Tackling Poverty Can Heal the UK and Protect Our Standing in a Post-Brexit World

06/07/2016 12:44 | Updated 06 July 2016
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Whoever succeeds David Cameron one statement the defeated PM made to Parliament last week will continue to resonate. "Britain is leaving the European Union," he told MPs. "But we must not turn our back on Europe - or on the rest of the world."

As the dust settles following the EU referendum much remains uncertain - our future relations with the European Union that Britain has voted to leave, the leadership of our two biggest political parties and the impact that Brexit will have on the well-being of people up and down the UK. But the next Prime Minister is unlikely to want to go down in history as the man or woman who - metaphorically at least - removed what remains of the great from Great Britain.

The UK's standing in the world is obviously important for politicians who want to project their influence beyond our borders. But I would argue that it is important for the rest of the world too. The fact is that the UK has a recent track record of being a global force for good in many significant spheres.

Under the UK's presidency of the G8 in 2005, for example, leaders committed to cancel $40 billion of debt owed by 18 mainly African countries to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank freeing up money for investment in education and healthcare that has helped to transform millions of lives in some of the world's poorest countries.

More recently, the UK was a driving force behind the Arms Trade Treaty, agreed in 2013 and signed during David Cameron's first term, which for the first time made it illegal for a state to sell arms where there is a significant risk they will be used to commit human rights abuses. As a major arms exporter, this was a major move that if implemented properly, has the potential to save countless lives. It has also, at times, played a positive role in pushing the world towards a climate deal.

Britain can also be proud of the Government's commitment to meet the promise to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid. Millions of people around the world are alive today thanks to UK aid, and millions more have the chance of a better life due to education and improved healthcare.

All very worthy, I hear you say, but what has this to do with Brexit? The fact is that the decision by successive British governments to act as a global anti-poverty champion is not just the right thing to do, it increases Britain's standing on the world stage. As some diplomatic doors close behind a Brexiting Britain, those opened by our generosity to the world's poorest may become increasingly important.

Remaining a significant global nation will also require the UK to play its part in solving pressing global problems, from climate change to the current refugee crisis which is the worst since the Second World War. On the latter, Britain is already playing its part in terms of aid but it needs to do more to welcome those forced to flee by war, terror or grinding poverty.

Such a path will not be easy; the referendum debate and its aftermath have been soured by nasty rhetoric targeting people who have moved to this country. But the overwhelming message I take from the vote for Brexit, is that people in large parts of England and Wales, in particular, are feeling excluded and left behind. They are tired of being ignored, of bearing the costs of globalisation without sharing in its benefits.

Government figures published last week show that even as the UK economy grows, the number of people living in poverty, struggling to pay bills and put food on the table, has risen to more than 10 million.

The next Prime Minister needs to do everything possible to protect the UK's have-nots from the economic turbulence that is already visible following our decision to leave the EU. For a truly Great Britain to thrive on its own it needs to be a kingdom that is no longer divided so starkly between the prosperous and the poor - one which punches its weight in the fight against poverty in both the domestic and global arenas.