On Thursday it’s the UK election. The most open for ages, and no-one knows who will come out on top – and more importantly what configuration any post-election coalition will look like. As a small set of islands and a dwindling economic and political power, elections in the UK should not really matter for the rest of the world. But bizarrely they do; and perhaps especially this one. The tectonic shifts occurring in British politics may have long-run consequences. Depending on the outcome and the political battles that follow, the UK could either split up – with the Scottish Nationalists demanding an early re-run of the referendum – or leave the European Union – with the Tory right and UKIP urging an exit. Any of these scenarios will mean major changes in how Britain (or perhaps a new union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) interacts with the world.
How then are the various parties addressing ‘international issues’, and African and development issues in particular? On African Arguments, Magnus Taylor and Hetty Bailey have offered a very useful summary of the different manifesto pledges. With the inevitable exception of UKIP, all the parties have committed to maintaining the 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to international development. The Greens even urge that it be increased to 1 per cent. In the age of austerity this cross-party consensus to ring-fence aid money seems extraordinary. It is however a fragile consensus, continuously attacked by the right-wing press and others. Any post-election wrangling, particularly if UKIP are involved in some type of deal in alliance with the right-wing of the Tory party, will challenge it. But for the time being the view, forged by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before 2010, that the UK should commit to an internationalist agenda, involving humanitarian and development aid is, amazingly, sticking.
However, as the African Arguments piece shows, the way ‘international development’ is framed in the manifestos is – with some exceptions – very different to the hey-day of the late 1990s, when the Department for International Development was formed. Today, because of the political threat, aid is very much constructed as expenditure in Britain’s often quite short term interests. Aid is for building platforms for British business abroad (a return to a ‘mercantilist power’ – and of course competing with China who has no qualms about link aid and commerce); for quelling conflict and reducing immigration to Europe (and with the horrific scenes of boats arriving to Lampedusa, this is high on the news agenda); and for preventing Islamic extremism that may have an impact at home. Humanitarianism has not gone though, and the massive public response to the Nepal earthquake has demonstrated again, that small-island selfishness is not universal. However, the aid for trade agenda in particular has become very prominent under the current government, and DFID’s work is often indistinguishable from the export promotion wings of the Foreign Office and BIS, the Department for Business, Industry and Skills. The focus on ‘fragile states’ means the Ministry of Defence is also heavily embroiled in the ‘development’ agenda too. It remains to be seen if DFID survives this election along with its budget. Certainly in the last decade DFID has become a shadow of its former self, and very much lost its way (see this brilliant blog by my colleague, Robert Chambers on the extreme pathologies hampering DFID’s work).
What does this all mean for Africa – and Zimbabwe in particular? Zimbabwe retains a peculiar fascination in British politics. There is an All-Party Group on Zimbabwe for example that provides an essentially anti-ZANU-PF/anti-Mugabe lobby group within parliament, with regular meetings, reports and parliamentary questions. It has been chaired for by the Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey. Her website documents her ‘undercover’ visits to Zimbabwe in the 2000s and support for human rights and the opposition MDC. Her other passion for country sports and fox hunting probably makes for common ground with other members of the committee, who include a number of Tory Lords and establishment figures. The group reflects the very British complexion of political links with Zimbabwe. It includes Labour party human rights campaigners – with their backgrounds often in the struggle against apartheid (most notably Peter Hain, but also Baroness Kinnock – a leading member of the group, and someone who regularly asks questions on Zimbabwe in parliament), the Tory grandees with post-colonial connections to ‘kith and kin’ in Zimbabwe, and those more squarely interested in trade and business in southern Africa. This unlikely coalition have been brought together in the past 15 years with their support for the opposition in Zimbabwe and their detestation of President Mugabe. Lobbied by former white farmer activists from Zimbabwe, business associations, and diaspora networks, mostly notably the die-hards of the Zimbabwe Vigil, the Foreign Office and DFID are under continuous pressure on Zimbabwe. And too often, as I have found on too many occasions, subject to extreme forms of misinformation and bias.
Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the most bizarre of outbursts from the Mayor of London, prospective MP, and potential future Conservative Party leader, Boris Johnson. On the occasion of President Mugabe’s birthday bash in February, Johnson used a column in the Tory flagship, the Daily Telegraph, to let rip. Too often dismissed as a posh buffoon, Johnson is a smart and dangerous political operator. And if Cameron and co stumble on Thursday, he could find himself in the top position in the Conservative Party, maybe in time even Prime Minister. So read his diatribe in this light – and be scared, very scared. While pitched as a pre-election jibe at Tony Blair (blaming Blair for appeasing Mugabe), it demonstrated in full flow the narrow-minded, colonial, almost racist, attitude of too many (highly intelligent – and Boris is no fool) commentators on Zimbabwe. As noted by Wilbert Mukori in his column the Telegraph piece was full of an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality” that simply acted to boost Mugabe’s position. Of course the ZANU-PF spin-master, Jonathan Moyo lapped it up, and the clumsy intervention was used (as ever) rather effectively as a propaganda weapon in ZANU-PF’s on-going tussle with the British establishment.
British politicians repeatedly fail to understand Africa, and perhaps especially Zimbabwe. From Clare Short’s disastrous letter on the land issue to this most recent outburst from Boris, the lack of appreciation of history, the gross insensitivity to global relations, and the absence of reflexivity of position and power, is flabbergasting. The 2013 elections in Zimbabwe were badly called by British diplomats, characterised by Richard Dowden as “the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years”. I have no idea who advises the UK Foreign Office or DFID at the highest levels on Zimbabwe (it’s not me – they’ve never asked!), but the lack of understanding is frequently quite shocking. It comes from their own isolation (they don’t get out enough), the extraordinarily poor reporting of Zimbabwe in the British media, and the briefings influenced by the London and parliamentary lobby groups of course. And their hands are tied by the strictures imposed by the UK and the European Union following 2000 – the ‘sanctions’ and ‘restrictive measures’ that have caused so much confusion and damage.
With a European lead, the UK is beginning – sensibly, but all too slowly – to re-engage with Zimbabwe ‘on an incremental basis’. The overall UK aid budget has remained high but it has to be allocated very selectively – with new resettlement areas and support to post-land reform still out of bounds. This means that aid efforts get distorted, and the conversations that are needed to allow a greater ‘normalisation’ do not happen. And so with this misunderstandings and misperceptions continue. Applying diplomatic pressure and focusing aid is of course perfectly appropriate, and I subscribe to nearly all the broad objectives of the UK aid programme, as outlined on the website. But much of this gradual, painfully slow, movement in the right direction may be undermined by the outcomes (immediate, and longer-term) of this election. What if the UK leaves Europe? This will leave UK diplomacy very exposed in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere. What if, in time, Scotland leaves the UK? Will there be a radical, progressive Scottish aid programme in Zimbabwe, alongside DFID’s? Maybe. And what if the likes of Boris Johnson, with a bunch of UKIP allies, take over? Heaven help us. Despite Britain’s dwindling power and economic influence, elections in the former colonial power do still, strangely, matter, so look out for the news on May 8, and the days and weeks that follow.