spending, then that makes life rather more difficult. It doesn't sit very well with the idea of Britain that is looking outward and trying to develop links with countries across the world.
Sputnik: What programmes do you expect to be substantially cut in the budget? What countries will be hit the hardest?
Mark Garnett: The aid budget is very controversial in Britain, because every year it's easy to produce stories about countries which seem not to actually need any aid, in fact, countries which seem to have better growing economies than Britain, that these countries do seem to receive aid of one kind or another. And so there are usually stories or countries, for example, like India, which receive aid and sometimes the stories suggest that this aid is not really directed towards the poor.
So, any project which cannot be shown to the British public to be directly helping people who are struggling economically, in countries which are not developing fast, those are the projects, which I would think would be much more vulnerable to cuts. And these are the projects which the government will hold up as saying, we shouldn't be giving money for these purposes.
Any project, which really does directly help poor people in developing countries, they are actually likely to cause a bad reaction from public opinion in Britain. So the cuts will be targeted, where they seem not to be justified in terms of need.
Sputnik: What is behind Raab's decision?
Mark Garnett: The first part of the decision, the recent British governments have tended to put their promises into law, which is an attempt to show the world that they take these promises seriously. The problem is, of course, that circumstances can change and governments don't always have the resources to fulfill their promises. And this particular government has been trying to show its core supporters that it's not an easy target, it's not a soft touch on the international stage.
And the core supporters have always been unhappy about the overseas aid budget, they've always felt that this is part of an attempt for Britain to change its image in the world, to be a generous force in the world, rather than a country which relies on other more traditional sources of power to make a difference to the world. So, Boris Johnson himself made a speech some months ago in which he described the aid budget as a giant cashpoint in the sky.
And this went down very well with his core supporters, who've always felt that Britain's taxpayers money should go first to British citizens rather than any money that goes to people abroad should be only given after British people have been looked after. So that's the real political reason behind it. And of course, the pandemic makes life very much more complicated.
Sputnik: How serious has the impact of the coronavirus pandemic been on public spending? Just how much has it hurt the state’s coffers?
Mark Garnett: At the moment, public spending seems to be limitless. But already people are thinking of how Britain can pay, begin to close the gap in between the government's revenue and its spending, and obviously overseas aid would be very high at the list of targets. But on one hand, of course, gross national income against which the target is mentioned, has reduced during the pandemic.
So you would say that the actual amount of money Britain will be spending on overseas aid was going to fall anyway. And then when you set against this, the real need for spending on overseas aid, because Britain will lose international reputation, if it doesn't take part in any effort to help developing countries with the vaccine and with the recovery from the pandemic. So, on one hand, the target was going to mean less in terms of actual money anyway. But on the other hand, it's probable that the government will have to spend more than its target because of emergency circumstances.
Sputnik: In his letter to Labour MP Sarah Champion that was leaked to the Evening Standard, former Solicitor General Lord Garnier warned the planned cut could not go ahead without changing the law and would be unlawful unless approved by Parliament. What's your take on this?
Mark Garnett: Strictly speaking, Lord Garnier is absolutely right, because the initial promise is enshrined in law. And I think the government would rather hope that it could make an announcement without changing the law. But the terms of the promise and the 0.7% figure are actually in the law. So the government would be breaking the law, if it just changed the target without a law and the government has said it would bring forward legislation. Now, I think in the present circumstances, this really is quite difficult and the government would be, I think, well advised to leave the subject and let spending find in a way it's natural level this year because of the pandemic and then look at the subject again, hopefully when the virus is being kept under control.
Sputnik: The decision to press ahead with the cut has reignited a Tory backbench rebellion that is expected to come to a head in a Commons vote later this year. Andrew Mitchell, the former development secretary and ringleader of the group, called the budget cut unwise. Do you expect the decision to further split the Conservatives?
Mark Garnett: Well, the Conservative Party, although it won a convincing majority, just over a year ago, the new Conservative Party's already split it in lots of different ways, and rather interesting ways. There are, for example, lots of MPs in the north of England, and they seem very different from the traditional Conservative MP, they also seem much more keen to vote against their own party. So the party as a whole is very difficult to keep under control. On this subject there aren't that many conservative MPs who really care that much about the 0.7% target, that might well be plenty of them who haven't got this rather simple view that overseas aid is always wasted money. However, in terms of the precise legislation, I think they'll probably be plenty of conservative MPs who will be prepared to agree with the government just because they don't want to be held to a particular target. The trouble for the government is that the people like Andrew Mitchell, a prominent former minister who cares passionately about this issue, but also former Prime Minister Theresa May, who in an article last week warned the government that its international reputation will be damaged by changing the law. These are people who may not be big in number, but they do have significant ability to embarrass the government.
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