Ryan Henson is a Parliamentary researcher, and an East Herts District Councillor.
Be honest, what do you guys really think of Britain?
Finding an answer to that question was one of the reasons I agreed to spend a weekend in Bosnia and Herzegovina last month, teaching newly elected centre-right councillors about the workings of local government in Britain.
Unlike most of my friends and family, many of whom have a strange tendency to suddenly become overcome with extreme tiredness whenever I begin explaining my work as a local district councillor, these newly elected Bosnians promised to be – like me – interested and opinionated when it comes to politics and local government.
A friend and former colleague of mine, now working in the international department of Conservative HQ, had got in touch in January asking if I wanted to be one of two volunteers to make the trip. All part, I discovered, of our party’s outreach work to strengthen democracy worldwide by supporting our sister parties abroad.
Excited by the chance to meet new people and learn about another culture, I quickly agreed.
My companion on the trip was Iain Bott, a Westminster Councillor. Our instructions were straightforward. We had two days to teach a group of around 20 newly elected councillors about local government in the UK. How it works, how to win a local election, how to make the transition towards national politics, and how to get things done.
On the plane, Iain and I compared notes. Iain, intelligent, motivated, charming – was the ideal training partner and travelling companion. He had spent a few years working abroad, and now served the people of Westminster alongside his day job. He also helps run a charity which tries to combat the scourge of modern slavery. I was inspired by him and I knew that our hosts would be too.
What could I bring?
Well, I knew I could hold a room when I spoke. Besides that, having won and represented my home ward – the most marginal (and deprived) on the Council these past two years – the delegates would be left in no doubt about how fiercely proud I am to serve my community, warts and all, and the odd good thing or two which, with effort and team work, can come from that.
Bosnia is beautiful. That’s what struck me first. All blue skies and rugged landscape, Banja Luka, where we were based, seemed to encapsulate a country finally emerging from political adolescence. A country with a well publicised and troubled past, finally beginning to blossom.
The second thing to strike me was the gender divide. Only one woman had signed up for the training weekend. This, our guide assured me, was normal – despite a law which states that 50 per cent of candidates have to be female. Voters including women simply ignore the female candidates on the list and vote for the men. Proof, if proof were ever needed, that hearts and minds often have to change long before laws do.
We did our best to impart tips and techniques which we felt our centre-right colleagues might apply to their own local councils. Trying desperately hard not to patronise, and recognising that many of the institutions we took for granted simply didn’t exist in Bosnia, we offered some highlights from our own work.
Iain spoke about how he had once taken a difficult planning decision. His judgement had been spot on and he was vindicated by the results, but at the time it had landed him on the front page of the local newspaper when an angry resident unjustly called for his resignation.
I told the group about how I had worked to get decision makers around a table, with the aim of getting a speed camera installed on a dangerous stretch of road in my patch. After twelve months of cajoling, persuading, and occasionally half-threatening – a dozen meetings and 30 cups of coffee later, I’ve made some progress but I’m still waiting for my speed camera.
The point we both tried to get across was that serving our communities, while perhaps not requiring a PhD in economics, could still be demanding, time consuming and frustrating. Ultimately though, even if the results don’t show for a while, it is absolutely worth it.
Did we succeed?
I like to think we did to some extent. Yet time and again the delegates told us that corruption had derailed even the simplest ambitions. One delegate – a giant of a man who had been seriously wounded during the war, told me his biggest fear was that the country’s young people would abandon her for opportunities on offer elsewhere. Why should they stay and start a business he asked, when a cumbersome bureaucracy, and too many rogue policemen, opposed you at every turn?
On the final night, encouraged by a couple of pints of strong local beer which our new friends insisted we try, I finally got to ask my question. What do you all think of Britain?
England they said (Britain is not a concept they seemed familiar with) was the greatest power in the world, although it pretended not to be, preferring to let America shoulder responsibility for the planet’s problems. Our Prime Minister had to be the first to visit President Trump, they reasoned, because she had to give him his instructions for the next four years.
Proud Brit that I am, even I couldn’t accept this at face value. What on Earth makes you think that? I asked. Simple, the men responded. You gave us The Beatles, parliamentary democracy, fair play, Manchester United, and – best of all – you did it all from a small island off the coast of mainland Europe.
If any other group had said the same thing, I’d have put it down to charm and flattery – and it would have worked. But I sensed that these men felt they had no reason to charm us. They simply called it as they saw it.
As Iain and I headed home on the Sunday afternoon, I reflected on the weekend and what the group had said. Despite all the virtue-signalling from the Left, and while not for a second overlooking the many challenges our society still faces, we have a tremendous amount to be proud of and a great deal to be grateful for.
And, as I explained to our hosts on that final night, Britain might be leaving the EU, but we aren’t for one second leaving the world. After all, in that small corner of Bosnia at least, we have one hell of a reputation to uphold