Insider view: an interview with Murad Gassanly

Interviews | | 11-09-2018, 14:00

The Topchubashov Center is delighted to present you an interview with Murad Gassanly (PhD), an energy politics researcher and the first ever person from Azerbaijan to be elected to the municipality council in the United Kingdom. Currently, he represents the Conservative Party and serves for his second term as the Westminster City Councillor. The interview covers both the pressing issues of British domestic and foreign policies and Mr. Gassanly's rich experience in local politics.



Do you agree there is currently a political crisis in Britain? What inner controversies lie behind the fierce debate over Brexit?

Political situation in Britain is difficult but it's not a full-blown crisis. There are tensions between and within political parties around Brexit, but these are not new- they have just been revealed and exacerbated by the difficulties of the negotiation period. The battle between Eurosceptics and Europhiles (Brexiteers and Remainers, as they are known now) has been raging for over 40 years and the 2016 referendum is unlikely to resolve the matter. The question of Britain's role and relationship with the European Union is a defining theme of modern British politics. 

Remainers refuse to accept the defeat in the referendum and are seeking to either overturn it through another referendum or to dilute it through negotiations with Brussels, which they hope will result in a so-called Soft Brexit - Britain would leave political institutions of the EU but remain inside the Single Market and the Customs Union. On the other hand, Brexiteers believe they had won a historic argument but are also divided among themselves. Some of them advocate a managed transition out of the EU (gradual disentanglement) and take a sequential approach to avoid risk of economic downturn. Their hope is that Britain would carve out a special role outside the EU, retaining close access to key economic benefits of the Union membership. Other Brexiteers are pushing for a so-called Hard Brexit - complete severance of associations with all EU political and economic institutions and rules. They see Britain as a buccaneering, free trade, low tax economy competing with the EU and others on global level. 


What kind of decision for Brexit seems to be the most likely one now? As many politicians and experts call to be ready for a no-deal Brexit, what kind of consequences it may entail for Britain’s domestic and foreign policies? Is the prospect of the second referendum real?

EU history suggests that some kind of a deal will be struck, perhaps at a very late stage. This often happens in EU negotiations - there is a lot of talk of a no-deal and then a last minute breakthrough. The UK government has put forward a proposal, the so-called Chequers Deal - a combinatorial arrangement which envisages a 2-year transition period where nothing changes; then a sequential divorce that will see Britain able to strike its own trade deals and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Yet Britain will retain access to Single market and abide by the Customs Union rules. It's difficult to see whether EU will accept the proposal in its current form but if there is a deal, it will most likely be based on the Chequers proposal. 

If there is a no-deal as some experts and politicians predict, consequences will be grave for all parties involved. The UK is one of the largest markets in the world and the EU enjoys a healthy trade surplus with Britain. If reciprocal tariffs are imposed, they will hit European exporters as hard, if not harder, as the British ones. Another trade war is the last thing Europe needs now. And another EU referendum is the very last thing that Britain needs now. Brexit is a very divisive issue and the experience of 2016 is yet another reminder why referenda are such a bad method for determining popular democratic will. Moreover, as polling shows the outcome of another referendum is again likely to be very close, prompting calls from the losing side for yet another referendum. And so it goes, making a mockery of democracy. 


What are the contours of London’s post-Brexit foreign policy are likely to be? Is there willingness, particularly in the light of the standoff with Moscow, to play a more active role in the post-Soviet space?

One of the key positive arguments for leaving the EU is that Brexit enables a more independent and active role for the United Kingdom in world politics. British post-Brexit foreign policy will be ambitious and trade-oriented. Of course, London will face challenges once it's outside the EU's protectionist cartel. But she will also be able to go to new markets, strike her own free trade agreements and bring her goods and services to new economic growth-centers, especially in Asia, Africa and South America. Theresa May's most high profile foreign policy move since the referendum is last week's tour of African leading nations. Britain is looking South and East to expand its economic and political opportunities. 

Britain's largest corporate taxpayer - BP - is already the largest foreign company in Azerbaijan and holds investments in all key pieces of regional strategic energy infrastructure - from BTC to SCP. This trend will go on for decades to come and Britain will seek to expand opportunities across central Eurasia, including through participation in trans-Caspian energy and transportation projects. There is a growing mood of ambition amongst UK exporters as companies work hard to prepare for a post-Brexit restructuring of the economy. In one sign of this growing trend, British exports hit a record high this month. 


Does the government have any long-term plans for preserving stability in Ireland in case of a hard Brexit and reinstalled border checkpoints between the Republic and Ulster?

Britain made it absolutely clear that London doesn't want re-imposition of a hard border in Northern Ireland but will not accept any diminution of her sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chequers plan contains a number of measures that provide for a workable framework for managing the border. This is the most challenging issue but if there is goodwill, especially on the part of the EU, there is no reason why, through a combination of technology and effective administration, a solution cannot be found. 


Could you please talk a little bit about your rich experience in British local politics? What are its major specific features?

I have been a local councilor in one of the wards of Westminster- a central borough of London with many centuries of history and a huge administrative apparatus. It is made up of 20 wards and has a population of over 200,000 people. In May this year I was re-elected for a second term as a Councillor for Churchill ward in the Pimlico area of Westminster. Since then I was promoted to Deputy Cabinet Member for Housing and Customer Services. I am also a chairman of Licensing subcommittee and sit on the city’s Major Planning committee.

Britain takes its local governance very seriously. At every level, elections are based on partisan affiliation, and in local councils Labour and Conservative members debate as fiercely as the MPs in the House of Commons do. Ward councillors are entitled to participate in decision-making over a large number of issues, housing and construction being among the most important ones. British legislation envisages for a strong local say on these matters in order to prevent the erosion of the city’s communities; that is why, according to law, 35% of the space in any housing development should be allocated to affordable housing. This issue is particularly relevant for central localities such as Westminster, where property prices have been skyrocketing and average cost of living space is many times higher than an average local resident could afford. That is why the role of municipal councils capable of striking an optimal solution that would neither hurt locals, nor alienate big business, is very important. 

I should also emphasize the significance of the personal factor in local politics. While I was running my second campaign last year, I personally met with the majority of the electorate - more than 7 thousand people. The only way to be an efficient councillor is to know people’s individual concerns and make them heard. That is why decentralization and powerful local governments are essential for a working democracy.


The events of the recent years- Brexit, Trump’s presidency, a rise of populism elsewhere in the West- makes many experts and general public alike suggest that liberal democracy is in a severe crisis. Do you agree with this statement?

To a certain extent these thoughts are justified. In my opinion the mechanisms and channels of political representation that still dominate the landscape in the Western countries are no longer fully relevant in the era of consumer democracy. If in the past there were a handful of parties with coherent ideologies that represented major socioeconomic groups which defined social and political life, today citizens tend to “cherry-pick” policies most favourable to them personally, regardless of which party proposed them. Hence, traditional parties have pains formulating consistent programs and often getsidelined, while non-conventional forces, combining ideas traditionally believed to be incoherent (for example, left-wing approach to welfare, social liberalism and nationalism, even to xenophobic levels), arise.

The era of “common good” where many voters were even ready to forgo their narrow interests in favour of an ideology they believed to be good for the nation as a whole, is over and gone. Hence feelings of certain disappointment, skepticism and passivism have spread in the recent decade, being reflected in electoral turnout figures which have recently fallen to the levels of around 60% for national elections, and only 35-40% for local ones. All these suggests that the system needs to be updated.

There has to be greater connection between electoral outcomes and political action. One major cause of disillusionment with democracy is a sense that voting does not change anything and that elected politicians are unable to carry out policies they promised during the campaign. This is indeed true. Liberal systems rely on checks and balances, separation and diffusion of power. Most elected politicians quickly find that they are unable to fulfill their election promises because the courts, pressure groups, media, opposition etc. are able to delay, frustrate and block initiatives, even if the majority of the electorate had voted for it. This is not a problem in authoritarian countries and in non-liberal democracies. For example, under President Erdogan’s leadership Turkey had just completed a new 4-runway airport hub in Istanbul; Russia had just completed a brand new super-bridge to recently annexed Crimea. In London we have spent 15 years debating and arguing over just one new runway at Heathrow airport and it’s still not been built, and the project will drag on for years to come.

This illustrates difficulties facing liberal democratic governance models in the age of instant gratification, when consumer-citizens engage in democracy in the same way they engage with online shopping. If President Trump is reelected for a second term, it will be because unlike a typical politician, he runs roughshod over the system and is ruthlessly pursuing the policies on which he won the election. He’s keeping his promises and that’s what counts in the end.