Being proud of Britain is an unfamiliar sensation to many people these days.

Austerity and Brexit, making Britain more unequal, divided and narrowly nationalistic than it has been in decades, have seen to that.

But Britain’s aid effort tells a madly different story about Britain in 2020, one in which words like “progressive”, “outward-looking” and even “altruistic” are not misplaced.

It speaks to an idea of Britain that has at times felt to be lost. If we are not proud of it, we should be.

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The UK is one of only five countries to spend at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on aid, with work as diverse as disaster relief, educating refugee children and assisting poor women into work.

But it’s not just about the amount of cash. Britain also ranks as the second most “principled” aid donor in the world, with only Luxembourg above it.

The Principled Aid Index, compiled by the independent think-tank the Overseas Development Institute, looks at whether donors give money to countries that most need it, support global co-operation and focus on development benefits rather than domestic returns.

It does not mean that aid is always a saintly pursuit – in 2018, Britain was the third most likely country to award contracts for delivering foreign aid to its own companies and there has been a drift under the Tories to supporting strategically important middle-income nations.

Nevertheless, the UK has had a lasting impact on the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. Its expertise in delivering aid is renowned. The reputational impact of this work in far-off places is hard to quantify but significant, inspiring respect and shoring up Britain’s soft power at a time when the UK’s status is precarious.

This is testament, largely, to the work of the Department for International Development (DFID), which has spent 23 years building a global reputation as one of the world’s most effective distributors of aid.

And now the Prime Minister has pressed “destroy”.

On Tuesday, on the back foot over free meals for children and Black Lives Matter, he announced a takeover of DFID by the Foreign Office, which in his usual bare-faced manner he badged as a “merger” even though in the same statement he made clear that the Foreign Secretary will now decide which countries receive – “or cease to receive” – British aid.

This happened without consultation with Cabinet and in the face of furious opposition from the development community as well as MPs from all parties, who predict a serious impact on efforts to tackle poverty, transparency around aid spending and Britain’s global standing. He has achieved the feat of uniting Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron in vehement opposition to his move.

To have done this in the middle of a pandemic is “scarcely believable” says Oxfam, but the effects go way beyond fighting Covid. The main casualty, for years to come, will be the world’s poor.

This titbit thrown to Tory backbenchers as a distraction may feel to Mr Johnson like a safe move, given public apathy about changes to the machinery of government, but it could prove costly to him. It’s a strident reminder that this is a Prime Minister in a Faustian pact with the right of his own party. Much like his stance on Brexit, abolishing DFID is a statement of values, values that are alienating to millions. The General Election and a possible independence referendum may be years off, but moves like this remind his opponents what it is they are fighting for and make them even more determined to prevail.

Perhaps this seems like hyperbole about what is, after all, a departmental reorganisation. The money will still be there (for now).

But it’s worth remembering why DFID was set up. The history of British aid between the 1960s and the 1980s was of one of ping-pong, with Labour governments setting up aid ministries only for Tory ones to put them under Foreign Office control.

Then came the Pergau Dam scandal in the early 1990s, in which hundreds of millions of pounds of British aid money funded an uneconomic dam scheme in Malaysia in return for a deal to buy British arms.

In its wake, DFID was set up in 1997 by Labour, which also ended the practice of formally “tying” aid (requiring aid be spent in the donor country). As a result Britain’s aid effort is much more transparent and effective; critically, under the terms of the International Development Act 2002, it must be targeted at poverty reduction.

Aid spending is certainly not divorced from national interest but the focus is clear and the ministry’s staff are renowned for their commitment to that mission.

Now that Britain has to mobilise its aid budget “to safeguard British interests and values overseas”, it’s obvious where the danger lies. There are fears that chunks of the £15 billion aid budget will become an unofficial slush fund to sweeten post-Brexit trade deals.

And while DFID may have strong oversight in place, not so other departments. The International Development Committee of MPs this month expressed real concern about oversight of the quarter of the aid budget being spent by departments outside of DFID, including the Foreign Office, and urged clearer links to poverty reduction.

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Mr Johnson’s favourite paper The Telegraph is already speculating that the UK might change the rules on foreign aid to go against the principle that aid money should be spent in the poorest countries.

Britain’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid must also now be in doubt.

A key feature of aid money is that a relatively small amount can go a long way in poor countries, so the impact of redeploying it away from those who need it most, will be severe.

More people will die unnecessarily, Oxfam warns. It’s as stark as that.

Fifteen billion pounds is a lot of money, but assisting the world’s poor, many of them children, is not only morally right; it also makes the world more stable. It’s hard to see how abandoning any of them helps us; it certainly doesn’t help them.

Once again, a battle of values is at the heart of British politics. The abolition of DFID is the latest chapter – but it is not the end.

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.