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Richard Royal: Why we launched Conservative Friends of Russia

Richard RoyalRichard Royal is the Executive Chairman of Conservative Friends of Russia.

Last week we launched the Conservative Friends of Russia, a group for those with an interest in Russian politics, history, business and culture. Our aim is to improve relations between the two countries, provide a forum for open debate and help to inform decision making in business and politics.

We absolutely understood that we were embarking on a controversial project that many would try to strangle at birth. And we were right! However, in contrast to the comments of armchair critics on Twitter who have not attended our events, my inbox is bursting with positive messages of support from attendees of all backgrounds – students, businesses, MPs, charities and cultural organisations. Many media outlets have praised our bravery in tackling a thorny but necessary subject. Certainly, our membership has expanded rapidly in the last few days.

Some say there is no such thing as bad publicity, but I confess I have been astonished and deeply disappointed by some of the things written after the launch, several by people I had hoped for better from.

It’s certainly a difficult time to be launching such a group, given some political decisions in Russia that may seem alien to us. But it is simply ludicrous to attempt to tie entirely separate and independent events together in some James Bond-style conspiracy theory.

Anybody who has organised an event of the nature we held last Tuesday will know how much work and advanced preparation go into it. It takes months of planning, which is clearly detached from decisions taken thousands of miles away outside of our control. Indeed my bad habit of hoarding emails reveals that I first spoke with CCHQ about the creation of CFoR in November 2010, before anyone outside of Russia had heard of Pussy Riot!

I and the rest of the executive team have worked extremely hard to get the group up and running, each of us on a voluntary basis on the side of full time jobs. Our organisation is entirely membership based and has received no donations or sponsorship. Our financial situation was such that we each paid for our own business cards whilst the cost of things like the website came out of our own pockets. It is beyond parody for some in the media to suggest that we are some sort of Oligarch-funded infiltration device.

Similarly, to describe us as pro-Putin is pure nonsense. Our website and all of our literature has always made it extremely clear that we are a neutral forum for debate. Our membership contains a mix of people and opinions, and I think that’s fantastic. I personally love having a good discussion with someone I disagree with - it opens the mind and encourages critical thinking. What matters to me is not the opinion formed by an individual or whether I agree with it, but that they have reached it through consideration of full facts and information rather than ignorance. Unfortunately, some reactions have shown a remarkable degree of ignorance and blatant disregard of the truth.

In one of the more ridiculous episodes, it was reported that our Honorary President, the extremely established and reputable Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP had pulled out of the event at fifteen minutes' notice, fearing bad publicity. Nowhere at any time had it been said he was due to attend. Indeed, I was well aware that he was in Scotland all summer (amongst other things, he is due to speak at the Scotland-Russia Forum this month). This was independently verified by a journalist, but his cancellation was reported as fact on the basis that "two people at the event had said so". Well, I’ve had two people in my life tell me that the moon is made of cheese, and I look forward to that being a front page headline soon.

I’m also astounded by the suggestion that there shouldn’t be a Conservative Friends of Russia. We must remember that being a friend of a country and its people is not the same as being a friend of its government. By that reckoning, none of us would have been Friends of Britain between 1997 and 2010 and the entire population is to blame for the "dodgy dossier" and the expenses scandal.  How would we all feel about having our individual political opinions discarded by the world on the basis that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown clearly represent us all?

There are about 300,000 people of Russian descent in Britain, and I’ll tell you a secret... they don’t all work for the FSB! Increasingly in need of the finances brought by foreign students, British universities welcome 20,000 Russians a year, and they’re not all spies! Not every attractive Russian female in a good job is just a honeytrap! Arsenal fans didn’t petition Arsene Wenger about human rights when he signed Andrei Arshavin, nor did Chelsea fans abandon their team in disgust when it was bought by Roman Abramovich.

To judge 143 million people - among them prosperous businesspeople, distinguished academics and cultural icons - by the actions of the few is simply insane. Some of the prejudice that has been spouted in recent weeks simply wouldn’t be acceptable and would lead to serious consequences if said about any other country or group of people.

Lets also consider other ‘Friends of...’ groups on the scene. Within the Conservative Party we have Israel, hardly the least controversial of countries and whose actions sometimes even its own leaders disagree on; Pakistan, a country with its own major political problems and accusations of links to terrorism; India, which struggles with mass poverty alongside serious corruption; and Azerbaijan, whose free-wine-drinking guests at their excellent conference parties probably don’t even know its capital city, let alone the criticisms of it by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In the Labour Party there are Friends of Palestine, Colombia and Venezuela. Should we ban all of these groups or look to them as worthy vehicles for helping such countries to improve and progress? 

Whether we like it or not – and I know a lot of people don’t like it – Russia is a major player on the international scene and its importance is only going to increase. It has one of the world’s largest economies and is bursting with natural resources at a time when our economy is struggling and our energy prices are rising. Ignoring and refusing to engage with it would be akin to cutting our nose off to spite our face.

So let us welcome such groups and encourage the wealth of attitudes and opinions that are on offer. After all, we’re a liberal democracy, aren’t we?

> Last week, ConservativeHome carried an article by Garvan Walshe attacking the idea of a Conservative Friends of Russia group.


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