Last week the British prime minister, Theresa May, took most of the action she had promised to do after the Russian government did not answer for the attempted murder of a former spy and his daughter in Salisbury two weeks earlier. The attack used a nerve agent developed in Soviet Russia, an organophosphate compound of military grade (that is, much stronger and purer than the organophosphates that are notorious for making sheep farmers very ill), which it is thought no state other than Russia still has stocks of, and the victim is someone it is thought nobody other than his former homeland would want to harm. The action consisted of expelling 23 diplomats on the grounds that they were undeclared ‘security’ personnel. There was a suggestion that the Kremlin-backed TV channel RT (originally Russia Today) may have its licence to operate in the UK revoked and that England may not send a squad to next year’s World Cup in Moscow, but there is absolutely no talk of military reprisals.
What disappoints me about the reaction of the Left to this incident is the instinctive hostility to the idea that Russia must be responsible and to any governmental reaction. There has been a suggestion that when Tories want to bury bad news, they start a war, a claim that does not really have any basis in recent history; the last time we were involved in an aggressive war, there was a Labour government and the British involvement in the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi (initiated by the Libyan people, not the US president) had widespread public support which, though not universal, cut across left-right boundaries. In this case, there is no question of war. Let us not forget that this is the second time a Russian exile has faced an attempt on his life in this country and that the method used was one that endangered public health: Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2006 by two Russians who put the radioactive metal polonium in his food, causing his death from radiation sickness weeks later.
The attitude of the Russian state is the clearest indication that they were behind this. If they had no involvement, one would expect their reaction to British suspicions to be sympathetic, forthcoming and helpful, even though the victim was an enemy of theirs; it has in contrast been sarcastic and contemptuous and allies of Putin have responded with various conspiracy theories such as that the assassination attempt was a distraction from Brexit — similar nonsense is being touted by the Canary-reading Left here. Let’s not forget that Theresa May opposed Brexit, that good relations with Russia are essential if we are to make anything approaching a success of it, that Salisbury has been a Conservative constituency since 1924 (and for most of the time since 1886 in fact, with three brief interludes of where a Liberal was elected) and that Wiltshire (which is a unitary authority outside Swindon) voted narrowly in favour of leaving the EU. Why would the British government harm someone who has helped them so as to damage relations with a foreign country for no reason, when there are already plenty of good reasons to limit the activity of untrusted Russian exiles here — including multiple suspicious deaths and one previous known murder?
As for Jeremy Corbyn, it appears that he does support downgrading diplomatic relations and some of the media have wasted no time in portraying him as a “Russian stooge” (explicitly on the Daily Mail’s front page, and implicitly in the backdrop to a BBC Newsnight feature on the controversy, featuring him in a hat altered to look Russian against a red-tinged background of Russian architectural features, for example) — behaviour that is more worthy of the media in Putin’s Russia than of a free country. I think perhaps he should have waited a while to make any reservations known, as both Labour and Tory MPs are eager for any opportunity to make him look weak, naive and instinctively anti-western, as a lot of his supporters in fact are. I don’t think for a moment that Theresa May would have staged something like this to put out a trap for Jeremy Corbyn; there are many ways of doing this without giving a police officer a dose of nerve agent. But with so many enemies on his own back and front benches and so many admirers who actually have such a loathing for their own country that they would side with Putin, he could really have shown better judgement on this.
And finally, let nobody be naive about what Vladimir Putin is capable of: he’s a product of the old Soviet KGB who keeps his people in line with tales of external threats and conspiracies against them. He’s largely responsible for the terrible destruction in Grozny and elsewhere in Chechnya after the republic broke away from Russia in the 1990s, and the power behind the throne of the notorious, thuggish ‘president’ (i.e. dictator) Ramazan Kadyrov, who is thought to have ordered the murder of the Russian investigative journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya. He is currently backing dictator Bashar al-Assad of Syria, an old Soviet ally whose secret police, before and after his own people rebelled against him after the Arab Spring, were infamous for the use of torture and rape in their prisons. I’m barely scratching the surface here; this is a ruler with no democratic aspirations and no respect for the rule of law either in Russia or abroad (he has already started a civil war in a neighbouring country and annexed part of it, remember) and under whose rule corruption has thrived and political and press freedom has been greatly curbed if not ended as far as criticism of the government is concerned.
If anyone was seriously talking about war, I would be opposing it strongly and would expect the leader of the Opposition (as well as many MPs on both sides) to do so as well; it’s disproportionate and we could not win. But we cannot have normal relations with this despotic, murderous gangster regime while they are linked to assassinations on British soil. One does not have to be a hardline nationalist or even patriot to understand that.
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