The next step is for the international community to “hold Russian, Iranian and Turkish feet to the fire”by Liam Kelly / April 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Andrew Mitchell sits down at his desk in front of a poster which reads: “Join the anti-poverty movement: Educate girls.” On the opposite wall sits a giant framed map of Africa.
We meet in his parliamentary office, overlooking a sun-drenched Palace of Westminster, the day after the American missile strike on an airbase controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons on civilians in the rebel-held Idlib province.
The Syrian crisis has long been an issue close to the former International Development secretary’s heart. He is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria, and regularly calls debates in the House of Commons on how to ease the humanitarian crisis which has devastated the country. Last year Mitchell said Russia was “destroying the United Nations and its ability to act” by blocking proposals to end bombings of Aleppo.
Now he says that, though he would not have been “remotely tempted” to vote for Donald Trump were he an American, he is “very pleased that he has stood up for international humanitarian law in such a clear and unequivocal way.” This was in stark contrast with Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene militarily after a similar chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013, which he says “sent a terrible signal to bad people all around the world.”
The next step is for the international community to “hold Russian, Iranian and Turkish feet to the fire to deliver a ceasefire and negotiations on a federal arrangement that can bind Syria together, from the bottom up.”
An end to fighting, allowing “unfettered access for humanitarian agencies,” would be the first step to rebuilding a country shattered by six years of civil war. “It’s extremely important that we secure agreement from Iran, Russia and Turkey to deliver on this ceasefire,” Mitchell adds. “And if they won’t, or can’t do so, then the international community should be looking at imposing no-fly zones, particularly over Idlib.”
When I suggest this could lead to American planes shooting down Russian planes, he says “the Americans should make it crystal clear that they want the ceasefire enforced,” before adding “the Turks shot down a Russian plane for flying into its airspace [in November 2015], and Russia didn’t do it again. But if you have a ceasefire which stops people fighting, you don’t need a no-fly zone.”
The Conservative MP, who has represented Sutton Coldfield since 1987, left the cabinet in 2012, following allegations that he called a police officer a “pleb.” But he has retained a keen interest in aid and development since then. Mitchell spent part of the parliamentary recess in Washington and has just returned from Paris, where he spoke at an OECD conference on development.
Some in the UK, especially the right-wing press, are less than enthusiastic about Britain’s current levels of aid spending. The amount of money spent by the Department for International Development (Dfid) was set in law at 0.7 per cent of GDP by the coalition government. This is the UN’s target for aid spending, but Britain was one of just six countries that met or exceeded it in 2016, having spent £13.3bn on development projects around the world.
Mitchell says that ongoing media campaigns criticising the aid budget, led by the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express, cause “a lot of head scratching” overseas, as Britain’s spending on foreign aid “wins us enormous affection and respect abroad.” He brushes off the media hostility. “There is a group of people the Daily Mail represents who think that charity begins at home, and that this money should be spent on social care and not on foreigners,” he says. “Now charity does begin at home, but it doesn’t end there. Sometimes I do wonder why they insist on raining on Britain’s achievements.”
The Mail, in particular, has written stories criticising what it sees as frivolous uses of international development money, including British backing of more than £9m for Ethiopian girl band Yegna, which the paper dubbed “the Ethiopian Spice Girls.” Current international development secretary Priti Patel scrapped funding to the project in January. The use of British money to build an airport on the island of St Helena, where strong prevailing winds mean planes cannot land, and continued aid spending in India, a nation with a space programme, also came under fire.
Mitchell dismisses the furores over spending in Ethiopia (“it was a private sector project led by the Nike Foundation and it was very good stuff”) and St Helena (the airport’s issue with wind shear “will be sorted out”). But he admitted that when he was international development secretary deciding whether to continue aid to India “was very tricky,” because of its relative prosperity. In February, the new Indian High Commissioner in Britain said that the country did not need or ask for British aid.
According to Mitchell, the aid budget is constantly under the spotlight because it has increased significantly at a time of austerity. When he took over at the Dfid after the 2010 election the department’s budget was £6bn, a figure that has since more than doubled, while most other Whitehall departments have had their budgets cut between 10 and 50 per cent over the same period.
He said he was “proud to have been a member of a government that did not balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world despite the great austerity in Britain,” but could “understand why people who are seeing constraints on local government funding cast envious eyes at the development budget.”
The Tory MP holds up Dfid funding for global vaccination schemes as a counter to negative press reports about aid spending. Between 2010 and 2015 British money paid for 80 million children to be vaccinated against diseases, including polio and measles, at a rate of one every two seconds for the whole five years. It is estimated the scheme saved 1.4 million lives.
“It meant children survived diseases that, thank god, none of our children in Britain suffer from, but which kill every day in the poorest parts of the world,” Mitchell says. “That is a massive contribution which, thanks to the support of the British taxpayer, we have made to preserving life and families, and ending misery and tragedy in the developing world.”
He says he remains committed to aid and global development because “it’s important, it matters. It’s about the sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. It matters that we get it right. Globalisation means that everywhere people are aware of the colossal discrepancies of opportunity and wealth. And we need to do something about these [problems] which exist in our world today and disfigure it.”
Mitchell’s enthusiasm and expertise could make him an asset for Theresa May, who plans to, in her words, shape a “truly global Britain.” Would he go back into the cabinet, if he were asked? Mitchell is coy. “Those sort of decisions takes place way above my pay grade. My job is to look after the people of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield.”