Put British Guns before International Butter

One of the enduring features of the British political establishments in all three main parties is their complete inability to concentrate on the things which directly affect the welfare of the British people and/or meet with their approval.  But as British real power in the world diminishes, British politicians are irresistibly drawn to foreign shores and peoples over whom they have no power and little influence.  So we had Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy the most prominent features of which were upsetting India over Kashmir and then the invasion of Iraq.  Now we have the Conservative William Hague’s “pursuit of human rights all over the world” agenda, the first fruit of which was to castigate the Pakistan government, fighting for its survival, for not doing more to stop terrorism.

To reinforce this ‘policy’ so to speak the Conservative-LibDem coalition government has chosen the Department of International Development as one of only two of the 20 government departments whose budgets are to be ‘ring-fenced’ i.e. not affected by the forthcoming cuts next month.

The Dept of International Development was an early creation of the Blair government, charged with spending (today) around £7 billion per annum on ‘developing’ other peoples’ economies and combating poverty in the world.  Notable projects include £360 million being spent to bring sanitation to parts of India, whose government is spending over £1 billion on its space programme (more than the UK’s), and who have repeatedly told the British government they don’t want our aid (report 16 September).

The possible sacrifice of the two Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers (cost about £5 billion) in the impending spending cuts (reports 8-9 September), while the budget of the Dept for International Development at around £7 billion per annum remains untouched, would surely be the most absurd ordering of national priorities as could be imagined.  Two thirds of the DfID budget is spent through the EU with no accounting to the British taxpayer whatsoever.

Actually, international aid and defence need not be rivals for funds, although staff numbers at the DfID would need to be reduced.  What the recent catastrophes in Pakistan and Haiti show more than anything is precisely a need for the things the Royal Navy ships, and especially carriers, have demonstrated the value of in past relief operations: helicopters to deliver stores, desalination and sanitation equipment, prefabricated buildings and heavy lifting gear, along with the expertise of Navy personnel.

The US navy has been very effectively engaged in bringing just this type of aid to Pakistan since the beginning of the floods. And it is obtaining just the sort of “hearts and minds” change in local people’s perception of the USA, that it has struggled (along with the UK and NATO) to achieve by military action in Afghanistan.

If major relief operations were added to the Navy’s war-fighting tasks, with the latter as priority of course, it would deploy humanitarian aid efficiently and rapidly and also bring credit to Britain in ways in which neither the DfID nor the manifold charities can ever do.  To pass £2.5 billion per annum from the DfID budget to the MOD for this purpose is a win-win decision, securing the Navy’s strike power and expanding Britain’s real contribution to humanitarian relief at the same time.  Moreover, this would be an expenditure of money of which the British people would very much approve.

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One Response to “Put British Guns before International Butter”

  1. Ageing Albion says:

    Depressingly all points in this article remain as relevant today, though in the last two years unwise defence cuts have indeed taken place, making things even worse.

    As you point out, and as I mentioned in my post on defence procurement, transport helicopters are what is needed as the first priority in today’s armed forces – Chinooks for heavy lifting and smaller helicopters for any number of other tasks. This has been so from Ireland to the Falklands to the Middle East. They also have the very happy side effect of being the only piece of military equipment at least as useful in peacetime (eg search and rescue and disaster relief) as they are in wartime. In 2011 14 new Chinooks were purchased at a cost of £1bn, which included development costs for five years.

    Not even allowing for economies of scale, that means that £1bn each year could pay for 70 Chinooks. Most likely a smaller number would be needed so as to fund a more varied mix of helicopters. But we can fairly comfortably say that in the order of 70 new helicopters could be funded for a mere one-seventh of the idiotic aid budget. It does not take much imagination to realise what a tremendous increase in real world capability this would represent, as well as jobs for UK industry. Another one or two of the remaining six billion could be spent on equipment and personnel so that the 70 new helicopters could have ships to deploy worldwide and well-equipped troops to use them in every role from special forces operations to flood relief to piracy patrols to simply moving soldiers around the battlefield. Then there would be five billion left over either to patch up more holes in the defence budget or even the strange notion of debt reduction.

    Ok enough dreaming about the armed forces we might have had, and back to real-world defence budget cuts. The chief problem here is that the world of defence, for all its unique features, is ultimately a public institution and therefore behaves as such. Faced with budget cuts, almost invariably any such institution – local authorities being the worst example – will cut front line services, not back room managers, let alone chief executives (in the case of the armed forces, this means all the expensively kept senior officers, who proportionately far outnumber those in their counterparts, the US Marines and the Israeli Defence Forces).

    There are two reasons for this. First, turkeys don’t vote for Xmas. In the age of greed, with the tradition of service largely vanished, many modern British seem unable to understand the idea that they should earn money by providing something useful, and be gauged against performance targets and reported data. Instead they seem to think that they deserve hefty salaries and ‘bonuses’ irrespective of their worth to an organisation or that organisation’s performance.

    Secondly, by restricting front line services, the organisation can demonstrate what cruel, damaging and unnecessary folly the government’s cutting of its budget was. If all local authority politicans and staff had their wages adjusted overnight by the simple move of making none of them paid more than the Prime Minister (some 43% of local authority chief executives are at present) this would have no effect whatsoever on services but it would have a positive effect on the national income.

    The armed forces might point out that they will not attract and retain soldiers if there is no prospect of them staying in the career beyond fighting age, but as mentioned the US Marines and the IDF seem to do a lot better on this count.

    But back to the question of international aid. The points you make – especially about India – are all valid, if nothing new. But the case against aid can be put more simply. Aid will not work unless certain conditions are in place: the rule of law being the main one – principally the absence of corruption and an efficient mechanism for enforcing private contracts and respecting property rights generally. But if those conditions are in place, aid will be unnecessary and inefficient – instead, trade will be what is neeed to pull a country out of poverty.

    In other words, without the right conditions aid won’t work and with them it won’t be needed.

    Then there is the fact we haven’t got any money anyway, rendering our aid nothing more than borrowing cash off the Chinese to give to someone else – that someone else probably being an African country already doing business with the Chinese, whereby the Africans sell minerals and the Chinese ask no questions, or lend some security if the local warlords need it to guarantee delivery of said minerals.

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