It is often said that being the leader of her majesty's opposition is to have the worst job in politics. It has its compensations, however: you can, like the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Thus David Cameron both argues for a new age of austerity in public expenditure, while insisting that the next Conservative government would not cut a penny from the £100bn a year NHS budget. This implies truly eye-watering reductions in such other departments of state such as defence – but yesterday, looking for a political response to the recent deaths of eight servicemen in Afghanistan, he suddenly declared that "we have to make available the money" for "more helicopters" for the armed forces.
Bear in mind that the Army's newest helicopters, the Chinook Mk3, will each have cost over £52.5m to get into service – yes, I know that looks like a misprint, but it's actually true – and you can see how easy it is for an opposition leader to have it every which way, especially when the Government is itself disbelieved.
Yet Cameron does have a strategy, and in this he has been a model of consistency: he wants to destroy the reputation of the Conservatives as being unconcerned about the poorest. That is the reason for the pledge on the NHS – and it is also the reason why the single other departmental budget he has declared to be sacrosanct is that of International Development.
Cameron reiterated that commitment yesterday, insisting that Britain was not a country of "fair-weather philanthropy" – as if the compulsory removal of money from citizens via tax in order to spend on politicians' pet development projects could be described as "philanthropy". In an effort to appear more sensitive to the compelled benefactors' wishes, Cameron proposed a £40m "MyAid" fund, so that people could "vote" for their favourite of 10 DfID projects. Since the total Dfid budget is around £6bn we can see just how serious this offer of choice really is.
The Tory leader also claims that, under his leadership, our International Aid will become "smarter". By this, he does not mean that DfID civil servants will work in white tie and tails, but that they will suddenly become more intelligent in how they distribute our money to the poor and needy. It's certainly true that, judging by results, those in charge of our aid budgets have been consistently and phenomenally stupid for the past half century and more. Internationally, more than $1trn has been sent to Africa over the last 50 years, during which time the sub-Saharan countries in receipt of the bulk of those funds have seen their poverty increase sharply relative to those developing countries which have received least aid.
We must stop oiling up to rock stars like Bono, who while registering his own company in the Dutch Antilles purely for reasons of tax avoidance, tells the British and Irish exchequers to cough up more billions "for Africa". They might just as well take on Amy Winehouse as an adviser on drugs policy.
Instead, they could listen to the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, whose family knows first hand how corrupting and counterproductive Western aid has been. As she recently told the Dutch paper Handelsblad: "The people in power plunder the treasury and the treasury is filled with development aid money. The corruption has contaminated the whole of society. Thanks to foreign aid the people in power can afford not to care about their people; but the worst part of it is that aid undermines growth."
Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, is understandably cynical about the West's motives for continuing with such a bankrupt policy. She argues that it is designed to "distract attention from the trade barriers they have erected, which cost Africa $500bn every year". In other words, the West's aid to Africa is nothing more than an exercise in conscience-easing. On that basis, we can see that the Dfid civil servants, and a succession of their ministers, have not been stupid at all, as Cameron implies: they have been skilful in ensuring that Britain does not fall behind in the international blame-avoidance game, an especially important aspect for a country such as ours, with the additional psychic burden of post-colonial guilt.
As Moyo would acknowledge, none of her fundamental analysis is new, but her African heritage gives her a certain moral authority that a white English male would lack; as a matter of fact a naturalised white English male, originally from Hungary, had been warning since the 1960s that grand, systemic government aid programmes would have all the effects that Moyo has recently catalogued.
Prof Peter Bauer had observed on the ground in both Malaya (as it then was) and West Africa in the 1950s how locals who were able to trade freely within gradually established markets could develop crops which lifted them above the level of subsistence and dependency. Bauer would have been astonished that Conservative politicians would still be thinking in 2009 that if only the Government could be "smarter" in its distribution, it, rather than markets, would "transform" Africa's economic prospects. It is truly an example of the aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein that one definition of madness is to perform the same experiment over and over again, in the belief that next time the result will be different.
This is not a reason for abandoning all aid – there will always be a call for disaster relief, at times of flood and famine; but in these cases private individuals acting voluntarily do step forward with genuine philanthropy, matched by taxpayers' funds, as the response to the Asian tsunami demonstrated. Even then, however, it is depressing (though not surprising) how much of those donations are stalled and enmeshed in state bureaucracy and corruption.
Yet even if the next British government were to follow the recommendations of Dambisa Moyo, those of you who would find this unacceptable can rest assured that our aid to Africa would still increase dramatically. You can see how, in the headline to a story in yesterday's Independent: Fuel Bills Set To Soar To Pay For Green Energy Plan. This was based on figures which showed that the move towards low-carbon electricity generation would add at least 20 per cent to individual households' bills.
This is hardly surprising: the Government's own estimate is that the cost of complying with its Climate Change Act would be £404 bn, or £18.3bn for every year between now and 2050. And who are the suppositious beneficiaries of this expenditure? Not Great Britain, whose rural economy would, overall, benefit from warmer climes, but the people of sub-Saharan Africa, for whom any reduction in temperatures would be a blessing.
Like the existing overseas aid budget, this too is a tremendously ineffective exercise in guilt avoidance: according to the UN Climate Panel, stabilising the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 550 parts per million, as intended, would reduce the rise in temperature by the year 2100 all the way down from 2.53 degrees Celsius to just ... 2.43 degrees.
Never mind; we may be consigning many thousands more British families to "fuel poverty", but at least our political leaders will be able to strut their stuff at G8 meetings and to remain the very best of buddies with Bono.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies