So, ‘global Britain’ eh? This, we are told, will be the leitmotif for Theresa May’s Brexit speech tomorrow and, indeed, for her approach to international affairs more generally. And who could disagree with any of that? The argument will, of course, be couched in economic terms. The spirit of Britannia will be unleashed to sail the world’s oceans. Britain is back, you know. We shall show the doubters what we’re made of and by jove we’ll make a success of Brexit. Well, let us hope so.
There are many kinds of internationalism, however, and I’m not sure – at least not sure yet – the buccaneers really appreciate, far less admire, all of them. I always thought David Cameron’s aspiration to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid a noble ambition. It might have been born, at least in part, from an awareness that making this kind of commitment would help demonstrate how his Conservative party was not the ogreish party of caricature but there was more to it than that. It rested upon the appreciation that, as some of the planet’s most fortunate citizens, this country’s government had a moral obligation to do more to assist more of the planet’s least fortunate people. There are worse things than noblesse oblige.
It is far from obvious that commitment will survive the transition to our Brexit world. The most ravenously pro-Brexit newspapers evidently think it should not. Barely a week passes without another harrumphing report listing all the ways too much aid fails to reach the people it is supposed to assist, instead being used to line unworthy pockets. Doubtless this is indeed too often true, in which case the sensible – and proper – response is better aid, not less aid.
But, when you look at the £2.3bn the UK has spent assisting refugees fleeing Syria’s horrors or when you look at the millions of children immunised against horrific diseases courtesy of the British taxpayer, it takes a certain kind of hardness to think the world should make do with much less of this. We may never be able to do everything we might wish to do but we can do something. That does not, as the Tory MP Philip Davies put it recently, mean ‘we are clearly the mugs of the world‘ any more than donating to a local charity makes you your local community’s mug.
As it happens, there are some fields in international development in which Britain is already a world leader; some fields, therefore, in which we could, for relatively trivial sums, do much more. The clearing of landmines is one such area. It just so happens that two of the world’s largest humanitarian mine-clearance agencies – the HALO Trust and the Mines Advisory Group – are British.
This month is the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s visit to the Angolan minefields. It is startling to recall how controversial this was at the time. According to some Tory MPs, the princess was meddling in matters of which she possessed no understanding whatsoever (certainly less understanding than that enjoyed by backbenchers who’d never been to the world’s heavily-mined places). She should pipe down and cease making such a fuss. As one member of the Defence Select Committee complained:
‘This is an important sophisticated argument. It doesn’t help to point at the amputees and say how terrible it is.’
Be that as it may, Diana’s visit had a remarkable impact. If the British government was made nervous by her campaigning, the Americans welcomed it. A cable written by the American Ambassador to Angola reported that:
‘No-one can come to Angola and see the human devastation caused by landmines and not be moved. We have told the British ambassador how seriously the United States’ government takes this issue and how much we appreciate Diana’s support.’
Less than a year later, with Tony Blair now occupying Downing Street, the UK signed the Ottawa Convention committing Britain to the goal of achieving a mine-free world by 2025. That goal remains alive and, in many countries, even within reach. But it will, of course, cost money and these days mine-clearance is a less fashionable cause than it was.
Even so, the sums are often trivial. £12m to make Sri Lanka mine-free by 2020. £15m for South Sudan by 2022. £2.3m for Kosovo by 2019. £50m for Bosnia by 2025. Indeed, HALO and MAG estimate that removing most landmines from most countries of the world by 2025 will cost something in the order of £800m.
No-one expects the UK to fund that mission by itself (though it could certainly do so), but ramping up the Department for International Development’s support for mine clearance programmes would make the job of persuading other governments and agencies to support the project vastly easier.
And it can be done. Mozambique was declared mine-free in 2015. There’s no reason why what happened there cannot happen elsewhere if, that is, there is the political and financial will do make it happen. The mine-clearing agencies estimate that at least 60 million people around the world are impacted by minefields. The legacy of long-finished wars continues to maim and kill. Doing more – in Angola, in Cambodia, in Afghanistan and elsewhere – to do something about this isn’t just a treaty obligation, it’s also smart.
Power can be expressed in many ways and doing more – in bluntly practical terms – to assist some of the world’s neediest countries is one expression of that influence. It may be a moral good but it’s also a political imperative. A way of demonstrating – at home and abroad – that Britain takes its international commitments seriously and that the talk of global Britain means something more than just that which can be measured on a balance sheet or in a set of trade figures. There’s an opportunity here to do something good that doesn’t even cost us very much but that will make a significant difference to some of the world’s neediest places. A difference to be measured in economic development, human safety and even, just perhaps, in British influence. If, that is, global Britain is to be reckoned more than just a handy soundbite.