Alastair Osborne remembers Judith Hart, a pioneer in international development and the architect of much of the vital, groundbreaking work done by successive British Governments since her time in office.
If the rules allowed for affiliates to make posthumous nominations for Labour Leader, LCID (the Labour Campaign for International Development) should consider putting forward Judith Hart.
I doubt if Boris Johnson has ever heard of Judith Hart – Labour’s Minister for Overseas Development for nearly all the years Labour was in Government from 1969 to 1979. (Barbara Castle had held that office briefly in 1964-65.) Judith devoted all her political life to fighting poverty and injustice wherever she found it. She was a fierce opponent of apartheid in South Africa and great defender of Chileans against the atrocities of the Pinochet regime.
Born Constance, she changed her name to Judith when she was 12. A graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of London, and a lecturer at a teacher training college, she served as the Labour MP for Lanark and subsequently Clydesdale from 1959 until 1987. She ended her political career as Baroness Hart of South Lanark. One of just 25 women MPs elected in 1959, she served in a range of ministerial offices, and in so doing became only the 5th woman ever to serve in a British cabinet.
But in particular what underpinned her life and work – over many years – was the cause of “overseas development” as it was then called. Over recent years Britain’s Department for International Development has rightly come to be seen as a global leader on aid and thanks to the achievements of Labour governments, the UK achieved the UN target of committing 0.7% of our GNI on international development. The significance of this was nowhere better exemplified than when a Tory Prime Minister was forced by public opinion to meet and match Labour’s aid commitment. Whenever the legacy of the previous Labour Governments is being dismissed we should remember the impact of that aid budget in terms of debt cancellation, child immunisation, girls education, families receiving bed-nets and the hungry receiving food. It is life changing, world changing work, and Judith Hart contributed hugely to it.
One of her lasting legacies is to be found nearer to home. It is thanks to Judith Hart that Abercrombie House in East Kilbride became the location of the joint headquarters of the UK Department for International Development in 1981. This was two years after Labour lost the 1979 election but all the lobbying and groundwork had been done by Judith. It is a unique arrangement in Whitehall, reflecting the imagination and vision of a unique woman. And this was long before Boris Johnson came up with the idea of sending the Lords to York.
I remember Douglas Alexander addressing the Judith Hart Memorial Dinner in her old constituency back in 2013, reminding the gathering that “We should all be immensely proud that each day hundreds of our fellow Scots get up and go to work in East Kilbride and on our behalf spend their day helping tackle disease, hunger and need all over the world.”
Even if Boris Johnson’s knowledge of political history had included any of this, it probably wouldn’t have stopped him flirting with the reckless idea of winding up DfID and merging it with the Foreign Office. It wasn’t a new idea – Margaret Thatcher did just that during her time as PM. Under Judith Hart the UK had made huge progress towards reaching the 0.7% target only to see it rolled back under Thatcher. The Prime Minister would love to see aid money tied to commercial gain or diverted to other things altogether. It now seems that, for the moment, he has had to shelve his plans.
The department, which produces around £30 million for the local Scottish economy, has led the world in tackling Ebola, gender inequality, the crisis in Syria and the provision of lifesaving aid in emergencies. Of course, it doesn’t just save lives – it spreads goodwill for Britain across the world (including many countries where we hope to land post-Brexit trade deals). It sends a clear message that we are outward looking, tolerant, compassionate, a supporter of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
I don’t expect that argument would cut much ice with the current government. The PM would have to look up ‘soft power’ in the dictionary.
The threat to DfID’s continued existence underlines how fragile all progress is. Progress invariably leads to a reaction and that in turn requires our resistance. We owe it to Judith Hart and all the pioneers of international development to celebrate its achievements, defend it against attack and campaign tirelessly for its continued growth and expansion.