Going Against the Grain… Reflections of Four Years at the Head of the Westminster Russia Forum

Going Against the Grain… Four Years at the Head of the Westminster Russia Forum

So, four years to the day after taking over the helm of the Westminster Russia Forum I can honestly say that it has been a great honor and privilege to represent the only group of its kind to promote continued and deeper ties between the business, political and communities of Russia and the UK.

The past four years have been the most tumultuous of times for UK-Russian bilateral ties in recent years with a major drop in trade and geopolitical jostling – the issues are well known, and I need not elaborate on them here but wanted to merely pen my thoughts as to the practicalities of leading a group running contrary to the prevailing political narrative of the day.

The first thing that struck me and continues to resonate is the unbelievable amount of time, energy and effort required to run such an organization – the constant need to innovate, fund raise and remain relevant to the debate is ceaseless and I like many of our members see this involvement in the WRF as not only a means of providing a counter debate to the dominant political – media view but also a calling with many of us having spent time working, living and visiting Russia. I would like to record a huge vote of thanks to our supporters, members and hard-working committee team.

It has been a huge learning curve, and few have been closer to the coalface of UK-Russia bilateral relations than my team, the WRF and I – on balance a remarkable experience which has given me an insight into the workings of not only our political – media establishment but also our business class. Whilst there are many positive points to raise I will start with the negatives.

The overwhelmingly negative and I believe sad point to raise is simply the level of debate here within the UK –  so too is the rank hypocrisy exhibited by our political and media class. I will not mention any specific examples as it would be wrong to do so but have sat through many a meeting, event and conference with senior Members of Parliament, pundits and journalists who have privately expressed their belief in stronger ties with Russia but publicly go on to say the complete opposite. This is nothing more than cowardice – perhaps naively I expected more from our politics, the media need a bogeyman and that is understood – fearmongering sells and provides a lazy story when other more important news is lacking.

When it comes to Russia we have had our fair share of scraps with the media – from being listed as a ‘group of influence’ pushing Brexit to be a front for Russian intelligence I now have a chuckle when the headlines invariably appear three to four times each year. In fact I welcome many of the headlines – they have as little basis in fact as the next but do thankfully help promote the good work that my organization seeks to achieve. So to are we often attacked on social media but one thing I have found is that for every one critic we find two supporters who can see through the spin. The level of support amongst individuals and businesses would surprise our armchair critics – there are more people that are either supportive of or indifferent towards a resumption of normal ties than are critical.

It is no secret that the WRF was originally formed back in 2012 as the Conservative Friends of Russia but the WRF now boasts cross party support from our membership and support base. From UKIP and Momentum to the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Labour we have all political views represented – what unites us across the political divide is a healthy, honest and I believe courageous belief in improved bilateral ties for the benefit of our two peoples – not governments but peoples.

In the past four years I have seen a number of general trends come to the fore – the SNP, Liberals and UKIP have all been far more open minded to improved ties but the main resistance in my experience has come from the Labour and Conservative Parties. When it comes to the Conservative Party we have found that whilst there may be support behind the scenes for better ties and some have come on record the resistance has come from a general mistrust of Russia as a geopolitical entity and that ultimately our interests are best served with the Cross-Atlantic / NATO alliance  – symptomatic in many ways of a Cold War mentality that priorities security and political prowess over economic reality. This is a view I can certainly respect but disagree with.

When it comes to Labour the story is a little different. Traditionally indifferent of the excesses of the USSR and with some past ideological sympathies the Labour Party of today seems more akin to arguing the absurd. Those on the soft left of remain supporting Labour seem almost obsessed with the notion that Russia was in some way behind Britain leaving the EU yet have not provided any evidence to the support this. In fact evidence of Russian ‘interference’  the Brexit campaign has been largely disregarded. To me this is nothing more than sour grapes.

It also appears that those in parliament are often more akin to hearing what they want to hear – the APPG for Russia has been inactive for some years and when it does meet those speakers called certainly have an axe to grind and feature often overtly critical voices. We have offered our services, contacts and expertise but this has fallen repeatedly on deaf ears. In our dealings with some members of Parliament the level of professionalism has often fallen short of what I would have expected – only late last year one Member asked for our group publicly to be investigated by our Security Services without ever contacting us first to ask our opinions. As I said to this Member at the time – if our Security Services had not done so already I would have been disappointed, it is their duty and role and one we respect.

Organizational matters aside the debate has moved on  considerably in the past four years and there is good cause for optimism – when I took over the running of the WRF in January 2014 there was much to be hopeful for, the Sochi Games had just begun and ties looked set to improve but then came the Ukraine crisis. The Ukraine crisis has split opinion across the country as it has within the WRF but we certainly respect the views of the British and Russian Governments equally – the Minsk Accords are largely holding but the major casualty in bilateral ties from 2014 to 2016/17 has been the near 45% drop in bilateral trade. Trade has improved modestly in the past year and looks set to continue, business confidence has improved and on the social – cultural front more Brits are visiting Russia and vice versa with many taking advantage of the Russian World Cup to enjoy much of what Moscow, Sochi and other cities have to offer. The point is that life continues aside our geopolitical wrangling and our peoples find a way – the media-political narrative is misleading at best and disingenuous worse in my view having experienced it from both sides these past four years.

Whilst there is a mutual governmental mistrust and political ties remain strained the visit by Boris Johnson to Moscow last month recognizes that fact that we have to coexist and cooperate – Brexit is coming and we need trade deals, we share common security concerns  and have a large Russian diaspora in the UK. I for one was deeply encouraged by the frank exchange of views stated in December – this is the first time we have seen such a dialogue in many years and this can with support expand our bilateral ties to reflect the importance of cooperation between our two important nations. Having seen ties frozen in 2014 to now a glacial warming I am encouraged and for our part the WRF will do all we can to support this important step – what is needed however is for the hysteria, Russophobia and infantile behavior to stop – whether those in the Westminster bubble like it or not Russia and the UK need each other.

I have argued constantly for improved ties between Moscow and London these past four years and to do so requires courage and conviction – many of my committee and our supporters have faced a backlash to for their support. To me each and every one of them have shown great courage of conviction, bravery and integrity. To go against the grain and put at jeopardy your own prospects is worthy of respect.

We have had a tremendous four years, some great sell out events and continue to promote some excellent online content – we have had our ups and downs but the only real negative I can take away from my time as head of the WRF is the duplicity shown by those who should know better. I hope and have confidence in the fact that as trade levels increase, our peoples continue to exchange culture and our political ties gradually thaw that we see a relationship based on realpolitik and mutual respect.

For the naysayers no argument will be good enough – faux outrage and like it or not we are here to stay…