British Consul Abbott Wraps Up ‘Pop-Up’ Diplomacy in Hartford With Largest Reception Yet


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HARTFORD – A whirlwind of events this past week has spotlighted Connecticut’s efforts to join hands more tightly with its neighbors across the Atlantic, cementing a partnership that accounted for $1.9 billion of transatlantic trade in 2021. 

Peter Abbott, the British Consul General to New England, sat down with CT Examiner at Semilla Café in Hartford on Wednesday to talk about offshore wind energy, insurance, defense technology and artificial intelligence. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Since Abbott’s conversation with CT Examiner three years ago, when he spoke enthusiastically of the possibilities of collaboration in Connecticut’s wind energy sector, offshore wind development has faced significant market turbulence.

But while acknowledging the challenges, Abbott said he remains optimistic. 

I try and avoid using the word headwinds in the industry — for obvious reasons — but there have been headwinds.

I think inflation has been a big part of that. I think supply chain issues have been a big part of that. I hadn’t realized this, but a large proportion of global production of turbine blades happens in Ukraine. And so the conflict there has affected the supply of those blades.

The situation in Ukraine has also put pressure on the energy market. So there’s been more of a premium on energy sources that can deliver electricity straight away, and that has all impeded the progress. I think it’s probably also fair that a lot of the targets were very ambitious, even in a pre-Ukraine, pre-inflation scenario.

Abbott told CT Examiner there had actually been an increase in the number of British companies coming to Connecticut, some supporting workforce training and development.

One of the issues that’s holding back the offshore wind sector here is lack of expertise and trained people who know how to do this, because it’s such a new sector in America. So we’ve been helping with the training. It can’t just be Brits doing it. You guys have to train up your own workforce. And we’ve actually been helping to facilitate diversity in the offshore wind industry — it is still very white, very male, very European.

These jobs — they’re great jobs, they’re lifetime jobs, they’re high skilled jobs, they’re high paid jobs. They’re not going to go anywhere anytime soon. And so the more we can diversify recruitment into those sectors, the better. 

Abbott acknowledged that some government subsidies are necessary for success in the wind energy sector.

In U.K., he said, the government commits to “Contracts for Difference” — an assurance that the government will purchase energy at a fixed price. The government has also been incentivizing the growth of blade manufacturing centers and battery storage projects in Northern England. 

But he was quick to tout what he described as an “amazing” transformation in sources of energy generation in the U.K.

We’ve got the world’s first, second, third, and fourth largest offshore wind farms operational at the moment. So back in August of 2022 or 2023, eighteen percent of the U.K.’s energy mix came from wind. Eighteen percent. For the world’s sixth-largest economy. I mean, that’s an amazing thing.

And Abbott said that offshore wind has breathed new life into towns and cities that have been in decline since their peaks a century ago. 

You’ve got these stubborn economic and social problems — unemployment, addiction, mental health issues — and then you get this new sector and suddenly it breathes life into these port communities and you get this clustering effect where the technologies that are needed to support offshore wind come in and build up around those port cities, so providing more jobs, more training opportunities, more money for the local community. 

And you see that in – again, forgive me, it’s not in Connecticut, but New Bedford in particular, in Massachusetts, which has been an economically depressed community for a long time and is now having a new lease of life because of the offshore wind. 

Abbott said the U.K. is involved in offshore wind projects in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. 

It is our future. And I don’t mean this in a sort of starry-eyed kind of way — I mean it in a very hard headed, rational, economic point of view. All of our countries are going to have to diversify our energy mix. We can’t just be reliant on one particular source, and renewables have to be a part of that.

The U.K. was Connecticut’s fourth largest export market for Connecticut in 2021, accounting for $2.2 billion in goods and services. Key industries include aerospace, manufacturing and technology.

Abbott said that British defense contractor GKN has a large presence in Connecticut, and the British Army and Air Force purchase equipment from Connecticut-based Raytheon and Sikorsky.

Abbott also pointed out that the U.K. and U.S. submarine fleets use identical compartments to stow nuclear missiles, known as the Common Missile Compartment. This allows defense contractors in the two countries to partner — a partnership that affects Groton-based Electric Boat, which designed the compartment in 2008. 

And Abbott said Connecticut is not the only state that the U.K. is courting.

Ten states have already signed Memoranda of Understanding with the U.K. — an emphasis on state-by-state agreements that Abbott said lends an added layer to U.K.-U.S. relations regardless of who is in the White House. 

At a United Kingdom – Connecticut Friendship Summit held at the Capitol on Thursday, Abbott said that if the U.K. were to sign an Memorandum of Understanding with Connecticut, the focus would probably not be on the aerospace and defense industry, which already have strong connections. Instead, he said, they might concentrate on smaller sectors like biotechnology, InsurTech and offshore wind. 

The relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. really exists on many, many levels. We have a very close defense and intelligence relationship. Very, very close business and trade relationship. We have a cultural relationship — we think of Adele, Harry Styles, British film, Harry Potter, a lot of the shows that people watch, like Bridgerton — these are U.K. exports. Our people to people links are very strong. Our sporting links are very strong. So really what I’m saying is that it almost doesn’t matter who’s in the White House or who’s in Downing Street. The relationship is so deep and so strong that it persists irrespective of which party is in power.

But, you know, that’s obviously not the whole picture. So if you look at when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister — her relationship with Ronald Reagan was very, very close. I think Tony Blair had a close relationship with George W. Bush — slightly unusually because Tony Blair was from the left of Center Party and George W. Bush obviously was a Republican. Churchill and Roosevelt famously, during the war. And so those relationships do matter, but I wouldn’t put an outsized emphasis on who is in the White House. Whoever wins the election in November, the U.K. relationship will still be front and center, and we’ll work very closely with that person.

On Tuesday, Abbott and Lord Mayor of London Michael Mainelli spoke at a press conference with Gov. Ned Lamont about investments in the InsurTech and FinTech sectors. Five UK-based insurance start-ups currently operate subsidiaries in the U.S. Abbott told CT Examiner that smaller insurance companies have the flexibility to experiment that larger corporations sometimes lack.  

[The U.S. and the U.K] are both global insurance providers, but to be competitive in today’s markets, you have to have the best ideas. It’s not just enough to have the biggest companies, you have to have the best ideas. It’s usually in the startup and innovation space that those ideas come through. It’s why the big companies like Travelers and The Hartford are interested, because they know they can’t rest on their laurels, that as the world gets riskier, you need to have more innovative approaches to dealing with risk.

One of the companies, Previsico, specializes in flood insurance, producing sensors that are placed on buildings to notify people when flood waters are about to rise. Another, Gaia Family, offers insurance for in-vitro fertilization. 

Abbott and Mainelli both said they hope to see Connecticut-based companies open in the U.K. as well.

Part of Abbott’s visit included spending time at the University of Connecticut, where he met with the vice president of research innovation and entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering. Abbott said he had have traveled around New England visiting universities and establishing connections. Emerging technologies, he said, are a significant interest. 

Certainly AI and quantum. I think we’ll be interested in some of the advances in manufacturing and materials. Fusion has come a long, long way very quickly in the last 10 years or so, and so seeing what they’re doing around new clean technologies, new clean energies will be important too. 

The issue of Artificial Intelligence was also discussed at the Friendship Caucus, where Abbott underscored the shared legal system and language uniting the U.S. and the U.K., and the shared desire to regulate without restricting the ability for new technologies to develop. He told CT Examiner that the U.K. actually hosted the first global summit on AI Safety at Bletchley Park, where the British broke Axis codes during the Second World War using early computer technology. 

I think when you’re talking about AI, it’s really important to talk about the opportunities as well as the risks. I think there is a risk that if we talk too much about the dangers of AI, we are going to close off the opportunities.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about regulation. How do you regulate AI? And we are quite concerned that new EU legislation is very, very prescriptive against AI, and that actually, instead of trying to regulate the technology, which is just going to change faster than governments can write regulation, we should be thinking about regulating the uses of AI. And in that scenario, most of the areas where AI is being used are already very heavily regulated. 

What we’re trying to do is sort of work with people who are [drafting principles for AI] to say, look, yes, we need to find ways to give the public confidence in using AI, but we shouldn’t also shut off the opportunities by over regulating a sector that is going to evolve and change far more quickly than we can regulate.

The visit to Connecticut will likely be Abbott’s last before leaving his post as British Consul General to New England after spending the last years staging what he called “pop-up” consulates begun during the pandemic and finally translated into in-person gatherings. He has held two in each state in New England. 

Wednesday’s gathering in Hartford, he said, was the largest reception yet.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.