A report published by a predominantly conservative think tank on February 11th calls for a radical change in how the UK distributes overseas aid over the next ten years, and envisages an enhanced role for the Foreign Office in projecting UK 'soft power' globally, particularly as a counterweight to China and Russia.
The most controversial proposal is that some UK aid money should be redirected away from efforts to reduce poverty into strategically key areas such as peacekeeping and promotion of national values, principally through the BBC World Service and activities of the British Council.
Written jointly by Bob Seely, a Conservative MP and member of the foreign affairs select committee, and James Rogers, Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society, the 44-page report addresses the shifting balance of power in the 21st century. Speaking at the launch, Seely said that while the world had improved over the last 30 years in terms of per capita GDP, the number of states that are democracies is falling and that the 21st century will see a heightened struggle between open and closed societies.
UK foreign policy, Seely argues, should exist to achieve three aims: freedom for trade, freedom from oppression, and freedom of thought. The UK, he says, has defined itself as a 'middle-ranking power' despite evidence suggesting it is still a top level player in terms of economic clout and cultural prestige. However, he acknowledges that UK military strength has waned considerably, a fact that has begun to concern its allies. With an alignment of both 'hard' and 'soft power' necessary to promote the three freedoms, current funding practices will need to be revised to redress this.
The report recommends increased military spending but also bringing peacekeeping under the overseas aid budget, with any savings being used to further boost the armed services. It also recommends an increase in the budget for UK overseas aid aimed at saving lives to come from savings in aid to countries which have advanced military or space programmes.
With the economic centre of gravity in the world moving from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region, many countries will need to realign in order to address the changing reality. Seely proposes a coming together of 'Anglosphere' countries in a post-Brexit world. Thus Canada, Australia and New Zealand ('CANZUK') should deepen their ties with the UK not only in defence, but also through trade, academia and research, as well as in visa and travel agreements.
The proposal to reduce overseas aid comes hand in hand with one to restructure the government department that dispenses it, the Department for International Development (DfID). Currently this is run as a money-spending unit, to meet the agreed OECD target of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid.
Seely says it can be easier for DfID to spend £100m badly than £10m well on account of its procedures and overall bureaucracy, so restructuring it within the Foreign Office he sees as a way to increase value for the UK taxpayer. Currently only 15% of its budget (£13.4bn in 2016) goes on humanitarian relief, with much of the rest going on consultancy fees, commissions and other administrative payments.
The plans are backed by Boris Johnson MP, the former UK Foreign Secretary, who gave a full endorsement at the launch. Noting that the BBC, the UK's 'amazing national asset' now has less penetration in Latin America than the Russian funded RT, he said 'we need to remedy this.'
Following Prime Minister Theresa May's announcement that she does not intend to lead the Conservative party into the next general election, arch-Brexiter Johnson is certain to be one of the figures competing for power in the political period covered by this report, which he called an "important contribution … to all who believe in a Global Britain."