Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight. He is standing to be Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
A Whitehall revolution is being promised by a Government determined to make the state work for the British people – and not before time!
That shake-up is needed in foreign and overseas policy as much as it is anywhere. We need a foreign policy in tune with the British people.
We need to mix idealism with clear thinking, and to stand up more for the British national interest. That means we need a Foreign Affairs Committee that ensures we do, and holds the Foreign Office to account when we don’t.
The world is a more dangerous place than two decades ago. Russia and China are developing new forms of assertive authoritarianism. We, meanwhile, have become complacent. We spend too little on hard power and either too much, or not well enough, on soft power (although both are critical for our future). Too many bits of government deal with the wider world, and they don’t talk to each other enough, like satraps running a series of mini-empires scattered across Whitehall.
Therefore, I am delighted that Number 10 is reviewing how the UK ‘does’ overseas policy.
So what could improve? The Henry Jackson Society and I outlined some ideas in the Global Britain study developed earlier this year. The Prime Minister wrote its foreword.
To remain one of the pre-eminent nations of the world – and despite the self-flagellating whining from the Left, we are one – we need to ensure that our overseas policy is integrated across government departments to maximise our influence. We need to develop a global, long-term strategy, defined in ambitious but achievable goals.
This will have several elements, the first of which is structure. The Government is right to consider merging the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Australia, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have their aid and overseas trade bodies as agencies within their foreign ministries, and we should consider doing the same.
In addition, we need integrated management in embassies as well as integrated cross-departmental work, structured around ‘Joint Effects Teams’, so that civil servants and diplomats from aid, trade, FCO, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and other agencies work to common goals, and, where appropriate, on similar salary scales.
Second, the Government should establish a National Strategy Council to provide strategic direction to these efforts, and it in turn should draw up a National Global Strategy. Whilst Number 10 will continue to own strategic personal relationships, the FCO must be freed to think, to lead, and to coordinate our overseas relationships, working with the MoD.
Third, voters across the political divide are rightly cynical that we spend more on overseas aid than policing, and that whilst there are legal guarantees on our aid spend, there are none for the NHS, defence, law enforcement, or education. We need to address this. The priorities of the political classes are not those of the British people beyond Westminster.
If we keep 0.7 percent aid target – nearly double what the most generous nations in the world pay – it needs to be re-adjusted to better reflect our national interests and to show voters that their money is not being frittered away. There is less room for virtue signalling than in the David Cameron years. ‘Shovelling money out the door’, as DfID has been accused of, is no longer acceptable.
So how could we improve aid spending? In addition to vital and valuable life-saving DfID work (and in many ways DfID is a model of good practise) we should spend aid money for the following areas.
First, pay for all UK Armed Forces peacekeeping operations, as well as some standing tasks (such as the Royal Navy in the Caribbean or anti-piracy operations, for example), and Defence Attaches in nations where the MoD is part of the wider development operations. That means earmarking £300 to £500 million per year – more if we are to pay a larger role in UN operations, which arguably we should as the world’s leading supporter of multilateralism.
Second, significantly invest in the BBC World Service, both TV and radio, to give it the power to compete with news outlets from the authoritarian world, such as Russia, Chinese and Iran. It is in our core national interest to champion global democratic values.
Third, tie all economic aid to low- or no-carbon development and renewable energy. We need to show global leadership on green issues.
The funds to make this happen can be taken from the DfID budget without hitting fundamental life-saving humanitarian aid, which is popular, important, and reflects the values of the British people. An aid budget that allies that with support for our Armed Forces, with the projection of our values through the BBC World Service, and with championing green development, is one that most people could support.
This Government looks set to combine some laudable characteristics: practical and patriotic, but also idealistic and capable of driving change. This is a great combination. We should use it in overseas policy to maintain and enhance our nation’s remarkable influence in the world, and to to champion our interests and values.