Many in the UK suspected the Prime Minister’s somewhat awkward utterance from behind the dispatch box two weeks ago—‘yes of course Black Lives Matter’—of being hollow. That it was belated is indisputable. It jarred with the numerous well-evidenced accusations of racism that many in the media and wider public have laid at Boris Johnson’s door, as well as at the doors of other senior conservatives. Whatever your opinions on the validity of such accusations, it is difficult to deny that they cast a problematic light on last week’s biggest major policy announcement: the government’s Department for International Development, responsible for humanitarian aid, and for directing the UK’s contribution to the global fight against poverty, is to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, responsible for ‘promoting the UK’s interests abroad’. Over 200 leading aid organisations have denounced the move, former DFID staffers have warned of the risk of a return to the paternalistic and quasi-colonialist ‘Britain First’ aid policy that defined Thatcher’s merger in the 1980s. Tony Blair and David Cameron too have made their criticisms public, whilst former conservative Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, went so far as to brand the move an ‘act of national vandalism’.
Whilst the practical concerns are huge—immense cost, reduced aid effectiveness, loss of specialist workers from the sector—it is perhaps the ideological rhetoric that has couched the policy that is the most concerning. Politically speaking, the merger seems at best to be poorly timed, given its potential to contradict the PM’s recent stated expressions of support for the Britain’s black and wider BAME communities. At worst, it undermines entirely the credibility of the PM’s somewhat awkward performance of the BLM slogan at Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago. The core of message of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of un-caveated equality. More specifically its pursued ideal is the universal equality of rights, worth and opportunity. If we support BLM, we should seek equality for black individuals, and indeed all people of colour, at all times, in all places, in all circumstances. In one (disastrously timed) fell swoop, the PM has effectively shot himself and his government’s moral position in the foot. Be in little doubt, we should now read: Black Lives Matter, so long as the UK stands to benefit. In the government’s own bizarrely warlike terms, the move forms part of an effort to ‘mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas’. Whilst the safeguarding of ‘British values’ amounts to the protection of human rights and civil liberties, ‘British interests’ are political and economic to their core. Combining the FCO with DFID makes a powerful statement. This merger hinges on the logic that the lives of disadvantaged people of colour across the developing world can rightly be used as bargaining chips for ensuring the UK’s own economic and political interests are met—in other words, for ensuring the government’s Brexit success.
If, post-merger, foreign policy-making in Whitehall is to speak with one ‘unified voice’, there are those that could argue, certainly more convincingly now than previously, that this voice is a racist one. The merger explicitly renders life-changing and life-saving support for millions of people of colour in developing countries convenient levers to pulled in the service of furthering the UK’s own economic and political interests. The deftly avoided truth is that IF Black Lives Matter, they all matter. Not exclusively those in the UK, nor simply those in the countries immediately relevant to the designs of a ‘global Britain’ on the world economy. Black Lives in Zambia that are still suffering from the socio-economic legacy of colonialism matter, just as much as the lives of black Oxford students, black school children in East London, black street cleaners in Stockport or black doctors in Southampton. Equally, the lives of black people, and indeed all people, suffering under poverty in any country should matter to any BLM-supporting British government, regardless of whether or not the UK stands to gain from offering the assistance its economic advantage obligates it to provide. The statement and its sentiments are universal, not specific.
I cannot speak for all BAME individuals, but I certainly feel the merger and, crucially, the rhetoric used to justify it make it more difficult than ever to take this government’s professed support for our community seriously. Black Lives Matter regardless of geographical location, regardless of whether wealthy, predominantly white nations and indeed individual politicians stand to gain from providing them with the assistance they need and deserve. When the average Briton hears “spare a little change” on their way into the local supermarket, they may well ask themselves whether they have the money to spare, or even how the person asking for money is likely to benefit from it—both entirely valid concerns—but the last question they are likely to ask is “but what’s in it for me?”. The UK’s aid policy should be no different. This moral logic is reflected in an independent Department for International Development, whose core interests remain independent of the national self-interest that is the FCO’s raison d’être. This is to say nothing of the degree of responsibility the UK and other colonising nations share for the dire economic and political instability that pervades in much of the developing world today. With that taken into account, the moral argument for a selfless foreign aid policy becomes even harder to avoid.
I am one of only six students of Black African or Caribbean heritage out of over 400 undergraduates at New College, Oxford, so the attitudes underpinning this latest policy change are not entirely alien to me. Yet, as co-president of our university’s society for international development, I have also been lucky enough to work with a whole host of incredible students, academics and guest speakers, of all colours and backgrounds, all of whom are impossibly passionate about working to alleviate the dramatic inequalities and injustices faced by our global society. I would be hard-pressed to name one that supports this merger even on the back the supposed practical benefits touted by the government, let alone on the basis of the dangerous intellectual gymnastics needed to morally justify it. The not-so-hidden hidden meaning beneath the government’s rhetoric is simply too hard to ignore. It is a gaping contradiction in terms that rightly makes many at best uncomfortable, and at worst disgusted. No. 10’s logic here encapsulates perfectly my experience of a small minority of the UK elite’s often unspoken view on race issues, be it Oriel College’s Cecil Rhodes crisis or international aid policy: Black Lives Matter, most of the time, and only if we stand to benefit. This needs to change.
By Louis Kill-Brown, OxSID Co-President TT20