A Short Defence of the British Embassy

David Owens

‘€˜Long Term British Expats Scathe Their Embassy’€™ was a provocative headline in last month’s Edition of Moscow Expat Life. A healthy debate ensued on social media, and whilst many of the comments and complaints from individuals may have been valid, it seems only fair that the other side of the story is told.

I have no role at the Embassy, no special interest in defending its reputation – but writing simply as another long-term British Expat, I would like to offer an alternative view of the work the Embassy does, and why it is such a valuable resource.

But first a short history: The first embassies as we know them today can be traced back to the states of Northern Italy, with the first embassies being established in the thirteenth century. The United Kingdom (and before that, England and then Great Britain) was a little late to the party, but one of the very first nations to understand the vast trading potential that Russia had to offer. It has been sending Ambassadors to Russia since 1558. When Anthony Jenkinson first arrived in Moscow, it was strictly for business and he secured several major trade deals with Ivan the Terrible. The Ambassadors who followed were likewise tasked with securing more trade on better terms.

As an island nation, trading and business was always at the forefront of a British Embassy’s work. Ambassadors Plenipotentiary (i.e. having the full authority to represent the monarch and government) had the power to negotiate trade deals and treaties. These days, when the world is much smaller and direct communication much easier, Ambassadors and their staff may not sign trade deals or negotiate peace treaties for the country, but they do work tirelessly to promote the interests of British companies in the host country, facilitate deals, and also to attract inward investment into the UK.

The Department for International Trade (DIT – formerly UKTI) have an excellent team in Russia. Compared to other countries where I have worked, I would classify the Russian team as ‘outstanding.’€™ In my own personal experience, I have always found them to be extraordinarily proactive in seeking out new projects for the company where I work. The team has frequently helped to facilitate meetings at the very highest level with major Russian companies, City and Federal Authorities, and using both the magnificent Ambassador’s Residence and the (somewhat less magnificent) Embassy itself, they have hosted events to smooth the wheels of trade.

The Embassy holds regular business briefings for UK companies and covers topics including economic outlook, the Russian political situation, UK-Russia bilateral relations, upcoming opportunities for British businesses – and more recently the effects of sanctions and any progress (regrettably little!) on them being rescinded.
Trade missions are frequently organized to major Russian cities by the British Embassy -€“ these are heavily-subsidised trips that allow British companies to get access to key players and decision makers in cities where the potential for trade may have been overlooked by the companies themselves. What it isn’t, and has never been, is a social club for expats. It is funded by UK taxpayers primarily to attract trade and investment and to keep a political conversation going.

The last few years have been tricky for the British Embassy (and both Consulates) in Russia primarily because of the strident way that the UK Parliament has criticized Russian foreign policy and vociferously (and rather ludicrously, in my opinion) placed itself at the forefront of the calls for sanctions. The Embassy staff are only able to do what their political masters allow them to.

In addition, the baying, clueless rabble we elect to Westminster every five years continue to cut funding and resources to the DIT and the Diplomatic Service. Career politicians, who have never worked at the coalface of business or had P&L responsibility, constantly demand ‘more for less’ – and both the Embassy’€™s diplomatic and Consular services have inevitably suffered.

Visas have been outsourced, it takes months to renew passports, DIT have had to reduce staff numbers a decision of mind-blowing stupidity in the wake of Brexit! Yes, there is a lot to complain about, but the complaints need to be directed at our MPs, not the Embassy staff, who still valiantly work hard to promote British interests and British business and to deliver ‘€˜more for less.’

I have a feeling that Anthony Jenkinson would still approve of the work they do!