We need to argue for public investment in neglected UK areas AND a generous international aid budget

It’s not a surprise that a You Gov opinion poll showed 66% of respondents supporting the government’s plans for a ‘temporary’ cut in the foreign aid budget. Spending on foreign aid has been consistently unpopular with the British public for years; when pollsters ask what sector of public spending should be reduced, foreign aid outstrips all others.

Liberal Democrats hold to the argument that supporting overseas development is both a moral obligation and a foreign policy priority. But when we face so strong a negative response, we need to think carefully about how we make the case for development spending. And we need also to understand the bitterness of the ‘left behind’ in the former industrial towns of the Midlands and the North, as public spending has been cut and their local authorities have had to close more and more facilities.

Whether we like it or not, the argument for moral obligation doesn’t win over many ‘just about managing’ voters. We should instead make the case for maintaining aid spending in terms of enlightened self-interest for Britain, and as a contribution to resolving problems that the UK cannot solve on its own: climate change, migration, refugees, spill overs across our borders of conflicts and epidemics in poor and divided states. Education and empowerment for women, top priorities for UK aid, lead to lower rates of population growth and greater concern for environmental issues. Assistance in combatting climate change benefits us as well as them.

The welcome rise in German spending on overseas aid makes it easier to talk about international development as a common endeavour by wealthy countries. Leaving the EU, with its effective shared development administration, does not help. Nor does the shrinking of US aid spending in recent years. Global development is a common responsibility which we share with others; prattling about Britain’s sovereignty and the dangers of sharing any responsibilities with our neighbours leads to denial that we owe anyone anything. The right-wing media welcome government spending on aircraft carrier task forces to send East of Suez (one of Boris Johnson’s fondest illusions of imperial nostalgia). We have to push the case, against that, for soft power projection and international cooperation.

One of Dominic Cummings’ most effective campaigning ploys was to present spending choices as alternatives: ‘don’t vote for regional government (in the North-East) – or for contributing to the EU’s common budget, and spend it on the NHS instead.’ The case for the aid budget suffers if it’s presented, on a former Council estate which has few public services and poor public transport, where local children go to schools short of staff and equipment, as an either/or: money for other countries versus money for your local community. Liberal Democrat activists from better-off areas need to read analyses of the attitudes and resentments of voters who used to be loyal to Labour and have now swung to the right: Deborah Mattinson’s Beyond the Red Wall, for example, or Claire Ainsley’s The New Working Class. (Both Mattinson and Ainsley are now advising Keir Starmer, which helps to explain how he feels caught between the incompatible views of different voters to whom he wishes to appeal.)

To justify maintaining a generous international aid budget, we have at the same time to justify a higher level of government spending, above all of public investment in our country’s neglected towns and former industrial regions. Here the opinion polls are with us, in supporting higher taxes rather than spending cuts – and it’s the Conservatives who face an existential choice between their ideology of tax cuts and the demands of their new voters. Living in a still-wealthy country, which is however the most unequal democratic society after the United States, we have to make the case for redistribution: not only to the poorest outside the UK, but also to the poorest within it.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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  • nigel hunter 1st Dec '20 - 1:36pm

    It is rather sad to believe that people wish to cut overseas aid when it is so needed. As for the ‘left behind’regions supporting this move they should realise that it is NOT overseas countries that set the UK budgets foe where resources go but the Tory Govnts that set the agenda.It is they who wish to have reduced State/Local spending both abroad and at home

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Dec '20 - 1:46pm

    Very sensible and sensitive article by Lord wallace.

    We need to realise that there are several different ways of telling similar tales or stories. A political narrative is storytelling as much as selling, arguments. There are few, ever who are good storytellers or salesmen or women, in politics.

    The sense of absence of this is telling!

    More articles, and spokespeople who get that might improve our politics and this party’s support.

    The view of enlightened self interest in overseas development, is one well put by few.

  • Peter Martin 1st Dec '20 - 1:55pm

    @ LWW,

    The public are with on “supporting higher taxes rather than spending cuts”. Really? And higher taxes on whom? There are only so many times you can “put a penny on the standard rate of income tax” before we get on to raising VAT to 25%. Who wants that?

    Not many votes in that approach I would suggest!

    Why does it have to be one or the other?

    The correct way to look at the problem is to say that new government spending will always come back as taxes unless it is saved. If is is saved there is no problem of extra inflation but if it does get quickly respent and respent in the economy we could have an inflation problem. Only then will taxes need to be raised.

  • …um

    I do understand people’s commitment on LDV and among lib dems to overseas aid and indeed theoretically support it.

    At the same time we have people lambasting the coalition government for cutting welfare spending in the UK, the bedroom tax etc.

    I support the 0.7% goal but I am sorry in my view was that we implemented it at the wrong time and too quickly. It was generous of the Lib Dems to sacrifice our electoral chances for the greater good of the developing world but I really despair of the lib dems’ sometimes very laudable electoral death wish to wear sackcloth and ashes rather than espouse and campaign on popular policies.

    Perish the thought that we should be “populist” – that would never do, its just not cricket and of course we shouldn’t aim to get above an asterisk in the opinion polls. Let’s instead explain in excruciating detail how to conduct an STV election!

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Dec '20 - 5:31pm

    “aircraft carrier task forces”…. There are just about enough ships in the Navy atm for one: HMS High Value Target or HMS Delusions of Grandeur plus one Daring class destroyer for close air defence, one frigate for ASW, and one attack submarine. Did we get any planes for it yet?

  • “Mea culpa”. Thank you and we’ll said, William.

    Now could you please get Sir Ed and the rest of those who are left and still around to do the same ? It’s the only way this party can begin to move forward and regain credibility.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Dec '20 - 8:27pm

    After the debate in the Commons on Covid-19 there was a motion that the House should adjoin. The Health Minister was present and was positive. There is a report out tomorrow. This is a bipartisan issue. Norman Fowler’s decision to deal with the issue at the time on scientific grounds and not on moral grounds was popular. The campaign “Don’t die of ignorance.” is well remembered. I do not know much about this issue except that it is a consequence of apartheid. There is active work in South Africa and in Swaziland. Norman Fowler continues to be an active campaigner.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Dec '20 - 8:28pm

    Sorry: there was a motion that the House should adjourn.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Dec '20 - 8:54pm

    If we really want to balance up the North-South thing, or the London/SE-everywhere else thing, we have to grasp the nettle and CUT investment in London. Jo Grimond understood this almost 60 years ago. It’s got much worse since then. London is over-blown, over-developed, over-congested. It was I think the Labour Party which ludicrously gave London and the SE their own development agencies.

  • @Peter Wright

    My comments were that it was the wrong time and too quickly for the electoral fortunes of the lib dems.

    My fear is that this something of a trap by the Tories. Now luckily the electorate aren’t listening to us full stop but if they were we wouldn’t be connecting with them by wittering on about foreign aid.

    I am sure that defending the aid budget goes down well among lib dems who drive around in expensive electric SUVs in Richmond or Twickenham to buy expensive foccacia in Waitrose. Or for lib dem parliamentarians dinong in heavily taxpayer subsidised restaurants in the Palace of Westminster.

    However some of us have to get the old banger out to go and purchase an economy white sliced from Lidl.

    Lords Wallace and Greaves can’t have it both ways. There was an alternative in spending and considerable cuts in UK public spending
    but NOT the aid budget and this was exactly what Lord Wallace supported. Lord Greaves may witter on about the North but it is clear that the coalition cuts affected the North more than the South! I don’t remember either of them resigning the lib dem whip in protest.

    To govern is to choose!

    Probably the increase due to the 0.7% is at a guess worth £10 billion now. That would have made a sizeable difference to the welfare budget.

    Now I say all this because we can’t just connect with the foccacia chumping folk of Richmond but we also need to connect with the white sliced bacon butty eating people of Chesterfield or Portsmouth or Liverpool.

  • Peter Wrigley 1st Dec '20 - 10:04pm

    William: this takes us rather off the point which should be the importance of maintaining our Aid Expenditure, but yes, I too was taught to see Drake as a doughty pirate plundering the Queen’s enemies on the Spanish Main. We even sang a song about it: “Bold buccaneers Yo ho!”

    But if you look up item 2 n this site you’ll see he stated his career as a slaver:


    The Black Lives Matter campaign has taught us a lot a bout the blinkered focus of our history lessons. and the national story we tell ourselves. Now let’s hope we learn.

    That’s another moral reason for us to maintain a decent aid budget.

  • Sorry that should have been @Peter Wrigley not @Peter Wright – the predictive text changed it.

  • Michael Maybridge 1st Dec '20 - 11:35pm

    @ Michael 1 (can I be Michael 2?) Here’s one Liberal Democrat who, tomorrow morning, will leave my 20 year old, third hand Renault Clio on the drive of my council estate house to cycle to my place of (well below median wage) work, and who is convinced that strongly opposing this cut in international development funding is the right thing to do both morally and electorally. After all, a commitment to maintaining 0.7% in their last few manifestoes doesn’t seem to have done the Tories too much harm, despite the fact that you can bet your bottom dollar that the 66% who support the proposed cut are heavily over-represented among Conservative voters. Why? Two reasons that I can see. One, even though most people will, if asked, say we should spend less on aid, they don’t really care that much about it – they care about what they think the money should be spent on instead, and, as William says, it doesn’t have to, and indeed shouldn’t, be either or. On the other hand, those who think we should maintain aid spending (even if they happen to munch focaccia or and / or drive electric cars) are rather more likely to see it as an important issue in itself. Two, a committment to the 0.7% target functions as a statement about the party that makes it – in the Conservatives’ case, in the relatively recent past at least, that they were no longer the ‘nasty party’. In our case, any kind of signal that might reach the general public and convince them that we have anything at all to say would be a good start!

  • Peter Martin 2nd Dec '20 - 8:03am

    The underlying motivation, or at least the stated motivation, behind what will likely be the start of a new round of cuts is to reduce govt debt levels. The cost of government debt is falling – thanks to quantitative easing. So why is everyone obsessed with repaying it? And who do we repay it to?

    The assumption of many is that near zero interest rates is a natural phenomenon. Like a sunny couple of weeks in summer to be enjoyed before the autumn rains set in. So the argument is that we need to reduce the debt now before we are forced to because “we can’t afford” it any longer.

    The reality is that interest rates are this low because Govt wants them this low. If Govt wants 1%, 2% or 10% then that’s what they can have too.

    It’s been like this for a long time. They could have been this low since the pound stopped floating in the 70s if the Govt had wanted them this low. But they didn’t and that’s why they were much higher.

    So why, if the Govt is concerned about affordability, hasn’t this always done this to reduce their interest bill? Maybe affordability is not the issue at all, and there are other reasons to correctly set the level of interest rates?

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Dec '20 - 9:03am

    Might we consider payments to countries that we have helped to harm when they presented no real threat to us?
    Might Libya be a good one to start with?

  • Richard Underhil 2nd Dec '20 - 9:22am

    Tony Greaves
    Crossrail extends beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Financial support was reaffirmed yesterday, many years after Paris got a north-south railway. I would have been willing to campaign against the shambles which was HS1 and which does not connect to HS2,
    We did have a minister at transport during the coalition with the Tories, who was in favour of doing more electrification than Labour did.

  • Peter Wrigley 1st Dec ’20 – 10:04pm,,,,,,,,,,,,,,https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-francis-drake…………. We even sang a song about it: “Bold buccaneers Yo ho!”…

    For some UK history seems only about finding obscure facts to diminish ‘popular’ figures.. Being moral ignores the fact that, as a middle class citizen of 300/400 years ago, you would probably have investments/goods/services that relied on slavery. You are not more moral than they; just born centuries later.

    Why not laud the fact that, in the midst of the Napoleonic conflict, the UK could have the morality to dispatch a squadron to enforce the ban on the Atlantic slave trade; an endeavour that at its height took almost 20% of the Royal Navy and in its life, captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.

    We even sang a song about it: “Beware, beware the Bight of the Benin, few sailors come out though many go in.”

  • The enlightened self-interest argument includes pointing out that this cut is part of a broader programme of cutting the UK’s influence and credibility on the international scene.

  • nigel hunter 2nd Dec '20 - 1:02pm

    I too have a Renault Clio that I run on my pension .I could do with more money on my pension to keep the ‘old banger’ running but I still think that o.o7 should go to improve our ‘soft power’in the World.
    66% think it should be cut!? Yes it is more likely that they are Tory inclined voters, the Daily Mail (fail) and other Tory papers readers who can be asked the relevant question.
    Tories under Cameron became the ‘good’ party that approved the 0.07,Johnson cos he can get away with it cos of the virus is not seen as ‘bad’. In another scenario he could be seen as bad’. You can bet if it would improve their election chances they would reintroduce it.
    If we produce our own currency it follows that we can produce our own interest rates. Therefore it can be seen that austerity or abundant riches from low interest rates is a political choice.

  • Julian heather 2nd Dec '20 - 2:43pm

    They always used to say that the Church of England was “the Tory Party at prayer”. and when Lib Dem MP Michael Moore introduced his private members bill, which resulted in the Coalition Government’s commitment to 0.7% international aid spending, I suspect that a lot of the Tory support for it came from practicing Christian Tory MPs, with a conscience. The fact that the Tories have now abandoned that commitment seems to suggest they are now a rather Godless lot. (Ps other religions are available !).

  • @Michael Maybridge

    Good points well made!

    The issue that I have is not so much on the policy but on the practical politics. I think that there have been about 5 articles on LDV about the cut and most of the criticism of Sunak’s financial statement from our MPs seems to have been on the aid cut. My view is that really this was a trap set by Johnson, Lynton Crosby, Cummings etc. As people in Red Wall seats etc. will be saying at least they are not spending money on [insert here Daily Mail example of how aid money gets misspent].

    The issue is I think most people here would agree that we messed up at least on the presentation during the coalition years. The fact is that we governed and we chose. And what we chose was indeed to make a choice between spending more £10 billion on overseas aid at a time of immense pressure on public finances and as a result implement the hated bedroom tax, cuts to welfare spending, sending more of our fellow citizens to food banks etc. If people think this was the right choice then fine but we won’t get above 10% in the polls.

    Now as it happens I support the policy and I am pleased that we are still supporting it. But I am not where we will get extra votes from. We need to get our campaign mojo back with popular policies and popular campaigns and saying popular things.

    There are some seats were 0.7% in aid will get us enough support but these are mainly ones we already hold – the Twickenhams and Richmonds of this world. To get seats like Portsmouth South, Colchester and Chesterfield back we need to get back the coalition we had of both the concerned middle class and the working class. In Portsmouth South for example we won in both some of the most affluent areas in the country and in tower blocks in the most deprived wards in the country.

    Now I appreciate if not now for 0.7% then when. But the frustrating thing is that if had gone a bit slower on achieving the 0.7% then we would be in roughly the same position but without some of the angst that things like the bedroom tax caused us. 0.5% obviously isn’t as good. But my guess is that it will now stay at that. I don’t see even a Labour (or indeed Lib Dem) chancellor finding say £5 billion when there are a lot of other pressing domestic priorities to spend it on. It will actually keep us roughly in the top 5 per capita aid givers – with only the Scandinavian countries doing better and meeting the 0.7%.

  • George Thomas 2nd Dec '20 - 5:44pm


    “Funding for Wales’ network has not received its fair share of funding, according to a leading transport expert”

    “Just as important, I think it’s a glaring devolution anomaly that the Welsh Government does not have responsibility for rail infrastructure in Wales. It is overwhelming clear that the current England and Wales arrangement, under the stewardship of the DfT in London, has not served Wales well.”

    Guy, guys, how about some fairer funding over here?

  • Peter Wrigley 3rd Dec '20 - 9:41am

    re Expats:

    Please: it’s not a matter of history being “only about finding obscure facts to diminish ‘popular’ figures.” Rather it is recognising the “bad bits” as well as the “good bits.” Of course we should learn that Britain played a leading role in abolishing the slave trade, but we also need to recognise that much of our prosperity is the result of our having taken part in it. If we learn only the “good bits” them we nurture the idea of British “exceptionalism” which feeds the mistaken concept of “plucky Britain gong it alone” on which the present government relies for its insular and damaging policies.

  • I usually agree with Expats on issues, but sorry Expats, this time I’m with Peter Wrigley.

    Before the 1807 act that abolished the British slave trade, the Royal Navy was involved in the trade itself, as a function of protecting the national interest at sea. It was little different to any large organisation today, with individual officers and men holding differing opinions about slavery. One or two of the more successful naval officers even owned plantations in the Americas, and some officers had personal slaves on board their ships, although the practice was officially forbidden by the Admiralty.

    Despite that rule, the Royal Navy had its own enslaved Africans in its dockyards in Jamaica and Antigua and as part of its job it escorted slave ships down the African coast and fought major battles for control of the valuable ‘sugar islands’ of the West Indies.

    In terms of ‘our British Heroes’ , maybe Expats could consider a letter written in 1805 by none other than Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson :

    “I was bred, as you know, in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions; and neither in the field or in the senate [House of Lords] shall their interest be infringed whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”

    And yet, when I was a primary school….. long before we heard of ‘Black Lives Matter’, I was taught that Nelson was a great British hero. In school and at Wolf Cubs we celebrated ‘Empire Day’ with the Union Jack and sang ‘patriotic songs’.

    It’s a comfort to know that in May, 1908 – even though he was a Liberal Imperialist – the new P.M. H.H. Asquith refused to fly the Union Jack on Government buildings on ‘Empire Day’, thus confirming the decision of his predecessor Campbell-Bannerman on the issue. (Hansard 11 May, 1908).

  • Helen Dudden 5th Dec '20 - 10:25am

    When I went into Bath, the first time toilets were opened, the disabled toilets were now general needs for all. I tried to explain to a Manager of the development the hygienic approach of this ideal. Long queues were evident for these two toilets.
    I know someone with a colostomy bag, ran into problems with a visit.
    We can now talk about subjects like the reasons why? there is a problem with this idea. I know a colleague that I write with in the US hates diapers as they term it. Again, it takes time for anyone needing to use these toilets.
    It’s been so long, since the Disability Act came into force about 30 years ago.
    Housing that is accessible, has never caught up.
    I like to call it inclusion. What ever your religion, or where you originate you are part of society. Able bodied or less able, you have a right to exist.
    I look forward to a kinder world.
    This government has done little to produce a fairer society. Excess spending, and an unwillingness to listen to others with knowledge and opinions.

  • neil sandison 6th Dec '20 - 8:23pm

    Micheal 1 and Micheal 2 are on the same path aid funding will be well down the agenda come the next general election so we should keep our policy . What will matter is the economy and how we are doing post Brexit and COVID 19 Clarity of purpose in building back better with sustainable infrastructure outside of the M25 , a green jobs revolution based on the circular economy that recognises there is no such thing as waste just resources in the wrong place and if any housing boom is in fact meeting housing need and not the greed of developers so cosseted by the tory party.

  • Katharine Pindar 7th Dec '20 - 9:26am

    Though distracted till now by our Social Liberal Forum activities, William, I am so glad that you wrote this piece, and that Neil Sandison is continuing the theme. I saved a headline from the last November Observer, above the OpEd of Andrew Rawnsley, who writes so tellingly each week. The headline was,
    Rishi Sunak reverted to Tory type when he chose to leave the world’s poor behind.
    Exactly so. And the ongoing ‘reversion to Tory type’, which Mr Rawnsley is so right about. is in my opinion why our party needs to be campaigning now to protect the rights not only of carers (well done on that, Ed), but of all poor and disadvantaged people in our country. We need a Beveridge-2 Plan to be worked out, to restore the Social Contract between government and people in our country which is gone. I believe, Helen, that the British people may be inclined to be kinder now, after all the suffering and loss which has made us grieve for our neighbours, and therefore that for the Liberal Democrats to seek social justice here as internationally may be accepted by many. We can at our Spring Conference if we will assume the mantle of Beveridge, and
    demand a fairer share for the poor – not only keeping the extra the Chancellor meant to be temporary for Universal Credit, but working for an end to poverty in this country. Sir William wanted everybody to have financial security, and to have the health resources, the education, housing and jobs that would enable them to live in freedom and without fear. It is time, surely, for our party to take up that challenge.

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