GPG delivers specialist technical advice through a core group of retained Associates, who are former Ministers, Members of Parliament, senior civil servants/parliamentary staff and academics. We have built long-lasting relationships with Associates and we are launching this profile series in interview form to highlight the expertise and work from these high-level professionals that we get to work with on a daily basis. Alison has been a member of the House of Lords since October 2013 and is a long-lasting Associate with GPG, a key team member in our work in Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Iraq.
Why did you decide to work in politics?
I grew up during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the “enemy” and the fear of nuclear war seemed very real. As a teenager I became determined to study Russian and go there to see for myself what the USSR was really like. This led to an increasing interest in international relations and political diplomacy and dialogue. When I was about fifteen I met my local MP (now Lord Kirkwood, another long term GPG Associate) for the first time at a debate at my high school and I started to ask questions about the control of nuclear weapons. He offered to write to the Minister for me. I received a very bland answer from the Minister responsible but it made me realise the importance of parliaments as a place to raise difficult issues and to try to change things…. So from about the age of sixteen I wanted to work as an advisor in parliament and at the age of twenty-two, after having worked for a while in the Soviet Union as an English teacher, my dream became a reality.
Give us a short overview of what you consider to have been a key moment in your career. What brought you where you are today?
I think a key moment in my career came in 1999 when I became adviser and press secretary to Pat Cox, an Irish politician in the European Parliament. I had been working as a policy advisor on various parliamentary committees in the European Parliament but when he asked me to work directly for him I was delighted. This led to becoming heavily involved with his campaign to become President of the European Parliament and then when this was successful, serving as his Press Secretary in the President’s Cabinet for two and half years from 2002 to 2004.
It was a very exciting time in European politics, with the introduction of the Euro and the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries to the EU, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
During my time in the President’s Cabinet I was able to accompany Pat Cox on more than thirty official visits to the enlargement countries. It was an amazing opportunity to be in those countries, including during their referendum campaigns, at such an interesting time.
What one thing about working in politics do you wish was different?
I wish there was a greater understanding of how politics and parliaments work in the UK. I think the lack of political education and awareness sometimes means that people are not as engaged in the political process as I would like.
Which aspects of GPG’s projects and values encouraged you to join the organisation?
A genuine belief across the organisation in the importance of representative democracy and parliaments as well as the importance of sharing best practice through people who understand the realities of parliaments, parliamentarians and parliamentary staff rather than just using theoretical models.
What work have you done with GPG, and which particular project with GPG stuck with you the most?
I have worked on projects in Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Iraq. I have enjoyed all five projects but because I still speak Russian reasonably well, I have particularly enjoyed the two Central Asian projects as I feel it makes a big difference being able to speak directly with my parliamentary colleagues, which helps to form lasting working relationships. This is, of course, still possible through an interpreter but there is no doubt that my degree in Russian has been an asset when working in the countries of the former Soviet Union, not just linguistically but also in helping to understand the political culture.
What future do you envisage for parliaments across the world after the pandemic?
Technology in parliaments has developed rapidly as a result of the pandemic. In my personal view it is not a substitute for the relationships that can be made during a “physical” visit but it will allow all parliaments to have cheaper and quicker access to sharing experiences and best practice across the world.
Beyond GPG, tell us about an organisation or a programme you feel successfully contributes to strengthening representative politics and parliaments around the world.
I find the All Party Parliamentary Groups, APPGs, (country friendship groups) in Westminster are an excellent way to share information and develop and strengthen working relationships. In addition to my work with GPG, I have also been able to get to know MPs and their parliaments in Tunisia, Morocco, Ukraine and the countries of Central Asia through engaging with the APPGs. During various visits with those APPGs I’ve found it particularly interesting to visit constituencies away from the capital cities. This gives a much deeper understanding of the nature of representative democracy in those countries.
Share your thoughts on a recent event or news story that caught your attention, or one which had a particular influence on you or your career.
It would be dishonest not to say Brexit in response to this…. It is has had and continues to have an enormous influence on political life in the UK. It has made me finally understand why the Chinese expression of “may you live in interesting times…” is regarded as a curse! As a pro-European it is requiring me to think differently about how to be internationalist and I don’t think many of us have made the necessary shifts of attitude yet. Bilateral relationships with parliaments and parliamentarians will inevitability become more important, however, as developing these relationships through the framework of the EU is no longer really an option.
Which books, articles, podcasts, shows or other would you recommend anyone working in politics should read/listen to/watch?
I used to love all political shows such as the Today programme on BBC radio 4, Newsnight, Question Time, Have I got News For You, etc. Nowadays, especially since Brexit and Covid, I prefer to watch films, TV serials, cooking, gardening and travel shows and play my favourite jazz, classical and Scottish folk music as a way to wind down and relax. I think more and more of us get our news when it suits us on news websites.
I should, however, make a small pitch for my GPG colleague, Jacqui Smith, and her podcast “For the Many”, which makes politics wonderfully human….!!