The UK and Development after the Election—Two Ambitions for a New Government

June 09, 2017

The UK election has shown again that electorates can throw up unexpected results, with long-standing poll leads evaporating in a matter of weeks. The British public seem uninspired by any single leader but there was little sign of descending into nationalism and populism. The only party that stood on a platform of dismantling the aid budget—UKIP—suffered a heavy defeat. Here we propose two ambitions for the government which emerges.

Election 2017 and manifesto commitments

Theresa May’s Conservative Party won the most seats in the UK’s general election but they won insufficient seats to control a majority in Westminster. For now, the Conservatives will attempt to work with the ten MPs from the Democratic Union Party (DUP), to establish a wafer-thin majority (of some 328 seats, out of 650). The House of Lords may or may not feel bound by the Salisbury Convention of not opposing manifesto commitments after their first reading. Either way, another election can’t be ruled out.

The DUP don’t reference international development in their manifesto - so it will be hard for them to exert much authority on the Conservative commitments in coalition talks. They do argue for more cooperation with the Commonwealth. The DUP are less socially liberal—and less likely to support say women's’ rights, abortion or sexual and reproductive health. The Conservative manifesto includes a long-list of admirable commitments to international leadership. Whatever government emerges, we propose two ambitions.

A positive vision for aid and development

The new government should set a positive vision of aid and why development is worthwhile. So far, Prime Minister May’s approach to development has been largely defensive—protecting the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income on aid, absorbing press criticism of waste and standing up for the importance of cash transfers as reaching those that need it most.

Over 630 of 650 MPs stood on a manifesto which explicitly commits to 0.7 percent of national income on aid. There is an opportunity now for the government to step away from piecemeal, parochial and defensive posture from last autumn, and to set out a positive development vision, describing what the UK will do, building on British values for a fairer, more prosperous world.

Brits believe in aid if the government can ensure it's well-spent and they surely share the Conservative manifesto’s intolerance of social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality beyond the UK too. A modern vision of effective British aid should address both.

A holistic view of development

The new government should broaden its approach to development. At home, Conservatives believe that it is better that people have opportunities for decent work rather than depending on hand-outs, which should be reserved for the most vulnerable people.

That principle applies internationally as well. It is far better for developing countries to be able to create jobs and growth, and trade internationally, than to depend forever on foreign aid. As CGD’s Commitment to Development Index shows, the UK could improve its policies in a number of ways that would accelerate the day when developing countries no longer need our aid - such as investing more in research and development, limiting arms sales, and ensuring that taxes are properly paid when and where they are due.

The Conservative manifesto makes a major stride in the right direction on innovation—committing to increase R&D spend from 1.7 percent of GDP to the current OECD average of 2.4 percent by 2027, “with a longer-term goal” of 3 percent. This is a great example of a policy which is good for Britain and which can be good for the world too, if some of that R&D goes on solving problems that affect all of us, from curing disease to generating clean energy. To encourage investment and promote trade and jobs, Britain should announce now that the poorest developing countries will continue to have access to our markets without facing tariffs or quotas.

The new government should not lose the values that underpin both the Conservative and DUP manifestos—free trade, rule of law, security, the importance of work and enterprise, people living up to their responsibilities, tackling corruption, all supported by an enabling government—instead, it should apply them in its approach to international development.

A positive, broad-based vision of development

The strength of support for UK development in the manifestos of elected politicians shows that Britain will continue to take its leadership role in the world seriously.

A positive and holistic vision will enable development to take its place alongside defence and diplomacy as key planks of Britain’s outward-looking, self-confident, open and engaged contribution. The result will be a better world for all of us.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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