With the country facing such vast public health and economic crises, many might wonder why we should care about the merger of two government departments that might be seen as duplicative. But you should care. Here is why.
When Johnson took to the dispatch box in the Commons this week to announce the merger of the Foreign Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), he justified the decision as strengthening Britain’s role in an increasingly competitive world. He’s right, the world is shifting and Britain, newly isolated and ravaged by COVID-19, will have to fight to maintain its position as a big player. However, as the Prime Minister of a geographically small country he is potentially underestimating the might of soft power. Brexit Britain must confront the fact that it is very likely we will not be in a position to slug it out with the great powers of the world in a battle of hard power. What we do possess as a country however is a huge wealth of soft power.
Our international development programmes have played an invaluable role in keeping us visible on the world stage for the right reasons. DFID has been at the forefront of global cooperation, creating global initiatives, and has secured Britain’s role as a lead member of high profile international organisations. In short, it has allowed Britain to continue ‘punching above its weight’ and if we are to present ourselves as ‘Global Britain’ now is not the time to retreat from our international development.
Even if Johnson manages to safeguard our aid programmes during this merger and prevents their budget being absorbed into the diplomacy corp, the decision will still be a blow. Harvard academic Joseph Nye once said ‘the best propaganda is not propaganda’. Part of what made DFID’s reputation so strong is its status as a standalone department – independent from the FCO, which naturally puts Britain’s interests above all else. By removing DFID’s independence we are demonstrating to the world that our aid programmes will from here on out be tied to a ‘what’s in it for us’ approach. Programmes that previously would have brought us international acclaim will now be treated much more cynically.
Ultimately Johnson’s decision risks cementing the view held by many governments around the world that the UK is retreating from the world stage and at a time when we should be working to demonstrate our relevance and our clout.
This will please the Right. Merging/scrapping DFID has long been something old school Tory MPs have been hungry for. Johnson is likely hoping this will keep them well fed, and might make them more forgiving about the fact he is spending far more than any fiscal Conservative would ever advise. But this isn’t a short term quick win. It is a big decision. And it has big implications.