Aman Bhogal: A Global Britain can turbocharge free democracies, free trade and free enterprise

2 Feb

Aman Bhogal is the Founding Chairman of Global Britain UK and stood for parliament in the 2015 General Election.

Television headlines recently showed the terrible volcanic eruption that ravaged Tonga, but why was the report of Britain dispatching HMS Spey to support the relief effort, led by allies Australia and New Zealand, right at the bottom of the news agenda?

For the world that was global Britain in action. Our British Isles leaping to help a group of islands 13 time zones away.

Following on from the establishment of AUKUS and in the wake of the Carrier Strike Group’s power projection, is it not news that the Indo-Pacific is fast becoming the centre of economic, security and political gravity of a new multi-polar world order?

Of course, the assorted left rejoiner Brexit-bashing brigade would have you believe that Britain cannot play a meaningful role in global affairs outside the EU’s orbit; though it has to be said, the likes of the shouty-mad-as-a-EU-hat man seen loitering outside Parliament, has been quite quiet of late.

Yet, with a resurgent UK leading G7 growth, record job numbers and as one of the first exiting the pandemic, that argument is as past its sell-by-date as the hidebound EU.

There is no bigger example of the stuck-in-the-mud out-of-sync-with-liberty EU than the outrageous prevailing view at its heart – Berlin blocking Estonian defence assistance to Kiev trying not to upset the Kremlin, even as it amasses its belligerence in Eastern Europe.

Whereas following UK support for Kiev with the supply of defensive anti-tank weapons, “God save the Queen” amassed trends on Ukrainian Twitter.

With Boris Johnson having got Brexit done and Liz Truss getting on with sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol, British support for free Ukraine and a helping hand for Tonga sum up what makes our Britain global like no other.

Yet there is a whole world of goodwill still to be tapped, where a Global Britain helps unleash the potential of the world’s leading free democracies, by identifying shared values, shared challenges, and shared strengths to ensure security, stability, and prosperity.

Getting Brexit done has shown up all that still remains to be done to help make Britain central to the prosperity and security of our allies and friends.

The biggest step in that direction is the Prime Minister’s ‘Roadmap 2030’ signed with Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister. However, we now need to go further and faster. And we do this by building a framework of political and business engagement to bind together the tremendous goodwill for a global Britain that exists throughout the world, especially the Indo-Pacific.

Now providence places Global Britain in the centre of a core group of natural allies and friends across the Indo-Pacific. With India, Australia and Japan defending the frontier of freedom, turbocharging our strategic partnership with these free democracies it is crucial to integrate free Britain into the centre of the network of liberty.

Many hurdles remain – hostile forces running 24×7 fake-news bots spreading disinformation to undermine democracy in London, Washington DC and New Delhi, the CCP undermining nations with its debt-trap diplomacy – toxic forces chiselling at the very foundations of our freedoms and liberty.

However, it is in the greatest democratic exercises of our times – the EU referendum and the biggest democratic mandate in history, earned by PM Modi that offer us the hope and optimism to prove that democracy is more resilient than the toxic agenda of the anti-UK- India-Israel-US-Brexit bashing nexus.

Global Britain, together with a New India, is uniquely placed to lead the charge to defend our way of life – free democracies, linked by free trade, powered by free enterprise, driven by a free people.

And on free trade, the more than five dozen trade deals signed, including two brand new ones with Australia and Singapore, and the prized deal with India in the offing, are a shining testament to how Global Britain is revving up to lead the global recovery. And this is still before British business really goes global with entry into the tier-A Indian towns.

With free enterprise – there is not a brighter beacon of hope and aspiration than the UK where our agile businesses, slashing suffocating red tape, are more productive, innovative, employ more people and generate more revenue.

This is the ready-to-make template which we must push to persuade the next start-up, the next unicorn, the next big idea that free enterprise and education is the best way known to mankind to lift the next billion out of poverty. And now more than ever, as the world economy attempts to reach escape velocity out of the orbit of Covid, Global Britain must set the global tempo.

Be it getting Brexit done, more trade deals than Emmanuel Macron could shake a stick at, record job numbers and mega manufacturing investment, Johnson has shown how Global Britain is a proven winner. And this is the Global Britain vision which resonates with the goodwill in capitals across the free world.

That’s why the Global Britain Centre is established to bring together a coalition of those who want to fill in the gaps, colour in the details, to pour concrete into the foundations of a Global Britain turbocharging free democracies, free trade and free enterprise. To help build a Britain that is truly global, by global Britons, for Britons that are going global.

Henry Smith: Net zero efforts can protect the UK against Putin’s greatest weapon

28 Jan

Henry Smith is the Member of Parliament for Crawley and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Russia’s massive build-up on the Ukrainian border is a threat to European stability, as I recently saw for myself on a visit to Kyiv and frontline in Donetsk. NATO must deter the threat of invasion, however, longer term we and our allies must also reduce Putin’s capabilities to harm us, including the exploitation of energy.

I am proud of the UK’s response to Russia’s aggression against its neighbour. We have trained over 20,000 Ukrainian troops through Operation ORBITAL and supplied them with anti-tank missiles, loaned over £1.25 billion to help develop Ukraine’s naval shore facilities, and we are helping Ukraine to develop frigates while providing eight fast missile craft and two mine hunters.

For all the aggression from the Kremlin, however, Putin knows he would be dooming the Russian people were he to attempt to take on NATO in a straight fight. Although Russia has invested heavily over the past two decades in its conventional and nuclear capability, it still cannot match up to the combined power of the alliance’s thirty member states and partners.

However, Putin does hold the advantage over Europe in one strategically crucial area – energy. Russia supplies the continent with 40 per cent of its gas, which provides Putin with leverage. Through state-backed companies like Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, he has his foot on the hose.

This is why Putin’s number one foreign policy concern is gas. By pushing up the cost of living or striking lucrative bilateral deals like Nord Stream 2, he can weaken the resolve of Western allies to push back against his aggression in the east and undermine friendships like that between Poland and Germany.

We only receive three to five per cent of our gas directly from Russia in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG) shipments. But this does not mean the UK is safe from this malign use of energy markets to cause harm.

The UK and Europe are connected through pipelines which bring gas from the wells to boilers in homes. North Sea gas is going up in price too, as energy companies seek to capitalise on the higher demand in Europe as countries want to replace their reduced supply from Russia. September 2021 saw a record amount of UK produced gas exported to Belgium, pushing prices further up at home.

Rises in the cost of gas leads to rises in the cost of food. All of this adds up to a cost of living crisis which is putting severe pressure on the finances of my constituents, right as we are on the tail end of a pandemic which inflicted pain and misery on everyone.

Ministers have been searching for solutions to ease the pain in the short term, but ultimately we must reduce our dependence on gas in the long term. Unfortunately, we cannot simply rely on ramping up production in the North Sea to cut bills: Norway, the world’s seventh largest gas producer and Western Europe’s largest by far, has also been hit by the price surge.

Our own North Sea gas sector, meanwhile, has struggled to increase production for several years, despite strong government support and the enshrined principle of ‘maximum economic recovery’. The basin is also heavily oil-weighted; gas only makes up around 30 per cent of remaining reserves.

Issuing new licences might be beneficial in terms of supporting the sector, but we must be realistic that new gas projects would not start producing gas for years, if not decades – certainly not in time to bring bills down. Neither would they solve the problem of price volatility.

The Government needs to find a way to protect British families, households and businesses from Putin’s games. Thankfully, it is already on the right track with its net zero policy.

Net zero is our route to ending the UK’s contribution to climate change, but also crucially, reducing our dependence on natural gas for electricity and heating has the added benefit of weakening our opponents’ position. Cheap, homegrown renewables and new nuclear energy can provide much of the long-term solution, especially once we develop storage capacity to overcome intermittency.

The Government has been forced to advise UK personnel to leave Ukraine and officials are warning against the weaponisation of energy to dissuade a European response to its bullying of a sovereign nation. Thanks to the massive advances in new energy technology, we can shield ourselves against Russia’s aggressive use of gas. We must double down on clean energy.

Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

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The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

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On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

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The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

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In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.

Daniel Hamilton: Why I see hopeful signs for democratic transition in Belarus

10 Aug

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Over the past three decades, there has been much to celebrate when it comes to the democratic transitions of countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact.

One could easily argue that the transformation of many nations in the region from command economies with next to no political rights to free-market democracies represents one of the most rapid process of political and economic change ever recorded. This has been particularly evident in Central Europe countries such as Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Baltics.

Belarus has stood apart from this trend; ruled for the past 26 years by the former Communist official Alexander Lukashenko whose governing style has more in common with that of Vladimir Putin than modern European democracies.

Much as in Russia, Lukashenko’s recent years have been characterised by the predictable pattern of behaviour that has governed his actions since 1994: a tightening of controls on internet access, the jailing of prominent opposition activists, the imposition of travel restrictions on opponents of the regime and effective rule by presidential decree.

Indeed, such is Lukashenko’s hold on power that in all his years in office, he has exercised such personal control over government that a credible internal alternative – a popular prime minister, a commanding defence minister or powerful domestic security chief – has never been allowed to emerge to challenge him. All credible opposition challengers have found themselves variously subjected to detention, torture and political exile.

In the last few years, a lazy impression has been allowed to emerge in foreign policy circles that Lukashenko has pursued – albeit tentatively – a path of cautious political reforms. Indeed, in 2016 the European Union lifted the bulk of economic and political sanctions against government-aligned firms, the president and 170 other senior figures in his administration and the country has been handed fast-track access to the Schengen Visa regime.

The problem with this narrative was and remains that these reforms were largely external posturing rather than internal and meaningful. Keen to balance historic good ties with Putin with the practical economic benefits of closer relations with European nations, Lukashenko’s administration declined to endorse Russia’s position regarding Crimea annexation and has stalled on granting the Kremlin permission to construct an air force base in Belarus.

In practical terms, Russia and Belarus remain technically tied to one another via the supranational Union State of Russia and Belarus; a 1999 treaty which, while not fully ratified, envisages an eventually Anschluss of the two nations.

For this reason, the emergence of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as arguably the first popular and viable challenger to Lukashenko in a quarter of a century is as welcome as it is, for those of us with a long-standing interest in Belarus, surprising.

Tikhanovskaya’s ascendency ought not to have been permitted by Lukashenko’s machine and owes itself to a combination of unforced errors, a good dose of hubris and old-fashioned misogyny.

Tikhanovskaya, as is so often the case in citizen-led uprisings – be it the small-town pastor László Tőkés whose harassment sparked riots against Ceauşescu in Romania or the Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation led to a wave of revulsion against the Ben Ali junta – is an unremarkable figure.

An English teacher and interpreter with no prior involvement in public life, she initially entered the race as a “placeholder” candidate for her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger whose YouTube channel rails against poor living standards in the country, after he jailed for anti-government activities.

Her nomination to run for president was accepted by the Lukashenko-controlled Electoral Commission which felt, naively, that a woman was incapable of securing popular support. Instead, the united front she was able to display with representatives of the campaigns of other jailed and disqualified candidates, saw her rallies draw crowds of up to 60,000 across the country, far outstripping any opposition activity seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Her campaign appeared to be almost hydra-headed; with government crackdowns on rallies in one city only leading to a stronger turnout in another and intimidation tactics against activists spurring yet more reluctant Belarussians to leave their homes and take to the streets.

It important to note that, while Belarussians are eager for political change, that sense rests more on a push for higher living standards and public discourse does not feature, as in other transitioning democracies such as Georgia or Ukraine, searing antipathy towards Moscow.

Indeed, a significant contributing factor to Lukashenko’s ability cling to power for so long has been his ability to insulate Belarus from much of the instability associated with economic upheaval and lawlessness that has been seen elsewhere in the former Soviet space via the maintenance of Soviet-era structures. There has essentially been a quid pro quo in place in which many older voters were willing to accept autocracy as a trade-off for stability.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign was arguably successful in that its message was a clear one: the introduction of reforms to weaken the all-powerful nature of the presidency and restore democratic oversight, the release of all political prisoners and a fresh presidential election within six months.

Tikhanovskaya’s “loss” yesterday – by an utterly implausible 80 per cent to 10 per cent margin – comes as no surprise.

Election Day itself was a predictable farce, with the Electoral Commission stating, as the polls opened, that in excess of 40 per cent of votes had already been cast during the early voting window. Numerous social media apps and VPN connections designed to circumvent government controls were reported to be inoperative, while independent election observers were denied access to all but a handful of pre-selected polling stations.

Here in the UK, reports from friends seeking to cast their ballots at the Belarusian Embassy in London yesterday say that around 300 people queued to vote, yet staff permitted only 20 per hour to enter the polling station, disenfranchising many.

It is often said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn – and that is where we are today.

The sheer brazenness of Lukashenko’s margin of a victory has left opposition forces with little choice other than to take to the streets in order to register their dissatisfaction. Indeed, the result appears almost intentionally designed to provoke the very type of street protests that were evident at the close of poll and are likely to continue in the weeks ahead.

The images of government brutality witnessed in the early hours of this morning were distressing and grimly predictable. The decision of security forces loyal to Lukashenko to deploy stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors destroys any forlorn hopes that may have existed that the government may be willing to consider a political compromise. Footage of armoured vehicles driving into crowds at speed, no doubt causing serious injuries and fatalities, is an aberration that cannot be overlooked. As Belarus wakes up this morning, the waves of revulsion will only build.

It is clear that the excitement Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has sparked in younger and ambitious middle-class Belarussians represents an aggressive reboot of civil society in the country – something that has been badly lacking in recent years.

On a personal level, seeing images of Pobeditelei Prospect, a three mile-long, six-lane drag that connects the city centre with the suburbs filled not with traffic, but political protest feels almost implausible. To me, the immaculate cleanliness of its pavements, the polished-yet-unprofitable conservatoires, the poignant museums to mark the country’s huge sacrifices in World War Two and austere Orthodox churches were symbols of Lukashenko’s sterile and autocratic rule – which is now showing signs of reaching its endgame.

This sparks the question as to how western governments ought to respond in order to place maximum pressure upon Lukashenko and best prepare the country for the democratic transition that – hopefully – lies ahead.

The re-imposition of sanctions against Lukahsenko, his key lieutenants and state-run businesses must be an immediate priority for the UK, EU and US. While critics of sanctions have argued that they may have the unintended consequence of increasing Belarussian economic dependence upon Russia in the medium-term, their imposition may yet prove to be a stabilising factor for the country.

It has long been the case that Lukashenko and key administration figures have sought to “securitise” billions in state assets in offshore banks in order to protect their personal finances in instances of political upheaval. To not cut off the country’s banking system from international payments systems at the time risks widespread asset-stripping in the coming days.

A fresh approach towards how western governments engage with civil society institutions in Belarus is also needed. The concept of an effective opposition is a new one for Belarus and political ideology, beyond a basic belief in the concept of democratic plurality, has played a limited role in the growth of support for Tikhanovskaya in recent weeks.

If change is to come in Belarus, that change will necessarily involve a fundamental overhaul of an economic structure which vests vast power in the hands of state officials at the expense of the private sector. To this extent, a strong package of technical assistance should be offered by both government and the think tank community in both Washington DC and London to help Belarussians fashion the kind of future state they wish to see – be it social democratic or centre-right.

Finally, those who wish to see the realisation of a democratic Belarus must accept that change may not come overnight.

Tikhanovskaya appears to recognise this; challenging the Electoral Commission to publish the correct, unaltered results or otherwise risk her supporters continuing their street protests throughout the coming days and weeks. These demonstrations of mass support will be critical in weakening the resolve of the domestic security apparatus who are, as I write, remaining loyal to Lukashenko and acting as de facto guarantor of his continued rule. In some outlying regions of the country, reports suggest that police have already started refusing orders to attack demonstrators.

While it’s rather passé to draw comparisons between the present situation in Belarus and the ousting of the former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, some critical lessons can be drawn from Ukraine’s recent experiences. These lessons revolve around a number of key areas: assiduous organisation of visible activities across the country, guaranteeing a united front against a common enemy even when other policy disagreements may exist, deploying the power of creativity and positivity in campaign messages and the use of social media and remaining patient and unstinting in the face of oppression.

In each of these cases, the Belarussian democratic opposition has already demonstrated their courage and fortitude.

The next days may yet prove to be difficult and bloody ones but, for Europe’s last dictatorship, change is finally coming.