Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

As the Conservatives try to make themselves fiscally responsible against spendthrift Gordon Brown, there are now only two departmental programmes which they will 'ring-fence' against cuts - health and international development. The politics of this is clear: both subjects are areas in which the Tories are seeking to 'decontaminate the brand'.

They are frightened of being depicted as heartless penny-pinchers. But there are plenty of reasons why one might suspect waste and misspending in both these departments. The problems with health are well known, those with DFID less so. Under an international agreement which goes against the freedom of parliament to decide whether taxes should go up or down, Britain is bound by a UN commitment to spend .7 per cent of Gross National Income on international aid by 2013.

(It is grimly amusing that this percentage will mean less actual money than today if our economy continues to shrink at the present rate. ) The Tories' spokesman, Andrew Mitchell, previously a hard-bitten whip, has become evangelical about development, as I know from accompanying him on a couple of boundlessly energetic visits to Afghanistan and Rwanda. I admire Mr Mitchell's zeal, but I hope a Conservative government will be able find a way out of the present trap in which aid has, by law, to be 'untied' (i. e. never favouring British commercial interests).

Our current policy does not favour our political interests either: we are in the strange situation of giving aid to China, which will soon be richer than we, and we are involved in countries like Vietnam over which we have no political influence. And although aid at its best is a means of preventing conflict, the present rules do not permit us to train the local army, though they do allow training of the local police. A vast amount of our aid goes to what is called 'budget support' - giving British taxpayers' money to foreign governments even less admirable and successful than our own. As we at last face the need to reduce our own governmental profligacy, why are we paying incompetent and corrupt governments to maintain theirs?

Until about 15 years ago, Ian Gilmour (former editor and owner of this paper, among his other distinctions) and his wife Caroline used to give a lovely summer party in the garden of his house by the river in Isleworth. Both are now dead, but this year the party was revived by their son Christopher, their daughter Jane, and their spouses. It was just as good as in the old days - in fact better, but I noticed one great change. In the 1980s, there were plenty of politicians in the throng, and many of them - Roy Jenkins, Chris Patten, David Owen, Alan Clark - were fun to talk to. This time, although the social milieu was very much the same, there were hardly any politicians at all. I saw only one MP, Philip Dunne. Until the 1990s, the tradition was strong in England that politics was part of the wider 'great world'. Today, politicians have become a caste apart, Untouchables.

Which perhaps is why Mr New Speaker Bercow wants to do away with the idea that all Members must refer to one another as honourable. Some see the change as a less stuffy way of addressing one another, but in fact the notion that each MP is upon his honour in the House is the only way in which a supreme legislative assembly can work. …

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