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Leader comment: UK aid: a betrayal of trust

11 June 2021

IT IS a strange alliance: the Westminster Government and the majority of the electorate versus Parliament. We have seen it before, of course, over Brexit. But No. 10 — or, more probably, No. 11 — feels that it can defy the party’s own back-benchers, and the Speaker, over aid cuts because it is confident that it has the backing of both Daily Mail and Sun readers — the Red, White, and Blue Wall voters who dismiss the idea of sending aid overseas if asked the question in a particular way.

In contrast, the Conservative backbenchers were blunt: the aid cuts were killing people. The response of Stephen Barclay, chief secretary to the Treasury, who had the unenviable task of defending the £4-billion cut, was to point to the people whom the Government wasn’t killing.

This is a morally dangerous position for the UK electorate to be in. St Paul, in his discussion of the law in the Epistle to the Romans, argues that blame attaches to knowledge: although sin exists for all, it is when the right response to a situation is known (in the case of the Jews, via the law) and yet not given that God’s condemnation is invoked. People in the UK know the right, charitable, response to someone in need, and have routinely given it to their near neighbours. They know, too, that, in practical terms, distance and scale can lessen their responsibility to people in need further away, although this must be balanced with other factors that increase responsibility again, such as a colonial past, the inequity of global trade, greater blame for climate change, etc.

What they are faced with now are the thousands of people for whom the UK Government took direct responsibility — villages without clean water, young people in danger of violence, girls without adequate education, camps without food — from whom help has been withdrawn. There will always be a loaves-and-fishes debate about how many of the world’s poor the UK can feed, but these are people whom the Government chose to help on behalf of the UK electorate, and now will not help, supposedly with the approval of that same electorate.

The Tory “rebel” MPs give the lie to the Bishop of St Davids’s careless postings on Twitter. Among their number is her own Tory MP, Stephen Crabb. On the other hand, Dr Penberthy must feel some justification, having seen how little these MPs trust their own colleagues to do the right thing when it comes to restoring the aid budget. There is a greater issue of trust at stake, however: the trustworthiness of so-called Global Britain. Continued efforts must be made to demonstrate to the Government that it is misreading the true character of the people. In the mean time, however, there are other, more direct methods of responding to the world’s needs, thanks to the dedication of the country’s charities and NGOs.

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