There is “a dogfight at the heart of Government”, according to an ally of the Defence Sectary, Gavin Williamson. This weekend, Williamson is alleged to have claimed that because he made the Prime Minister, he could break her, with the former Chief Whip marshalling a potential backbench rebellion against the autumn Budget. Sunday’s extraordinary headlines come the week after the Prime Minister announced new NHS funding.
And the top brass have wasted no time in pushing the overseas aid budget into this row, with former head of the British Army and former Conservative Minister, General the Lord Dannatt, reminding the Chancellor that “he always has options: to increase taxes, to increase borrowing or to trim the overseas aid budget of 0.7 per cent.”
We’ve been here before. At the time of David Cameron’s defence review, the then Defence Secretary Liam Fox was leaking letters to Cabinet and essentially suggesting a trade-off between bed nets and body armour. For some reason, defence and development spending seem to get traded off against one another on a regular basis in Whitehall, especially when the MoD are trying to make their case to the Treasury.
Yet across the pond, America’s second highest-ranking military leader in the country, General Paul Selva – the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently told Capitol Hill that “diplomacy and development are a hell of a lot cheaper than defense. Dollar for dollar… diplomacy and development… are immensely more effective than having to deploy soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines to a crisis where we have to fix a problem.”
A Freedom of Information request by the Daily Mail recently exposed problems that the navy have had keeping ships at sea but you don’t need an FOI to find out what impact the aid budget is having. While the navy’s six destroyers spent 80% of last year in dock, DfID provided humanitarian assistance to 17million people, immunised 28million children and saved half a million lives: it’s all in their annual report. Instead of trying to find ways to change the rules on aid spending or whip up a backbench rebellion against the Budget, Cabinet ministers should be pushing back against the idea that we can’t meet the UN target of 0.7% on aid and the NATO target of 2% on defence. We can do both.
After almost a decade of austerity, much needed investment at home - proper funding for the NHS and a boost to house building - shouldn’t come at the cost of turning our back on the rest of the world. If ‘Global Britain’ is to mean anything, the government can’t allow Whitehall turf wars or Parliamentary plotting to determine British foreign policy.
Ignoring the world’s problems won’t make them go away. Defence and development are both ways in which Britain shows up around the world. And both cost money. But raiding the development budget to plug holes in the defense budget is at best a false choice and at worst a bad trade off.
Richard Darlington is a former Special Adviser at DFID and Campaign Director for 25 leading NGOs