As MPs voted to cut international aid, Sian Norris examines the Conservative Party donors and right-wing think-tanks who have long had foreign aid spending in their sights

On Tuesday night, the Government won a controversial vote to cut the international aid budget by 35 votes, following months of criticism from the opposition and the charity sector, and a threat of rebellion from Conservative MPs. 

Back in November last year, the Chancellor announced he would be cutting back the international aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% – in a move one Peer, Lord Macdonald, called “unlawful“. The cut is worth about £4.5 billion and impacts on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive healthcare to clean water and sanitation, as well as academic research. 

The cut is justified as a temporary spending reduction, with Boris Johnson telling MPs that spending would return to 0.7% of GNI when the Government is no longer borrowing to fund day-to-day spending and public sector net debt is falling as a percentage of GDP.

These tests led to concerns that the cut will be imposed indefinitely. 

A History of Hostility 

While the decision to cut international aid has been justified by the Coronavirus crisis and “striking the balance”, the decision also reflects the aims and ideologies of some of the Conservative Party’s more right-wing backers, thinkers and lobbyists. 

Back in 2019, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a British conservative lobbying group sponsored by the financial backers of the US far-right, published a report titled Global Britain: A 21st Century Vision authored by MP Bob Seely and HJS’s James Rogers. The foreword was provided by Boris Johnson. 

Bob Seely voted against the cut to foreign aid.  

The report argued “changes should be made to the definition of ‘international development’ to allow more spending to be channelled through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence (Mod)”. It stated the “0.7% GNI target should not be mandatory but would depend on the quality of the projects” and that aid should have a “strategic purpose.”

US radical-right think-tank the Heritage Foundation, which argues the USA should “follow suit” on restructuring foreign aid, claimed that the report provided the “policy foundation of Johnson’s action” to merge the now defunct Department for International Development and the Foreign Office.

The Henry Jackson Society has been accused by two of its founders, Matthew Jamison and Marko Attilo Hoare, of becoming a “far-right, deeply anti-Muslim racist organisation” dominated by “right-wing anti-Muslim and anti-immigration views” since 2011. 

In 2017, its then associate director Douglas Murray spoke at the annual Restoration Weekend, organised by the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. Horowitz has been described as “a driving force” of the “anti-black movement.”

During this period, Michael Gove was a director of the Henry Jackson Society. It has donated more than £12,500 to Conservative MPs over the past eight years, including £2,500 to Priti Patel in 2013. The favour was returned: despite the accusations made against it for being “dominated by anti-Muslim views”, the Society received £83,452.32 from the Home Office in four payments during 2015-17 to produce a report on UK connections to Islamist terrorism (before Patel was Home Secretary).

Another group that has been accused of having links to the US far-right, is linked to a Conservative Party donor and is critical of foreign aid, is Turning Point UK. It tweeted last month: “No issue with helping other countries, but only after our own house is in order. Also let’s stop giving actual money rather than aid to countries as the taxpayer is fed up with paying for dictators’ swimming pools.”

Turning Point UK is an offshoot of the US Turning Point organisation. The latter has a history of Islamophobia and had an employee who was reported as saying “i hate black people. Like f*** them all… I hate blacks. End of story”. 

The UK branch’s former Chairman George Farmer was a Conservative Party donor, giving £31,500 to the Conservative Party in 2018, and £9,7150 in 2017. He also donated £5,000 to MP Ben Bradley in February 2019. In 2020, Bradley praised plans to cut aid, tweeting “hope this is true […] It is inconceivable to continue sending £14bn a year abroad. Let’s help the British people get back on their feet first! #CharityBeginsAtHome.” 

Think-Tank Influence

A grouping of influential right-wing think-tanks based in London’s Tufton Street have also been influential in pushing for cuts to international aid. 

They include the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which referred to the spend as “squandering billions overseas” when taxpayers’ money should be “kept for vital services back home.” 

The Alliance was founded by Matthew Elliott, a key figure in the campaign to leave the European Union. Today Elliott is a senior political adviser to Shore Capital, whose outspoken Brexiteer director, Howard Shore, has given the Conservative Party over £442,000 since 2011.

Then there’s The Adam Smith Institute that said aid made countries in the Global South “dependent” and as far back as 2010 published a think-piece saying it should be “abolished.” Jonathan Foreman, a senior research fellow at fellow Tufton Street think-tank Civitas, told the BBC in 2013 that the way aid was distributed showed “contempt” for the British taxpayer as well as “beneficiaries of British aid.” 

Back in October 2020, Tufton Street’s Centre for Policy Studies recommended “cutting or redefining overseas aid.” Its board includes Conservative donors, Lord Bamford, Graham Edwards and Jon Moulton, who made a £50,000 donation in 2008 to Liam Fox. Other board members are Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, Conservative Peer Lord Strathclyde, Ben Elliot, who raised record sums in support of Zac Goldsmith’s failed London Mayoral campaign, and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.

In 2018 it was revealed how many of the right-wing think-tanks based in Tufton Street had monthly meetings – sometimes attended by Conservative MPs – to discuss strategy and tactics. Speaking to openDemocracy, the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw expressed concern about the “revolving door” between “right-wing lobbyists, undisclosed donors and senior hard Brexiters expressing undue and unaccountable influence” on public policy. 

The influence of right-wing think-tanks on the Conservative Party agenda can also be seen in the closeness of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) to various decision-makers within the Government. The IEA referred in 2019 to foreign aid spending as “nanny state interventions.” It said plans to cut the budget “makes sense”, referring to “wasteful schemes.” It suggested that other ways to “help the poor” include “lowering trade barriers” – a key Brexit policy. 

In 2015 the now Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid praised the IEA on its birthday for “helping to develop the economic and political philosophy that guides me to this day.”

The same year, now Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the IEA had helped inspire his manifesto for deregulation: Britannia Unchained. The book was co-written by Home Secretary Priti Patel, Minister for Trade Elizabeth Truss and Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng. Another co-author was Chris Skidmore, an attendee of the regular Tufton Street meetings. All voted for the cut to foreign aid.

The Free Enterprise Group in the Conservative Party is also closely connected to the IEA, organising events and co-authoring papers. Those involved include the MPs mentioned above, as well as Andrea Leadsom, Matt Hancock, Robert Buckland, Julian Smith, Alister Jack, Alun Cairns, Jacob Rees-Mogg, James Cleverly and Brandon Lewis.

All voted “aye” in the cut to foreign aid vote.

The IEA, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies are all members of the Atlas Network, a global organisation that brings together 475 “free market organisations” to further the “cause of liberty.” Matthew Elliott’s Big Brother Watch and Taxpayers’ Alliance are also members, as is the Freedom Association which is linked to Conservative MPs Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone, Gerald Howarth, and Andrew Rosindell. All but Gerald Howarth voted for the cut.

The Heritage Foundation, which praised the cut, is also a member.


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