Team Work: Qualifying, training and preparing for an English Channel Relay Swim

Published in H2Open Magazine, July 2016channel

After flippantly agreeing to join a teammate on an English Channel relay swim – organised by Aspire, the UK’s leading spinal injury charity – I have spent the last six months going through the processes and preparations for this challenging event. Having recently returned from the first acclimatisation weekend in Dover, I hope I can provide some advice to any readers considering taking part in future.

The first thing I’d say to anybody tempted to flick past these pages because they don’t think they’re up to the challenge, is don’t let fear about your swimming ability prevent you from taking part. My assumption had been that anybody putting themselves forward for a channel relay – whereby six team members swim an hour each in rotation until they reach France – must already be an elite swimmer with exceptional endurance. This was emphatically not the case when 50 of the original 200 applicants gathered for the initial assessment day at Aspire’s HQ last November. The ages, abilities and experience of the swimmers at the beginning of the journey is very mixed, with the intention of putting those subsequently selected through their paces via training schedules and acclimatisation weekends in Dover to prepare them for the big day.

The assessment day required only a 400m timed swim which exposed some widely differing abilities – from one who was only comfortable doing breaststroke to another with a head-swaying stroke that looked exhausting over one length of the pool, never mind one hour in the ocean. I swam a steady pace and was surprised to clock the second fastest time at 6:05, whilst those who were subsequently accepted varied from 5:53 to 10:47. Coaches and former relay swimmers were on hand to offer advice, but it was clear that some lacked either the potential or the commitment to be taken forward – after all, in the middle of the Channel your team and your support crew are relying on you.IMG_9892 (1)

The aspect that worried me far more than swimming was fundraising. Each team has to raise at least £10,500, meaning £1,750 per swimmer – before being allowed to set foot on the boat. There is quite rightly no negotiation on this, and at least one bad experience has led to Aspire asking those raising less than their target to stump up the remaining cash themselves.

I made no secret of the fact that my initial motivation for taking part was the swim itself rather than the charity, and they openly recognise that this is the case for many swimmers – several of whom use it as a stepping stone to a solo attempt. I was also painfully aware that having done three big fundraisers in recent years, I was often asking the same people for money, and I felt nervous and embarrassed about doing it again. In an assessment interview I was frank about my concerns and was given a stern but fair reminder about the importance of raising money for the cause, combined with helpful tips on how to do so.

It is worth noting that in addition to the fundraising commitment there is also a less-appreciated personal financial commitment. Any channel swimmer has to pass a medical assessment which with some shopping around and bartering you can get for £50 (or occasionally even free), but without such efforts could be closer to £500. There are three compulsory acclimatisation weekends in Dover, which for most people would require at least one, but ideally two nights in a hotel plus travel. The day of the swim itself will require the same. On the first weekend swimmers were asked to give another £15 for a swim cap (as if swimmers don’t have enough already!), a Dover Swimmers’ Beach membership and pool entry. Most regular swimmers are used to coughing up plenty of cash for event entries, kit and travel, but if I had one criticism about the experience so far it would be these other relatively hidden costs which can add up and might price-out some less well-off individuals, and it is important for budding relayers to be aware of these expenses before signing up.110616 - UK - Dover - Dover Soul Shoot - 423

If I had begun the assessment day with any apathy towards the significance of the charity’s work or my own small contribution to it, I ended it feeling motivated and inspired to make a difference. We were given a talk by a former triathlete who had been paralysed after being knocked off her bike by a careless driver. She had found Aspire’s support invaluable after this life-changing event, which had necessitated job changes, house moves and getting to grips with the confusing world of benefit entitlements. Looking around the room as she spoke, I noticed several people in tears. It was a stark reminder that a spinal injury can affect anybody regardless of age, fitness or lifestyle, at any point and without warning, and Aspire is there to offer support from day one. I’ll certainly be remembering that whenever I feel cold and tired during our crossing.

Those swimmers selected from the assessment day were grouped into six teams of six – each team named after a fish – chosen roughly on the basis of geography to enable the teams to train together. There is an emphasis on mixing strong experienced swimmers with those less proficient to encourage learning and improvement through teamwork. The aim is inclusion, not record-breaking.

From the moment of selection it is important to engage in regular training. I benefited hugely from already being a member of a masters club, and would highly recommend fellow and future relayers to join one if they haven’t already. However, often masters’ sessions are geared towards short-distance pool swimmers and it is important to get comfortable with longer distances without the regular breaks offered by coached sets. The type of stroke needed to cope for longer sessions in open water is also very different, tending to focus on a longer reach and more methodical kicking to conserve energy. I spent many hours watching guidance videos online and have booked an underwater video analysis session in an attempt to improve this aspect of my stroke.

Then of course there’s the importance of stepping beyond the comfort of a warm indoor pool and into significantly colder water outdoors. Thankfully there’s now a wealth of opportunities to swim outdoors throughout the year including in lidos (heated and unheated), venues like the Serpentine and a number of lakes. I started by squeezing in a few outdoor lido sessions each week and around Easter I began open water training again, in a wetsuit to begin with, then gradually relying on it less.13227344_10209834315834167_7418670860879890071_o

You can never escape the initial feeling of shock that submerging yourself in incredibly cold water gives your body and brain, although it is intriguing to see how people are differently affected and how they deal with it. Nowhere was this more obvious than when the 36 swimmers were asked to enter the 10.8c water in Dover harbour for the first time at the beginning of May. Some opted to get in and get swimming as quickly as possible, others stood nervously on the pebbly beach taking one small step at a time. I was somewhere in between the two extremes – the water felt fine until it reached my knees then got progressively worse – but I was in no doubt that the best method was just to get on with it rather than to hesitate.

I was genuinely surprised at how much the cold water around my chest affected my breathing, or lack of it, and I opted to do a few strokes on my back until it calmed down before turning onto my front and attempting some freestyle. Anybody who has tried putting their face in the water at this temperature knows that the brain-freeze is unimaginable. The extremities of my body and my shoulders in particular also felt incredibly cold.

We swam about 150m to a pole at one side of the beach, during which time almost every particle in my body was telling me to stop and get out, but my stubborn side, combined with the collective sense of bravado, stopped me from doing so. At the pole several swimmers stopped to tread water and check that everybody felt equally awful, before beginning a 1,150m round trip to a distant groyne and back to the beach. This part of the swim felt much more do-able, arguably even enjoyable, as the initial cold sting was substituted by warming pins and needles. From that point on, I told myself that the pain only lasted until the first pole, and this helped me cope with it psychologically.

Over the weekend we did four sea swims of gradually increasing time and distance – the focus was on time spent in the water, with different swimmers covering varying distances in that time. By the fourth swim I was doing 2km and finding it pleasant, although on arriving back at the beach I was advised to get warm quickly because my back was turning blue, a reminder that sometimes we can get carried away and need teammates looking out for us.IMG_9867

In between each swim, we’re taught to get dry and clothed as quickly as possible, which is a real challenge when you have limited dexterity and you’re trying to preserve some dignity. I felt fine for the first few minutes after getting out of the water, but 5-10 minutes later my temperature seemed to drop considerably despite putting on several layers, a hat and gloves. I was still shivering ninety minutes later when we had to go back into the water, a deliberate test of the swimmers’ endurance which will be essential when preparing for their second or third leg of the relay.

I always tend to over-prepare but I was surprised at how important some of those preparations were. A waterproof picnic blanket I’d thrown in the car at the last minute was a godsend on the sharp pebbles, as were some old ‘splasher’ shoes. I thought I was over-compensating by wearing two long-sleeve t-shirts, a hikers fleece and a winter coat, but I could have happily worn more. Many swimmers also used dryrobes or sleeping bags, which help with both warmth and changing. I was glad to have opted for tracksuit bottoms which were easy to put on, but next time will take an additional pair of joggers as my legs were surprisingly cold. Jeans or trousers with fiddly zips and buttons should be avoided.

The weekend of sea swims was rounded off by a challenging two hour training session in the local pool, where teams also competed in nail-biting 6x200m relay races, and a well-deserved dinner at a local restaurant where the beer tasted particularly good.110616 - UK - Dover - Dover Soul Shoot - 439

The journey so far has been both demanding and rewarding, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I question my sanity in signing up. But I’ve surprised myself in many ways so far, feeling a sense of achievement after pushing my boundaries and stepping outside of my comfort zone. Not forgetting that we’re doing this for a vitally important cause, with this year’s teams likely to contribute over £75,000 to Aspire’s support for those suffering spinal injury. I’m now eager to attend the next two training weekends and can’t wait for the relay itself, currently scheduled for August 17th.

Richard Royal is a member of the 2016 Team Eel. You can support him and Aspire here.

If you are interested in taking part in an Aspire Channel Relay, you can view more information here

‘Vaccinating’ against Water-based Tragedies

In a previous edition of H2Open mpools closedagazine I wrote of my concern that the UK faced an inter-generational swimming crisis due to the lack of facilities and teaching (‘No Country For Young Swimmers’ June/July edition), and the very real threat of increased drowning incidents as a result.

Whilst I’ve been delighted at the response, the numbers sharing my concern confirms that a crisis is indeed on the cards. Despite this, I’ve been somewhat comforted by the efforts of several readers with existing effective initiatives to combat this serious issue.

One example is ‘Flip and Float’, an approach pioneered in the UK by swimming teacher Sue Brown, which has been taught to 400 children in the last three years. It mirrors the US-based Infant Swimming Resource’s ‘Self Rescue’ method, created by paediatric drowning prevention specialist Dr Harvey Barnett.

The technique teaches young children who find themselves struggling in the water to turn onto their back, using their body’s natural buoyancy whilst they breathe, regain calm and cry for help. Stunning online videos show infants as young as six months mastering this life-saving concept. Older children also learn how to alternate between floating on their back and paddling towards safety on their front.

“The priority is to find the air but in order to do this children also need to be at ease with being in the water” Brown says “these two skills are lifesaving and the child can subsequently remove themselves from daflip1nger or alert someone who can”.

The method is targeted primarily at 4-7 year olds and is taught with the aid of otter and turtle toy-mascots, animals known for their own use of similar concepts in their natural aquatic environments.

Given our often blame-based culture it’s surprising to hear Dr Barnett understand (but not excuse) parental lapses of supervision, arguing that the motivation of a baby who has been shown how to breathe and survive exceeds that of a parent remembering to close a gate. Incredibly, 88% of drownings are ‘supervised’ and every incident-free day can reinforce a parents’ sometimes blasé luck-based strategy. Hence, building such survival skills into the cognitive structures at an early age enables children revisiting the situation to instinctively know what to do. In this way he refers to the skill as a ‘vaccination’ like any other, where the body learns how to automatically combat a potential life-threat.

This is not to disregard responsibility and other preventative methods, but recognising that accidents do occur, we should equip children with the necessary tools should they find themselves in difficulty.Water_Safety

Reminding children (and adults) of the inherent danger of water and the respect it should command is equally important. Drowning causes nearly as many accidental deaths as transport accidents, yet the funding given to prevention initiatives is miniscule in comparison. At school I was shown numerous ‘don’t play near train tracks’ videos but can’t recall any water-based equivalents, despite growing up in a seaside town. With schools lacking actual pool-time, classroom-based learning is vital. Basic concepts like those mentioned and essential principles like kicking off your shoes when in difficulty can still be taught with minimal resources.

Where these are taught, teachers report higher levels of subsequent participation in swimming, such as children going on to join local clubs and compete. It’s worth remembering that a parents’ ability to swim is a key determinant of child’s proficiency, making these skills self-perpetuating.

Swimming is a sport that many of us enjoy recreationally and coSwim Lessons Children 2_920x550mpetitively, but is the only one that doubles as a lifesaving skill. The more that initiatives such as ‘flip and float’ can be supported and encouraged, the more we can minimise tragedy whilst maximising the number of future swimmers who can share the enjoyment of the pools and open water that we so often take for granted.

(This article is due to feature in H2Open Magazine, December 2014/January 2015 edition)

View my personal website here –

No Country for Young Swimmers: UK Risks Inter-Generational Swimming Crisis


In November last year I visited Cambodia, a bewildering array of dusty streets, endless no-swimming-if-you-cant-swim-400x257fields and historic monuments. Water occupies a special place in the heart of Cambodians and in the country’s culture. Although it has a relatively short coastline, much of the country is low-lying and perpetually half-flooded, containing a portion of the mighty Mekong River and a 16km2 ‘Great Lake’. It even boasts a three-day ‘Water Festival’ which competes with New Year as the most important and exuberant national holiday.

Yet as I splashed around in the Gulf of Thailand and embarked on the obligatory snorkelling trip to nearby islands, I noticed a funny thing. The locals never left the beaches or the boats. Those that did only dared to do so when sporting ludicrously bulky life-jackets or clutching other flotation aids.

It turns out that many Cambodians cannot swim, a problem not unique across South-East Asia where a child drowns every 45 seconds and drowning is often the single largest cause of accidental death amongst children. In 2010 the famous Cambodian Water Festival ended in tragedy as nearly 400 people died in Phnom Penh, many of them drowning after trying to escape from the crushed celebrations on a bridge over the Mekong.Cambodian-police-on-Rainb-001

Looking at those sat nervously on the boat whilst I happily paddled around alongside brightly coloured fish in the warm sea, I pondered how lucky I was to have the often taken-for-granted skill of swimming, and how tragic it was that so many people in such a populous part of the world are completely unable to experience not only this fantastic sport but also many other activities that are made possible through it.

But how far are we from having a similar situation in the UK? Closer than we might dare to think. Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death amongst children in England, with incidents increasing by a shocking 35% in 2012. With floods becoming a near annual occurrence of late, this is only likely to become more of a problem for both children and adults. In the same year, a report by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) revealed that a third of children – 200,000 each year or 2 million over ten years – cannot swim by the time they leave primary school.

The national curriculum recommends that state schools provide pupils with 22 hours of swimming per year in an effort to secure the minimum standard of an 11 year old being able to swim the length of an average pool (25m) unaided. Yet the ASA report disclosed that the average time spent in a pool is a measly eight hours per year and that 51% of pupils leaving primary school could not accomplish the 25m target.

To most accomplished swimmers these figures are horrifying. After all, 25m is not a long distance, even for a child, and being able to swim this in the security of a swimming pool would rarely equate to safety in a dangerous and unforeseen scenario in open water. It is no wonder that 40% of parents don’t believe their child could swim to safety if in trouble.

So why aren’t we investing more time, money and effort in teaching children the only sport that also doubles as a lifesaving skill? SONY DSC

Having it within the national curriculum clearly isn’t enough as 60% of parents admit that their child isn’t receiving swimming lessons in school. Educational institutions are under all sorts of pressures, not least budgetary, and without it being properly enforced, swimming lessons simply slip down the priority scale. Neither Ofsted nor Local Authorities seem to keep track of participation and the Government is often too busy reinforcing traditional subjects to crack the whip.

As such, more than a third of children – some 75,000 each year – leave primary school having never been offered the opportunity to learn to swim during school time. Being unable to rely on it in school adds pressure on parents and creates a natural imbalance towards those who can afford the time and money for private lessons, a luxury reserved for only a quarter of families, whilst at the other end of the scale a quarter say they can’t afford pool entry fees. With 20% of adults being unable to swim themselves, they are unlikely to be able to teach or encourage their children to do so, leading to the potential for an inter-generational deficiency amongst particular sectors of society.

The problem can be made more acute by poverty but this is not the basis of the difficulty. Despite having similar deprivation statistics, 86% of pupils in Liverpool can swim 25m whilst only 26% of those in Middlesbrough can do the same. Other deprivation hot-spots like Stockport, Oldham and the London Borough of Islington boast impressively high figures of young swimmers, whilst similar London Boroughs like Merton and Redbridge, and the ‘new town’ of Milton Keynes languish at the bottom of the list.Renovations-no-pool

Nor is the issue necessarily one of access to facilities, despite this apparently being the main problem according to schools themselves. Whilst the average distance that anybody in England has to travel to a swimming pool is 3.6 miles, both the top and bottom five local authorities have up to a dozen pools within a few miles of their centres, albeit of varying quality.

The key question is not just whether a swimming pool is within an accessible distance, but how much it costs to hire. Of course inevitably due to the laws of supply and demand, the more pool closures we see, the higher the cost of existing pools will become.

This problem is not unique to schools but also to junior, senior and masters swimming clubs throughout the country. Very few schools and colleges have their own pool these days and most of those that do muddle along in outdated facilities. When I was selecting a University, I remember access to a pool being a prerequisite of my selection, but they were few and far between. And with cash-strapped Local Authorities often ill-equipped to manage such facilities, it often falls to luxury hotels and private health clubs to provide the community with – and hold clubs to hostage for – access to a decent body of contained chlorinated water. My own club, West London Penguins, has faced this issue recently, with Virgin Active trebling the cost of lane hire overnight without feasible justification.

Nevertheless the problem isn’t merely one of funding but also of prioritisation and efficiency. Clubs and schools at all levels face a very real issue of balancing a sport which requires expensive facilities but is not considered a priority by those who hold the purse strings and make the decisions within educational institutions, councils or governments. Far too often those bodies tasked with resolving these problems show all the competence of a pair of leaky goggles.

It is always easy to blame Government cuts for the problems, but plenty of private and public money has been poured into school sport over the years without any apparent impact on swimming provision. In addition to that already set aside, the £150m ring-fenced Olympic Legacy Fund has provided primary schools across the country with around £9k each for investment in sports whilst companies like Kelloggs invest £1.5m into community swimming projects and British Gas provide innovative temporary pools during school term time. Unfortunately any funds that are not specifically designated for swimming tend to go towards other sports.

I am surprised that it isn’t pushed more in Parliament. There are a handful of swimming fans sat on the famous green benches, with Charlotte Leslie MP being a former competitive swimmer and others like Rt Hon Chris Bryant MP, John Cryer MP and Lord Paddick taking part in the annual Commons vs Lords swimming race and the popular 67638Brighton Pier to Pier swim. Recently we’ve also seen Portsmouth MP Penny Mordaunt taking part in TV reality series ‘Splash!’ to raise money for her local community lido. Yet presumably none of them have  established an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) – the committees which seek to discuss and lobby on particular areas of interest – dedicated to swimming. Meanwhile, there are APPGs for American Football, Opera and Folk Arts.

Nor are the vital life-saving qualities of the sport given adequate priority by the powers-that-be. Transport accidents and asphyxia are the only two more common causes of accidental death amongst children in England, yet when compared to the campaigns we see for child road safety (Think!; Brake; cycling proficiency; seatbelts and child seats in cars; bicycle helmets; road crossing improvements) or asphyxia prevention (plastic bags and pens with air-holes; toy safety regulations; advice on cot-death prevention), the focus on the issue of drowning is miniscule.

Without wanting to push an already stretched educational system too much, I would also argue the importance of basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques being taught in secondary schools.

Like many swimmers, I spent a good portion of my early adult life working as a lifeguard, which requires regular training and certification through the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS). I was lucky enough never have to put this into practice in a professional setting, but I’ve certainly witnessed potentially dangerous incidents in my personal life which I’ve been able to handle more calmly and effectively having had this background. Like a footballer taking a decisive penalty kick, when nerves can get the better of you there is no substitute for practice and technique.CPR_training-05

I did have a lifeguarding colleague who, walking down her local high street one day, saw a man collapse in front of her, seemingly having a heart attack. The training sessions we had done in this area allowed her to deal appropriately with the situation and even revive the man when he stopped breathing, helping to save his life.

How many more lives could be saved if the same prioritisation was given to swimming, first aid and lifesaving skills as is currently given to trigonometry, analysing Shakespeare and memorising the order of the periodic table?

The reality is that faced with very few carrots and a lot of sticks, schools face a multitude of reasons not to prioritise an activity which has numerous benefits for the individual and for society as a whole. Unless all institutions get their rubber ducks in a row, we’ll soon find ourselves splashing around in the water whilst increasing numbers sit nervously on the side-lines with their life-jackets within the UK, just like in South-East Asia.

Proposals to get more kids swimming

  • Ofsted to monitor & Government to fully enforce curriculum requirements and penalise non-compliance
  • Government-backed interest-free loans for refurbishing and protecting existing school pools
  • Basic first aid and lifesaving skills incorporated into secondary schools’ PE or Citizenship classes
  • Local Authorities to enforce discounted use of pool lanes by local schools and clubs as a condition of planning permission/sale of council pools to private companies
  • For the provision of leisure facilities to be made a statutory service for local authorities
  • MPs to create an All Party Parliamentary Group dedicated to Swimming

 – Richard Royal is a professional political consultant, an approved parliamentary candidate and a competitive swimmer



– This article is due to be featured in H2Open Magazine

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Daley’s Bravery Reveals Our Own Flaws

Firstly let me make a point of solidarity with Tom Daley… As a competitive swimmer who also has to wear speedos a lot, I know how it feels to get more attention than you might like from both women and men, some of whom are bound to suffer disappointment.Image

But to have the full glare of the media focusing not only on your aquatic techniques but also on your swimwear and your personal life is tough for a nineteen year old.

Tom Daley has been brave, honest and authentic in his approach this week. He has pre-empted any kiss-and-tell tabloids ‘exposing him’ and promoted himself as a genuine, truthful human being who we can now all love that little bit more every time he balances on the edge of a springboard.

The manner in which he did it was innovative and ensured his audience received his undiluted message, on his terms.

However, the question for me is not where or how this has been done, but why it needs to be done at all.

After all, a person’s sexuality is nobody’s business but their own. Tom Daley has never professed to be something he is not, never led a contradictory public and private life. Who he is in a relationship with makes no difference to his ability to compete in diving competitions, which is the only thing on which we should be judging him on.

His throw-away comment that “of course he still fancies girls” hinted that he was slightly less comfortable than his gesture suggested. Why “of course”? Why does it matter?

Apparently his family and friends gave mixed advice, some of the more proactive suggesting he do a magazine cover or an exclusive TV interview. Why not reassure him that he shouldn’t feel any pressure to do anything?

Apparently he keeps being asked in interviews about whether he has a girlfriend and gets photographed whenever he is out and about with someone. The interviewers and photographers clearly think this is important to us. Is it? Does it impact upon the likelihood of him winning Gold medals for our country? Is it really so vital that we want to push a person to tell the nation what many of us wouldn’t tell our friends?

Daley may well have come out of this smelling of chlorine-quenched roses, but plenty of other ‘celebrities’ – and indeed many ‘normal’ people – have been destroyed by our incessant demand to know the details of their intimate activities.

Whilst our media and the public praises his fearless stance and bold approach, it also needs to think carefully about why a young man at a sensitive time in his teenage years feels forced into making public pronouncements about his personal life.

It may well fill a few pages in a newspaper and give us something to talk about down the pub, but an individual’s existence is worth more than that, isn’t it?

Remembering not Repeating: Why We Should Wear The Poppy

The falling leaves, icy winds and the sight of elderly people sitting with donation tins in tube stations can only mean one thing. November is approaching and it is time for what is becoming an almost annual debate around the issue of Remembrance Day and the use of its various symbols. poppy_appeal_boxes_430x305

Recent years have seen the accusation of ‘poppy fascism’ amongst public figures not keen on being forced to wear the Remembrance Poppy weeks in advance, as well as FIFA preventing the English football team from sporting it on their kit and even a young man arrested for posting a photo of the burning flower on Facebook.

This year, the funky-named Telford-based Methodist Minister ‘Reverend PJ’ announced that she will refuse to wear a red poppy when conducting her service on November 10th. Arguing that the coloured flower as a symbol “advocates war” she proclaimed that she would instead opt to wear a white poppy in support of peace. As someone who refuses to use any symbol referring to warfare, presumably she must also request that the non-pacific sections of The Bible are torn out or presented in Wingdings font.

The Church Minister declared that it was her “democratic right” to refuse to wear the poppy. Indeed it is, but as someone held in high regard by her local community and an overseer of rites of passage including the funerals of former soldiers, she cannot expect to take such decisions without consequence.

The University of London Union (ULU) went a step further, imposing the ‘democratic right’ of a minority upon members of staff who wished to attend the Remembrance Service as representatives of the institution. The University, which ironically comprises Kings College and its world-renowned War Studies department, stated that it has a “proud tradition of opposing war and militarism”. flanders_field

Yet these decisions, as is so often the case, were based not on sound rational foundations but instead predicated upon a complete misrepresentation of the poppy’s symbolic meaning.

ULU’s statement said that “official ‘Remembrance’ ceremonies and the campaign around them glorify and justify Britain’s role in world politics and British militarism”. I’ve never seen any evidence of any glorification or justification or war associated with Remembrance Day, only illustrations of grief and sorrow.

Only last year one of ULU’s Vice Presidents refused to lay a wreath due to his “socialist principles” and opposition to the “colonial scramble for possessions”. At no time have I read a card attached to any such wreath declaring the need to bequeath more blood to retake lost imperial territory.

Whilst the white poppy, introduced in 1926 bearing the inscription ‘No More War’ and first sold by the Women’s Cooperative Guild in the critical year of 1933, was a noble enough idea it did make the implicit but entirely illogical assumption that those wearing the red version supported more war. Yet certainly now, even if not at the time, this can’t be further from the truth. poppies

The red poppy has held a symbolic role ever since it sprang from the churned up soil of the Western Front. The sight of the silent, delicate but vibrant flower which grew “between the crosses, row on row” in the fields of Flanders stood in marked contrast to the death, destruction and drab featureless terrain which existed during and immediately following the intense fighting. The emblematic red petals were to many representative of the blood disseminated across that landscape. Witnessing such a spectacle could not fail to provoke a heady mix of emotional human responses and a desire to remember those lying below the surface.

Few such witnesses, nor friends and family of those who fought and died could have had much appetite for further bloodshed, even if many of them were to experience another bout within their own lifetime regardless of their hopes.

To suggest that those who chose the poppy as a symbol of their grief did so in glorification of conflict is absurd. For individuals nearly a century later to prescribe such symbolism upon, and thereby refuse to recognise it as a result is a monumental insult. poppy-poster

Spanish-American poet George Santayana rightly said that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Opposing future conflicts and unnecessary loss of life should not equate to a blanket refusal to recognise and remember the sacrifice made – often involuntarily – by our ancestors.

Many of those who lost loved ones during the two World Wars would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the red poppy-disapprovers in opposition to further warfare, but would have done so in remembrance of rather than in spite of their loss.

If supposed pacifists such as Rev. PJ and the ULU wish to protest against warfare, the best way for them to do so is to lay a wreath and wear the poppy whilst arguing their case rationally and intelligently on behalf of those that it represents.

          Richard Royal is a Public Affairs consultant. His blog ‘Lionheart’s Lair’ can be viewed at


Has Navalny’s Mayoral Challenge Transformed Russian Politics?

Today (8th September) Muscovites go to the polls in what is one of the most fascinating elections in Russian history.

That sounds a bold statement, but when you consider that ‘free’ elections have only existed in Russia for a little over twenty years and that most have been a foregone conclusion with little competition, you realise that it’s not actually saying much. Perhaps the only other comparison is the election for Yeltsin’s second term in 1996, a battle which had its own fair share of swindles and conspiracies.

However, this election is peculiar not just because of the candidates involved but also due to the circumstances surrounding it, the seemingly new methods of electioneering, and the potential for the ushering in of a brighter future in the world’s largest country.

The 2013 Moscow Mayoral election, the first in the capital for ten years, pits incumbent and Putin-backed favourite Sergei Sobyanin against Alexei Navalny, a man who just two months ago was sentenced to five years imprisonment for embezzlement. Observers are still scratching their heads as to why Navalny was released on bail the day after his sentencing, allowing him to unexpectedly take part in the contest. Theories range from conflicting support amongst the power elite to the concept of creating the façade of a real contest to provide the expected victor with greater legitimacy. The only thing we’re certain of is that Navalny has been allowed to contest the election, and that has transformed it.

Taking his inspiration from Western election campaigns, he has flooded Moscow with bands of young enthusiastic volunteers, under the banner of ‘Change Russia – Start with Moscow”. The prospect of this change is exhilarating, albeit a regular injection of reality is needed to remind oneself of the limitations. It is not easy to assess if his campaign has worked as effectively on the ground as it has in the Western media, who tend to deify any non-Kremlin individual.

As a veteran of political campaigning in the UK, I find Navalny’s approach impressive and in-keeping with what fellow politicos would come to expect from seasoned electioneers. He has perfected the ‘staring intently into the middle distance’ pose in his posters which help to project him as a visionary, whilst his adverts and photo-calls paint him as the normal family man which you’d expect to see on a breakfast cereal commercial. He has ditched the politician’s suit in favour of open neck shirts with rolled up sleeves or polo shirts, in contrast to his formal looking opponents. His activists are young and spritely, energising those they hand leaflets to, whilst other candidates surround themselves with dour looking heavies.

But interestingly, whilst we might be used to this approach in the UK, it is not how things are usually done in Russia, where it isn’t as easy to break through the greyness that usually characterises its domestic politics. Alexei Navalny supporters hand out flyers in front of a poster during the mayoral campaign in Moscow

“That election poster is hilarious!” says Evgeniya, a 29-year-old professional who recently returned to Moscow after several years working in London.  “He looks like he is waiting for aliens to land!” Nor does his wider campaign impress her… “It is too American for us. It’s so sugary it makes my teeth rot”.

Yet you can’t deny the impressive reach that Team Navalny has achieved… “They’re on every street corner, you can’t avoid them” she says. Navalny has a core team of about twenty activists, supported by an office of around one hundred and an army of several thousand activists out on the street. Yet such masses of followers cannot necessarily overcome a central problem of perception.

Referring to Navalny as being “like a robot” her Muscovite friend Alexander asserts that “most Russians do not trust him. They think he is too fake and are not blind to where his money has come from”. He is alluding to the allegations of American funding which caused one other candidate, the ever-aggressive Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to propose the filing of a complaint to the Prosecutor General. Whether actual money has come from such sources, it is clear that knowledge, expertise and influence has. Visionary posters and leaflets aside, he openly admits that several of his policy ideas came from watching US TV show ‘The Wire’.

There is also a danger that in concentrating all our attention upon the remarkable travails of Navalny, we neglect the possibility that the front-runner Sergei Sobyanin may have genuine popularity.

“Most people will be voting for Sobyanin regardless, it seems like he has done a lot, there are visible changes in Moscow particularly in public spaces like parks, and he has hired people from abroad to advise on things like the transport system” Evgeniya tells me, referring to the apparent ‘beautification project’ and Boris Bikes that have made an appearance in recent years.

In many ways the fact that such a spotlight has been placed upon one man – an individual not without his fair share of shady experiences – is a sad indictment of the state of Russian politics and an indication of why his campaign is so important.

The history of Russia and the chaos of the 1990s has left people confused by politics, uncertain about their rights and liberties. Navalny has shone a torch upon this dark path, showing Russians that they have a right to ask their representatives questions and to demand answers about where their money goes. Yet fighting corruption and pointing fingers is one thing, having a serious coherent manifesto and practical policies is another.

Does he stand a chance of winning? Most commentators say he will be lucky to push Sobyanin into a second round run-off by denying him more than 50% of the vote. Current polls place Navalny at around 20%, although one member of his team tells me that they’re on at least 30%. Yet the likely victory of Sobyanin is liable to be something of a pyrrhic victory, with Navalny losing the battle but winning the long-term war of undermining and potentially overthrowing the entrenched elites which have until now retained power through a heavy hand and popular apathy.

“He won’t be allowed to win, if there was any sign of this the corruption charges would be raised again and he would be sent back to jail” says Alexander, echoing the popular conspiracy theory around his prior release.

Even a tireless member of Navalny’s central campaign team, a 29-year old blonde beauty typical of his entourage, refutes the suggestion that he can win, conceding that “we are not the majority, and each nation gets the government it deserves”. A mixture of apathy, lack of understanding and the perception that things are better than they were a decade or two ago makes it difficult to stimulate change, but “we need to change that” she adds.

Asking if she thinks the election has been ‘fair’, she says “It’s not a fair fight but it makes our work interesting because we have needed to be very creative”. When I ask about the likelihood of electoral fraud she says “it will happen for sure, but it can be overcome if we can secure 12-15 observers at each voting station”. Such electoral observation, common in the West, has become a bugbear in Russia, where Putin has prohibited many international bodies by classifying them as ‘foreign agents’, although official representatives of the candidates are permitted to oversee the counting of votes.

Russia is clearly still a long way from anything that we are used to seeing in the West, but the Moscow Mayoral election, bizarre as its circumstances are, show signs of a step in the right direction.

Regardless of the result in this contest, the involvement of one man, taking his inspiration from British and American election campaigns, has succeeded in instigating a grass-roots movement that has invigorated one of the world’s great cities and offered a life-line to a generation that felt submerged by a stagnant political system.

As someone with both a nerdy enthusiasm for elections and a desire to see Russia in a healthier state inside and out, I think the inclusion of Alexei Navalny in the Moscow Mayoral election can only have beneficial consequences for the future.

Twitter: lionheartroyal / lionheartslair

The Daily Troll: Newspapers should look in the mirror as well as under the bridge

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In recent weeks there have been renewed calls for social networking sites such as twitter and to provide greater user protection and clamp down on ‘trolls’ – not the creatures under the bridge, but those who purposely create discord, antagonise and upset people online for the sake of their own enjoyment. It follows numerous tragic and disturbing cases involving threats of violence, defacement of memorial pages and several suicides.

Some national newspapers have since launched online campaigns and petitions rightly calling for action against trolling. In the case of The Mirror this involves the perfectly reasonable (albeit difficult to police) call for incitement of suicide to be made a criminal offence, and for the provision of a more effective reporting procedure on social networking sites.

The Media as a Tribe of Trolls

It is fair to praise those newspapers that pick up the gauntlet to launch campaigns and petitions against trolling, but we also have to question the sincerity of some of these crusades and their accompanying stories. Brazenly encouraging families to publicly air their personal grief, whilst inducing readers into a collective on-going battle against faceless enemies as a panacea to their own morbid fascination is indeed a reliable way to sell newspapers.

But quite apart from the motivations of such campaigns, surely the newspapers and their writers should look in the mirror before preaching to others. After all, journalists themselves often exhibit some of the worst attributes of the trolling culture.Internet-Troll

Granted, journalists aren’t (I hope) sending anonymous rape or bomb threats, nor telling us to “do us all a favour n kill urself” as one disgusting cyberbully wrote to 14 year-old Hannah Smith prior to her suicide. But there is a remarkably fine line between the bullying that the media likes to condemn and that which it actively pursues.

Lord Leveson the troll slayer

It was only last December that Lord Justice Leveson described the media as having “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” and one might argue that a national newspaper or website, with a variety of mechanisms at its disposal, can do so on a much grander and more dangerous scale than can an individual on twitter. Yet whilst the newspapers continue to paint themselves as virtuous dragon-slayers in one arena, they refuse to be scrutinised and regulated in another.

Last year an Australian newspaper launched a similar campaign against internet trolls, whilst without a hint of irony declaring the evil of “mercilessly attacking not just celebrities and sports stars but other everyday users simply for the thrill”. Of course this comes with the territory for many journalists who mercilessly attack not just for thrill but also for sales.

Newspapers seem unaware of the irony. No sooner did The Mirror lambast the ‘faceless troll’ who harassed Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, than they showed his face to the country, providing its entire readership with his name and location and labelling him as a “jobless hermit”. Whilst I’m all for such tough stances if it creates a deterrent, for a publication that seeks to lead a campaign urging responsibility in these matters, such witch-hunting threatens to undermine its own aims.

But then this is the same paper that provides a regular double-page spread to ‘The 3am Girls’, gossip columnists who love to mock celebrities, have been exposed several times for allegedly falsifying stories, and once published a radio presenter’s personal mobile phone number so that readers could harass him for the sake of their own amusement. images

Let us also not forget that The Mirror, alongside other tabloids, was successfully sued for defamation and fined for being in contempt of court after carrying out a despicable character assassination upon a wholly innocent man during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2011. The appalling media handling of the case was one of the Leveson Inquiry’s central examples of the press’ mercenary approach to individuals.

The latest addition of former Mirror editor and Life Stories tear-enforcer Piers Morgan as self-appointed troll-hunter-in-chief is beyond absurd. Morgan was singled out by Leveson as being “sufficiently unembarrassed by what was criminal behaviour that he was prepared to joke about [the hacking of individuals’ phones]”. His on-going correction of the spelling and grammar of not only trolls but almost anybody on his radar is amusing to start with, then rather tiresome, and ultimately somewhat vindictive. I hate poor language as much as the next person, but unless Mr Morgan is genuinely seeking to teach people good English (which I very much doubt) he is skirting awfully close to the condescending proposition that only those able to express their views without the slightest linguistic error are allowed to have a voice. Publicly belittling the argument of someone who may be dyslexic is comparable to trolling in my book.

The Leveson Inquiry brought forward a mountain of examples where the media had clearly overstepped the line with “ordinary members of the public caught up in events far larger than they could cope with but made much worse by press behaviour that can only be described as outrageous”. It also highlighted recklessness, a drive to sensationalise and a lack of concern for the harm caused or for the rights of those affected. Are these not also the key characteristics of the internet troll?

The absence of responsibility or recourse

Of course those able to pen stories in national media should know better. Children and teenagers like those who encouraged Hannah Smith to end her life can be incredibly spiteful and cruel but often lack full insight into the implications of their actions. Adults who have a good education, a professional career and experience of the realities of life should surely have sounder judgement. But it seems that a fog descends in the pursuit of a story, and things are definitely getting foggier.

Something peculiar happens both online and in print media which rarely happens outside these communication methods. Lancaster University’s Dr Claire Hardaker calls it the ‘Gyges Effect’ referring to Plato’s tale of a ring of invisibility that corrupted even the most morally upstanding person. The internet disinhibits people and removes empathy, reducing an emotional exchange between two fragile human beings to a faceless combat of words on a screen. The mass media is also effectively detached from the impact upon an individual and from any deterrent, given the lack of legal aid for defamation, meaning that only the rich can challenge inaccurate, misleading or damaging comments.

Dr Hardaker wrote about the psychology of trolling in a guest column in The Guardian. Perhaps she could have also consulted one of its journalists who last year hounded my friends on the other side of the world in search of information about me before needlessly slapping me on its front page in pursuit some ludicrously tenuous story, prompting panicked phone-calls from my family checking up on my own well-being.

I have witnessed first-hand how journalists grasp at an issue then hunt and harass until they can claim a scalp. The story in the newspaper is merely the tip of the iceberg, and is usually accompanied by horrendous tactics on other platforms, including twitter where insults are hurled provocatively like exploratory depth-charges. The permanent nature of anything written online makes it all the more important that people think before they press enter, rather than flippantly tossing quotes into cyberspace that can damage careers.

The damage done and the protection needed080747_Cyber_Bullying

It is easy to see how not just schoolchildren and teenagers can be driven to despair by something written online for all to see. For any professional person, having your character and judgement questioned and criticised publicly is a serious issue, but one for which there is no protection or recourse.

People of all age and backgrounds need protection. One in four adults suffer from mental health problems and can be highly susceptible to insensitive comments that others might dismiss as banter. There is a notable spike in both prevalence of mental health disorders and suicide (still incredibly the leading cause of death amongst males under 35) in middle age, contrary to the myth of this being an issue of adolescence. Provocative, antagonistic and disturbing comments made publicly can be as harmful whether they are received by a 14 year-old girl with concerns about eczema or a politician championing a personal cause.

There is a quite disgraceful common argument that ‘public figures’ such as politicians choose to put themselves in the media eye and are therefore somehow a legitimate target for offensive comments and dogged harassment. Unfortunately, public figures don’t come equipped with an extra emotional shield that the rest of us are lacking, and they are plagued with the same self-doubts and worries that senseless antagonism can push over the edge, just like anybody else.

So how about newspapers such as The Mirror, in tandem with its calls for better regulation of social networking sites, also submit to calls for better regulation of themselves? Whilst making it easier for victims to report cyberbullying, why not make it easier for victims of defamation to correct damaging statements? And whilst urging parents to have greater awareness of what their teenagers write and read online, why don’t editors and publishers pay closer attention to the twitter accounts of their own contributors? That’s a petition I’d happily add my name to.

Has Putin’s Misjudgement Created a Monster?

The decision to jail Alexei Navalny could cost the Kremlin

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In a claustrophobic courtroom in the city of Kirov, ironically named after a popular and prominent Bolshevik who fell victim to a jealous Stalin in 1934, a controversial but not entirely unexpected sentence was passed down upon Alexei Navalny, an equally popular and prominent political activist who appears to have fallen victim to a jealous Putin in 2013.

The name of this tall, articulate activist has been on everyone’s lips of late, having gained widespread attention for his determined questioning of big business and his canny use of social media. His prosecution has catapulted him onto an even greater stage whilst subsequent reports have placed him on the pedestal reserved for great men of history. But as is so often the case, the frenzy of people clamouring to denounce the system neglect vital details and considerations in their desperation to indoctrinate the masses.

We have a bad habit of trying to simplistically divide the world into black and white issues, excluding shades of grey. After 9/11 George Bush instructed the Earth’s population that they needed to decide if they were “with us or with the terrorists”. Throughout the seemingly never-ending ‘Arab Spring’ we impulsively assume that rebels are democrats by virtue of them opposing a government that happens to be non-democratic. And in Russia, we talk of those who oppose Putin as anti-corruption campaigners or fighters for justice, without consideration for how corrupt or unjust those same people may also be.

The verdict sentencing Alexei Navalny to five years imprisonment was unquestionably ludicrous, the evidence upon which it was based almost certainly fabricated, and the decision without doubt politically motivated. But this doesn’t make the accused a virtuous knight in shining armour, in the way he is being portrayed currently.RUSSIA-POLITICS-MOSCOW-VOTE

One might debate whether a leopard can change its spots but Navalny was stalking in the wild Russian political tundra long before he became obsessed with the fight against corruption for which he has won many admirers.

Navalny may believe in protest now, but in 2007 when a group of hecklers protested during a meeting he was speaking at, he offered them outside and shot one of them with a ‘traumatic pistol’. He later defended his actions by arguing that he fired the shot from a reasonable distance and didn’t aim for the demonstrator’s head.

He also had a dalliance with the extreme right, creating a group called ‘Narod’ resembling the concept of the German ‘Volk’ and over several years spoke at and took part in the Far-Right’s annual Russian March alongside skin heads, ultra-nationalists and holocaust deniers. In quasi-political videos he warned of the Islamification of Russia, portraying those from the Caucasus as flies and roaches that need swatting and comparing illegal immigrants to bloodied teeth that required painfully brutal extraction. Even his fellow activist Maria Gaidar referred to his actions as ‘fascism’.

One Human Rights leader banned Navalny from attending conferences, whilst his antics got him expelled from the liberal party Yabloko, one of the few serious legitimate organisations that might have stood a chance of challenging the status quo if they could have harnessed him. But just like many turbulently charismatic politicians throughout history, all others were mistaken in thinking they could control and use his skills for their own ends. Putin may well also find this to his

As usual our own media only tells readers half the story. Referring to him simply as an “anti-corruption blogger” the BBC’s profile of his ‘rise to prominence’ begins in 2008, conveniently omitting his suspect previous activities, whilst The Telegraph begins its account in 2011 when he is already heading up mass protest movements. Some publications have even referred to his imprisonment as “Russia’s Mandela Moment” which does a huge disservice to the former South African President.

In his excellent latest book, journalist Ben Judah describes Navalny as a “rabble-rouser” and a showman with a quick temper. He astutely compares Navalny to Putin himself, pointing out how over time the oppositionist has picked up and run with several of the President’s core themes such as the ‘liquidation’ of oligarchs and heavy-handed policies in the Caucasus. Putin’s clamp down on adversaries has also led to a political vacuum which such a man can fill by replicating the popular side of early Putin and adding a double dose of handsome charm. In many ways Navalny has out-Putined Putin.

Indeed Navalny is nothing if not an opportunist. He has an enduring lust for power and prominence which has seen him turn his sails whenever the wind changed over the last decade. Those wondering why he looked so unmoved, even smug, when listening to his sentence should look no further than the resulting crowds on the streets chanting his name and the endless use of the #Navalny hash-tag on the social media site he is so addicted to. He knows that with the perceived dark figure of Lord Vader-Putin striking him down, he becomes more powerful than the President could ever imagine.

As with much else in recent years, it appears that Navalny has shrewdly recognised the prevailing mood and ridden with it whilst Putin’s government has made what could turn out to be a colossal misjudgement. Of the President’s own creation, the recent political climate has woven together disparate organic pieces into an increasingly united body and with his verdict, the prosecutor delivered the lightning bolt capable of animating a monster.NavalnyArrival2007e

Even if an objective observer was not morally or ethically opposed to the judgement he should be pragmatically opposed simply on the grounds that it foolishly gives momentum to the very problem it is intended to prevent. Aside from adding one of the most astute, charismatic and dangerous politicians in the country to the growing list of symbolic martyrs that help to incite an already disenchanted and active segment of society, it increases the dismay that many Western observers feel when they look upon Russia from afar. I have said before that Russia is like a teenage son, you may love it for a variety of reasons, but its foolish and reckless behaviour often disappoints you. Russophiles throughout the World, myself included, tear their hair out when confronted with such a turn of events.

Within hours of the verdict, the Russian stock market dropped by several percent, losing around £200m from its exchange, with companies like VTB and Sberbank losing up to 2.5% off the value. For a country looking to promote its economic importance as a way of excusing its other problems, this is unforgiveable. Mikhail Prokhorov quite rightly questioned why young businesspeople and professionals such as lawyers would want to remain in a country where their endeavours are put at risk.

Russia needs external skills and investment, whilst it also seeks to partner with Western businesses. But those potential providers, investors and partners are understandably nervous about involving themselves with Russia in such circumstances. Money and morality are rarely comfortable bedfellows and whilst the occasional ‘activist’ is thrown in jail it is easy for ruthless businessmen to look the other way, but they are much less likely to do so when each slamming of the prison door also has an economic impact. If Russia wants businesses to risk their capital within its borders rather than in other emerging markets, it needs to provide stability and reliability not petulance and vindictiveness.

Whichever stance you approach this judgement from, it is difficult to contemplate the nonsensical decision making or to project a result anything other than a victory for Putin’s critics.0,,16748761_303,00

Mark Twain once said that “martyrdom covers a multitude of sins” and it is evident that with this verdict the Kremlin has assisted Navalny in his rebirth from sinner to saint. There are many who want Putin overthrown, but those talking of Navalny as a messianic alternative should be careful what they wish for.

A Burger By Any Other Name…

Featured in ShoutOutUK

So last week our Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, made the apparently fatal George Osborne's tweet of him eating a burger and chipstriple mistake of working late, eating junk food, and failing to keep it a secret. Our spin-doctors and spooks were seemingly incapable of keeping such a heinous crime from the front pages of national newspapers who flame-grilled Osborne about his ‘sham-burger’.

As I sat reading the newspapers the next day several questions sprang to mind. My first inevitably was a flippant ‘who cares?’ swiftly followed by a more philosophical ‘why do we care?’ and finished off with a belt-busting ‘should we care?’ Why are we teasing the fact that he allegedly “snubbed ten McDonalds” in favour of a Byron Burger (who, in my opinion undermine the very concept of a burger by making it difficult to put in your mouth in one go)? You can be certain that had he chosen something from the famous Golden Arches he’d have been accused of encouraging Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’.BO1rtoCCEAEouAm.jpg large

Is it because we are mocking the Chancellor’s apparent attempt to look like he is down to earth? In which case, are we really sure this was his intention, rather than just showing that he was working hard? Do we imagine that people who are labelled ‘posh’ never eat anything other than oysters and caviar, and if so what does this say about our own prejudices? I don’t think George Osborne has ever tried to deny his background. Yes, he changed his name from Gideon, but wouldn’t you? Yes he said “we’re all in this together” but this is a statement of fact, people across the board have been hit by the recession – not always via direct tax hikes and not always as much as we would like – but very few people have escaped completely un-wounded.

In-keeping with the logic of the playground bully, who taunts the school rugby captain about his inability to swim, the media is attempting to humiliate him for something he is not, and should not feel, humiliated about. It certainly frustrates me, as a comprehensive-educated working-class northerner, that people like me are under-represented in the upper echelons of society and I think that Cameron has missed a trick by not making his cabinet more reflective of this concern. But I’m not going to begrudge George his burger and fries if he is the best man for the job. Nor do I care if he wants to drink champagne on a yacht, just as I don’t mind if George Galloway loves fine cigars. So perhaps we care because of the taxpayer’s burden of this ‘whopping £9.70’ meal? Well, we can argue until the cows come home about MPs expenses, but most private companies would allow an employee to spend up to £10 on a meal required during work. What you want to eat is your own business. Anybody who has stopped at a service station during a long drive between meetings can tell you that a tenner doesn’t go far.

Even the trusty late night kebab and chips (not forgetting lashings of free chilli sauce) racks up the coins these days, whilst you’ll struggle to find an oil-sodden pizza for under six quid. In the circumstance, I don’t think many people within London would consider a £6.95 burger to be extortionate or uncommon. One of the issues is that I fear far too many people think being a politician doesn’t count as a proper job and shouldn’t require such expenses. I guess they think the Chancellor and his colleagues don’t work hard enough to deserve it, despite still sitting in their offices beyond 10pm when a civil servant would be calculating his or her overtime. Why do they think this when most of the population has no direct experience of an MP’s working life?

Those who have worked alongside MPs and have seen them toiling in what is becoming an increasingly thankless task, wouldn’t begrudge Osborne his classic 6-ouncer. Could it be that they get this idea from the very same media that brings the offending piece of meat to our attention? (The burger, not Osborne). The real scandal is not with what our Chancellor chooses to fill his stomach, but with what our newspapers choose to fill their pages. Whilst people risk their lives fighting for freedom in the Middle East and one of history’s major whistleblowers runs around the world seeking a safe haven after exposing state surveillance, we use our liberty to bring attention to a half-eaten breadbun perched on a piece of polystyrene.

Is it any wonder that people are turned off by our dumbed-down politics and can’t be bothered to walk to their nearest polling booths when all we can tell them about those running the country is their favourite late night snack?

For what it’s worth, the best response came from Osborne’s food-loving colleague Eric Pickles, who tweeted a photo of himself working hard whilst eating salad, a sight once considered unlikely enough for Ladbrokes to offer odds of 3/1 on him being pictured doing so at the last Party conference. In one move he was able to show his contempt for the media circus surrounding the issue whilst also proving down-to-earth enough to laugh at himself. Of course Osborne tried to do the same on breakfast TV the next morning, but it seems that some people can never win!

Engaging with the Foreign Office

Guest feature in the House MagazineALeqM5jy1qdymod40-SKgNfTu3wvfW_LmA

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is one of the great Offices of State, once presided over by great historical figures like Balfour, Eden and Bevin, responsible for a £1.5bn budget, employing over 14,000 people across the World, and housed in one of the most impressive Italianate buildings on Whitehall. Engaging with it can be daunting.

But like all government departments it struggles with internal and external pressures, funding shortages, and the lack of hours in the day. Contrary to what is often reported in the media, public affairs professionals (“lobbyists” if you want to use the dirty word) are vital to the provision of information required for effective decision making and for alerting ministers to oversights and errors. By their nature many politicians are forced to be a jack of all trades and can often rely on the public affairs community to fill in the gaps and express what those outside the Westminster bubble are thinking.

One of the most frustrating things for anybody in Public Affairs is spending years cultivating relationships with particular Secretaries of State and Ministers, only to have to start again when they get reshuffled elsewhere and a new face comes in. Thankfully, with the respected William Hague at the helm, the Foreign Office has remained relatively stable compared to other departments, with both David Lidington and Alastair Burt working alongside him since the 2010 election. There have been some changes, with Hugo Swire moving from the Northern Ireland Office, Mark Simmonds joining Burt as a fellow Parliamentary Under-Secretary, and Baroness Warsi shoehorned in as the Minister for the fluffier side of Foreign Policy.

Nevertheless, the problems of the never-ending ministerial merry-go-round reinforce the importance of devoting time to the more static civil service. The Permanent Secretary at the FCO is Sir Simon Fraser, an experienced career diplomat who presides over a Management Board and several sub-committees as well as a host of experienced and knowledgeable civil servants that concentrate on specific issues and are usually grateful for updates and information from the outside world.

Of course the problem with Foreign Affairs is that everybody has an opinion on them. They gain a great deal of media coverage and there’s never a shortage of protesters challenging the department, most of whom fail to get their point across effectively and are often considered to be nothing more than a nuisance. It is vital that those who want to make a genuine difference don’t fall into that trap.

Central to productive public affairs is knowing how best to play the cards you’ve been given, but unlike poker the best result is when there is more than one winner. Taking into consideration what the department’s current aims are and assessing how your interests can fit within them is essential. With all departments under increasing budget pressures, the easier you can make their lives, the better. Often they are genuinely grateful for the provision of good research (particularly if it is independent) and accurate information. But it is also important to be realistic about what can be achieved. Unfortunately, you’re never going to stop a war (nor start one, hopefully), but aims below this threshold still need to appear to be in line with general policy direction and in an ideal world also save money. David Miliband attempted to pull together the department’s strategic objectives in the last Parliament and much of it remains the same, but in the fast paced world of foreign affairs, and given the ever-present risk of terrorism and the change of government, priorities can shift so it is important to keep an eye on policy announcements for an indication of direction.

One of the most important things in any campaign is motivating third party advocates – those who are independent but support the same goals, although not necessarily for the same reasons. There is an obvious reason why a lobbyist argues the case that he or she does, usually because they’re paid to do so. But if others can be encouraged to argue the case too, not only can energies be diverted elsewhere but additional credibility is lent to the campaign.

Other MPs are an obvious starting point for this. The FCO is shadowed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which contains twenty MPs with experience and an interest in this policy area, and who scrutinise the department, run consultations and often offer advice. There are also Committees for the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, which inevitably have some crossover. Then of course there are All Party Parliamentary Groups, which represent and promote particular areas of interest. Foreign Affairs is awash with them … not only is there one for most countries (not including Fiji), but there are APPGs dedicated to Conflict Issues; Global Security; Human Rights; International Relations; United Nations; and so on. Each of these contain MPs who can take up a cause with the Foreign Office directly.

Of course politicians, whether they are the Foreign Secretary or a back bencher, are also motivated by winning their next election, so voters are great potential third party advocates. When Westminster Russia Forum was campaigning for the British World War Two Arctic Veterans to receive the medal they rightly deserved, we first identified which constituencies surviving Veterans lived within, and then wrote to their MPs suggesting that they take up the cause on behalf of their constituent. This makes the case far more powerful and also gets the attention of local media, who love a good story and visual about a local campaigning against the Government. We also organised a letter signed by supportive MPs to be sent to the Foreign Secretary, an act which gained national media coverage and cranked up the pressure on the decision makers.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gigantic and daunting as it is, is still motivated by many of the same problems as other departments – trying to balance the budget, remaining abreast of an overwhelming number of issues, and its political masters trying to keep enough people happy to remain in their job. If you can help them to resolve some or all of these problems, you’ll get off on the right foot.