Ryan Henson is CEO of the Coalition for Global Prosperity, and was the Bedford candidate at the 2019 election.
What does Global Britain mean? There was little mention of it when I was out campaigning for a Leave vote four years ago. Nor do I recall being asked when I was the Conservative candidate in marginal Bedford last December.
Yet when a virus starts jumping from wet markets in Wuhan to wreck the lives and livelihoods of families in Rome and then Wolverhampton, how we choose to answer will no longer simply impact our conduct on the world stage, but every aspect of our lives here in Britain too.
I voted Leave out of loyalty to the people I know and grew up with, and for the towns, villages, and history that shape us. In times of crisis our great country has always stepped forward to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Our values of tolerance, fair play, and compassion have shaped the world in our image, and the world is all the better for it.
There was no cost/benefit analysis on the minds of the women and men who sacrificed everything to defeat Fascism in the 20th Century. No talk of future trade deals. Just a quiet determination to do what they knew in their gut to be right.
If global pandemics are to be our generation’s great moral test, history will judge us by the extent to which we sought to protect the weak and defend them from this new and invisible enemy. To succeed, our international development department will need to stand foursquare behind our defence and diplomatic efforts in the many long and difficult battles to come.
Like all Conservatives, I am not naïve or immune to the scepticism which shrouds the UK’s overseas aid budget. When I walked out of my failing comprehensive school for the last time 17 years ago, I was bitter at the way my friends and I had been so badly let down and failed. Back then I would have reacted to the idea of educating millions overseas, while ignoring the millions over here, like a bull to a red rag.
But the world has changed, and that false choice is not the only option. We should punish waste and corruption, but we should never lose sight of the incontrovertible fact that even before the pandemic struck, there were still 700 million people in our world, in our lifetime, on our watch, who live in extreme poverty.
Yet heart-wrenching advertising campaigns on the one side, and talking up the opportunity of trade deals and the national interest on the other, risk diluting what really matters. Helping others to help themselves is the right thing to do, because it is the right thing to do.
What’s more – it works. Businesses backed by British aid in Africa have created three million jobs and generated $9 billion in new tax revenue that can be invested in improving vital public services like healthcare and education. The number of children who die before their first birthday has fallen in half since 1990 and there are 43 million more children across Africa in school now compared to the year 2000.
Unleashing prosperity in developing countries helps end aid dependency and empowers countries to stand on their own two feet. In the context of the pandemic, it makes us safer too.
In this changed and uncertain world, Covid-19 has taught us that a disease in Bangladesh could soon become a disease in Britain. A plague in Mali risks becoming a plague in Middlesbrough. If viruses do not respect borders, then my local hospital is no longer just the North Middlesex in Enfield, but the North Central in Wuhan. Helping to develop the health systems and wellbeing of the most vulnerable overseas is therefore as important to our national defence as strengthening our own protections at home. We cannot possibly help everyone, but we should help who we can, for until everyone is safe, none of us are safe.
When he reviews the economic fallout from our great effort to defeat the pandemic, Rishi Sunak should keep in mind the question: what is Global Britain?
He will have a duty to look very carefully at every line of Government spending, and domestic priorities should always come first. But if the wise decisions he has made so far serve as any guide, the Chancellor will be determined to ensure that we are resilient and equipped to protect ourselves from everything the future might hold.
Our overseas aid budget will be key to achieving that aim. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with those who need us most. Not just because it is in our national interest, but because it is the right thing to do.
As the Chinese Communist Party struggles to restore its international standing in the wake of the Wuhan outbreak, and the United States approaches another toxic and divisive election, this is not the time for Britain to walk away. This is the time for us to step up.
In the age of the pandemic, defence and diplomacy alone will no longer be enough. The real battle may only be beginning and Britain’s world leading international development department – one of the most effective, efficient, and innovative aid agencies in the world, according to Bill Gates – will be needed like never before.
The UK aid budget should remain our common expression of humanity, and our tangible contribution to defeating whatever comes next.