REVIEW: Britain and Africa Under Blair: in pursuit of the good state – Reviewed by Chris Mullin
Tony Blair famously remarked that the state of Africa was “a scar on the conscience of mankind” and committed his government to doing something about it. New Labour came to power promising to pursue an ethical foreign policy which soon ran into difficulty when confronted with such tricky issues as the sale of arms to Middle Eastern tyrannies, but so far as overseas development in general and Africa in particular is concerned Labour has a good story to tell.
The facts are easily stated. Tory governments of the 1980s and “˜90s displayed little interest in Africa, apart from South Africa and Zimbabwe where Britain had significant commercial interests. Nor were they much interested in overseas development. Labour inherited an overseas development budget that was 0.26 percent of GDP and falling. By the time Labour left office the aid budget had more than doubled and was rising. So firmly entrenched was the commitment to reaching the UN goal of 0.7 percent of GDP that even the incoming Tory government felt obliged to sign up to it.
Under Labour, British aid was no longer a tool of foreign or commercial policy. It was administered by a separate department, under the robust leadership of Clare Short, and by and large focussed on the poorest people in the poorest countries, many of them in Africa. At successive international summits and other forums Britain played a leading part in forcing Africa and related issues such as debt relief and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) onto the agenda of the world’s richest nations.
The British approach to international development was also transformed. British aid no longer focussed on projects which, however desirable, tended to collapse as soon as the foreigners went home. Instead the focus was on creating the conditions where development was possible – by conflict resolution, combating corruption, technical advice and, where appropriate, direct budget support. In short, by empowering governments that showed an interest in the welfare of their people to address their own problems, rather than have foreigners come in and do it for them.
Julia Gallagher does not dispute any of this. Her interest is in motivation. What motivated Tony Blair and his colleagues to “do good” in Africa? To be sure there were few, if any votes, in it. Indeed several of the politicians she interviewed talked of actively concealing from their constituents their interest in Africa – on the grounds that they would only be accused of malingering.
This is a book that started life as a PhD thesis and, although mainly lucid, it is in places clogged with academic references and jargon, which could usefully have been removed. As is the way with academic texts there is also a great deal of over-analysis. Ms Gallagher, a lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway College, considers various possible motives for New Labour’s determination to do good in Africa. Was it guilt at Britain’s colonial past? Hardly. As several of her interviewees point out, historically the Labour Party had a good record on anti-colonialism.
Perhaps Labour politicians regarded Africa as a rewarding diversion from the messy business of domestic politics? There may be something in this. To be sure, in any country where you are starting from a low base – and in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and Uganda (to name but a few) the base is very low indeed – it is possible to make a significant difference to the lives of ordinary people in return for relatively little investment.
Was there an element of British self-interest? Certainly – this is a point made by many British politicians, myself included, when faced with a sceptical electorate. One has only to examine the origins of many of the economic migrants and asylum seekers flooding into Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall, to see that it is not in our interests to allow failed states like Somalia, Sudan or the Congo to disintegrate. Not least because failed states breed terrorism – witness recent events in Libya and Mali. That is the one argument that does ring a bell with the electorate.
Could it be, heaven forbid in this cynical age, that the obvious explanation is the correct one: namely that British government policy towards Africa under New Labour – and to a lesser extent Cameron’s Conservatives (though Africa is a lonelier cause in the Tory Party) – was motivated by idealism? A desire to do what was morally and ethically right in the wake of horrors such as the slaughter in Sierra Leone and Rwanda? Blair, though capable of the most brutal real politic, has always possessed a streak of idealism and nowhere is that more evident in his policy towards Africa. It was evident, too, in his approach to the Kosovo crisis.
Dr Gallagher argues that there is nothing new in this and that there has been an evident streak of idealism in British policy towards Africa, as long ago as William Wilberforce and the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the late 18th century. It was, after all, British abolitionists who established the aptly named Freetown, now the capital of Sierra Leone, as a place of refuge for rescued slaves. The author argues that from Wilberforce, through Joseph Chamberlain (Colonial Secretary in the 1890s), through colonial officials such as Frederick Lugard (in 1900) and anti-colonialists such as Fenner Brockway in the 1950s, there has always been an element of principle over profit in British dealings with Africa (or at least West Africa). In that sense, Blair was merely carrying on a tradition already well established.
Chris Mullin is a former Africa Minister. His experience of Africa is recounted in the second volume of his diaries, “A View from the Foothills.”