Leaders: Aid should be for aid, not for defence | The wrong message
It’s neat. It’s timely. And it fits. So might many view the proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron to switch some of the funds for the UK’s £10 billion aid budget to peacekeeping and other defence-related projects.
But it has the capacity for mayhem. By an opportunistic switching of funds publicly earmarked from one ostensible purpose of government to another, it reinforces a dangerous tendency to confuse the public and undermine the orderly administration of the public finances.
The rationale behind the proposal is that an increase in the size of the “conflict pool” could reconcile both purposes. This fund is jointly managed by the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and the Department for International Development and is supposed to support conflict prevention, stabilisation and peacekeeping.
Two groups in particular would be strongly supportive of such a switch. One comprises those who have been highly critical of sizeable cuts in defence spending when we are engaged on several fronts overseas, Afghanistan in particular, and when our defence commitments abroad are continuing to increase.
Another comprises those who have long felt that the UK’s aid budget is too high and starkly at odds with the debt-laden state of our public finances and the sickly state of the economy. We are struggling with our own problems of poverty and welfare spending reductions at home, which are causing considerable anxiety among the most vulnerable in our society. Against this background, the commitment of 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid, while noble, is poorly matched to our circumstances.
Therefore, why not address these two issues in one stroke, transferring money from development aid to making good some of those spending cuts and enhancing our peacekeeping missions?
There are several major problems. First, it muddies the waters, with the inherent danger of blurring military operations, such as counter-terrorism, with development goals. Aid should be for aid and defence spending should be for defence.
Second, the proposal is sure to offend as many groups of voters as it pleases. The commitment to maintain aid spending as a percentage of GDP was widely and repeatedly proclaimed by the government to charity campaigners in particular. If the government now believes this commitment to be inappropriate it should address it in the Budget and submit that for approval to the Commons.
Proclaiming a spending commitment in one area and then switching that spending to another purpose is a dangerous path to pursue and could lead to a portrayal of public spending that is wholly muddled and misleading. However convenient for a cash-strapped government, the by-passing of normal avenues of budgetary change should be vigorously resisted.
The wrong message
Just five out of the 80 members of the Highland Council can speak Gaelic. But that, it seems, is now a problem. The council is keen to encourage members to speak Gaelic during meetings and when dealing with constituents. So a two-hour council-funded course – Encouraging Gaelic Usage in the Council – is being provided to enable councillors to be able to open and close meetings, greet people on the phone and host receptions.
It is one of the aims of the SNP/ Liberal Democrat/ Labour administration to increase the use of Gaelic by councillors and staff. But the idea has met with a lukewarm reception.
Councillors have expressed scepticism that learning the language would be relevant to their role and that it would be necessary for council meetings.
Highland council taxpayers may take a more vigorous view. It may well be desirable for councillors to have a smattering of Gaelic to meet and greet and carry out basic functions. But that is a
capability that councillors should surely be able to acquire out of their own resources, like buying a phrasebook, for example, or a basic Gaelic primer. Such cursory familiarity might fairly be regarded as a politic courtesy for those wishing to be a representative on a council covering an area where Gaelic is widely spoken.
It surely cannot be beyond the resources of councillors to familiarise themselves without the need of public money.
And if voters feel their representatives should require fluency in Gaelic to represent them, there is a simple remedy. Vote in the Gaelic speakers and vote out the ones who lack the required proficiency. But it is surely good
governance that matters, whatever language it is conducted in.
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