Among many other controversial decisions in the spending review, the government decided to cut the UK’s overseas aid budget by around 28% or almost £4 billion per annum. Like many unsound decisions, this one was justified on the basis of that all-purpose excuse, the narrative of unaffordability.

In this case the government claimed that “the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s finances means there has to be a temporary reduction in foreign aid.” As we have written before, this idea that the government is constrained from spending what it should because of the ‘state of its finances’ – as though the government were like a household – is economically illiterate.

And the damage caused by the cuts would include the loss of many lives, reduced global security in a way that damages the UK’s own interests, and reduced standing in the world. As the BBC reports,

“The aid reduction has meant millions of pounds less is being spent on supporting girls’ education, reproductive health, clean water, HIV/AIDS, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Syria, and hundreds of other projects.

Charities warned that millions of women and children would not receive food and support and have predicted that more than 100,000 people could die as a result of the government’s decision.

The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has described the aid cuts as a ‘death sentence’.”

Fortunately, a powerful group of Tory rebels have decided to contest this decision and seek to reinstate the full payments by next year. The Financial Times commented, “The MPs, led by former Tory international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, want to reverse the prime minister’s plan to axe about £4bn from the aid budget, a move that breaks a Conservative manifesto commitment.”

Although of course we cannot be certain that the rebellion will be successful, this is an enormously positive development for the UK:

  • it shows that one-nation conservatism has not been completely ousted by market fundamentalism;
  • it is a welcome counterblast to the narrative of unaffordability; and
  • it demonstrates the potential for a return to humane, fact-based, decision-making.

One-Nation Conservatism has not Been Ousted by Market Fundamentalism

Many people inside and outside the Conservative party feared that the takeover by market fundamentalists was complete and irrevocable. As Philip Hammond commented,

“the Conservative party has been taken over by unelected advisers, interests and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction. Sadly, it is not the party I joined.”

Anna Soubry was even more forthright: “The right wing… are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe. They are the Conservative Party.”

And of course criticism of this government from other parties has been harsher still.

At a minimum, this rebellion demonstrates that there are one-nation Conservatives remaining within the Parliamentary party, that they are sufficiently numerous to have a realistic prospect of reversing the most damaging government policies and that they are prepared to flex their muscles in the national interest.

Although there have previously been MPs prepared to vote against the government on important issues like the Police Bill and the Internal Market Bill, this is the first time that we have seen evidence of one-nation conservatism as a political force.

It is a Welcome Counterblast to the Narrative of Unaffordability

The narrative of unaffordability is rhetorically and emotionally powerful. If the government can persuade people that government spending is unaffordable or irresponsible, then it can ‘justify’ all manner of otherwise unjustifiable spending cuts:

  • the last decade of underfunding of the NHS was ‘justified’ on the basis that the government ‘could not afford to spend more;’
  • more recently, the Education Recovery Commissioner for England, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in a row over the lack of “credible” Covid catch-up funding – he felt that funding of around £500 per pupil per annum was needed; the government claimed that only £50 per pupil per annum was ‘affordable;’
  • during the winter, the government – before its U-turns – planned to end free school meals for the poorest students on the grounds of ‘unaffordability.’

Most importantly of all, the entire austerity programme which has been so damaging to the social and economic fabric of the United Kingdom was justified on the basis that the ‘state of government finances’ made it ‘irresponsible’ not to impose savage across-the-board cuts. While the experts agree that this argument is nonsense, it remains widely believed.

We and others have written before about why there is no factual basis for this narrative of unaffordability – there is no rational reason to be concerned about the level of government debt, quantitative easing does not imply hyperinflation, balanced budgets are inappropriate for governments, et cetera.

Nevertheless, these myths are so widely repeated that many people still believe them. In fact, this is the real Project Fear: persuading the public that it is no longer affordable for the UK to remain a civilised country because of the state of government finances.

If the narrative of unaffordability can be weakened, the UK will be empowered to do what it needs to do to build a better future; while we remain in the grip of that narrative, it will be impossible to tackle mass impoverishment.

We Have The Potential To Return To Humane, Fact-Based Policy

So the importance of this rebellion goes well beyond the issue of aid itself – important though that is – it gets to the heart of the UK as a country in which policy can be made based on the facts and in the interests of the population as a whole rather than those of a small but influential group.

If the one-nation Conservatives can reach out to one-nation liberals and one-nation socialists, there is the possibility of a rebel alliance that could transform UK politics for the better. We could rebuild our social contract so that the UK of 2050 is a far better place to live than the UK today.

The stakes are high, but the actions we need to take are in themselves neither particularly radical nor terribly complicated. If you would like to help to make sure that we do take them, please sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.