The UK Establishment’s Response to Sergei Skripal Proves They’ve Learnt Nothing From the Iraq War
Corbyn is entirely justified in not taking Government assurances on trust. Indeed, is this not what an opposition is for?
You find me in rebellious mood. How many wrong lessons can the UK draw from its recent history? How many of our own supposedly cherished “values” do we have to traduce before our post-imperial bluff is finally called? Was the Iraq debacle, with its Libyan post-script, not enough to convince us that a little modesty, some respect for the international rules we so laud when it suits us, might be in order?
Apparently not. I was listening to the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, blustering his way through a set-piece BBC Today Programme interview, spouting a sequence of downright incorrect and questionable assertions with the confidence that perhaps only an old Etonian could get away with. And this is what passes for UK foreign policy?
Last night at the UN, we had a classic example of that other old standby of British diplomacy: the faux-pedantry that conceals the weasel get-out – and allows us to preen as the masters of “drafting”. As Sir Jeremy Greenstock learned to his (and the nation’s) cost when he failed to get the UN Security Council to endorse the Iraq war, the ambiguity that defines drafting genius can occasionally come back to bite you.
On Iraq, the UK’s version of “the facts” was embraced by pretty much all our political establishment and many of our allies – with the honourable exception of the French, the Germans, the late Charles Kennedy and his little band of Lib Dems, and – yes, let it not be forgotten – the leader of today’s Labour opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. It was a version that proved to be disastrously wrong. Yet a combination of Tony Blair’s persuasive powers, naïve acceptance of the need for national unity, and an exaggerated sense of the UK’s importance led us down this fatal path. Those who dared to object – including the million who took to the streets – were dismissed as deluded and unpatriotic.
Now, it is probably true that the rush by officialdom to blame Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury will not take us into war (contrary to the fears expressed by a Polish taxi driver I had yesterday). But whatever happened to the burden of proof and the requirement for evidence? Why, from Day One, was the finger pointed straight at Moscow – followed by the demand that it demonstrate its innocence within 36 hours?
And why was Jeremy Corbyn roundly booed in the Commons – including from some members of his own side – when he called for more circumspection? At very least, we are looking at a new bout of “groupthink”. At worst, it is the lynch-mob in action.
As Boris Johnson – rightly – warned yesterday, the rule of law has to govern the UK’s pursuit of Russian (and other) dirty money; you can’t just confiscate people’s cash because you suspect its provenance. Equally, however, as the Foreign Secretary did not say, the rule of law has to govern our approach to international relations, and that includes not impugning a foreign state without observing the correct procedures.
If we insist – as is not quite clear – that the Salisbury poisoning should be treated less as a crime than as a hostile act by a foreign state (a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention, in this state), then we have to comply with those rules. Russia was quite right to demand that the UK’s accusation should go through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And this was, in fact, Moscow’s response to the UK deadline, despite statements by the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson insisting it had been ignored. So why did the UK not start by going down this route?
Thus far, the hue and cry against Russia – in Parliament, as almost universally across the UK media – has successfully obscured the absence of answers to even the most rudimentary questions that would be asked about a crime. Indeed, even the questions have barely been asked. Where precisely did the crime take place? We don’t know. Exactly when did it happen? We don’t know. Who might have done it (actually applied the poison)? No answer, beyond an assumption that it was generic “Russians”. And what is being done to trace the culprits? Well, nothing really, at least that we have been told.
Which leaves two possibilities. Either the authorities are still in the dark – in which case the anti-Russia campaign is pure propaganda. Or they think they already have all the answers – in which case, why are they not telling? (Answer: it’s “security”, stupid!) The only “fact” released so far is that the poison was a “military grade nerve agent” of the “Russian-made” Novichok family. But even this leaves doubts. If it was developed in the 1970s-80s, is it Russian, or Soviet? Is it still really “military grade”? And how on earth did it, or its components, get to Salisbury?
As leader of HM Opposition, and with the Iraq WMD experience behind him, Corbyn is entirely justified in not taking Government assurances on trust. Indeed, is this not what an opposition is for? To brand him a traitor for so doing is to take a leaf out of the old Soviet book, and an unchallenged consensus of baying MPs is exactly how such accidents as Iraq happen. The French, too, are quite right to be asking questions.
That both Corbyn and France have now been browbeaten into formal solidarity with the UK government – Corbyn via his defence spokeswoman today; the French via a second, “explanatory”, government statement – doubtless reflects a UK diplomatic line that any breach in a united Western front only gives the Kremlin “what it wants”.
But what does the Kremlin want? The assumption that murdering a former double agent in a gruesome way was exactly what Vladimir Putin needed to boost his vote before Sunday’s election is, in my view, absurd. Such an act – in this case, a botched act – introduces an element of unpredictability that would be unwelcome to the risk-averse Putin at such a time. It also jeopardises future spy swaps. Even more to the point, it invites widespread international opprobrium in the run-up to the Russia-hosted World Cup – something Russian observers have seized upon to claim that, in fact, it was the West that did it to spoil Russia’s summer party.
Yet again, it seems, a UK government has drawn the wrong lessons from the recent past. On the one hand, it has forgotten that groupthink helped take us into Iraq. On the other, it has misremembered what went so wrong with the UK’s response to the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. And it was not a desire to cut Russia any slack; it was the impossibility of getting MI6 and others to testify.
The shadow of that case – and the particular claim that, as Home Secretary, Theresa May was “soft” on Russia – underlies the Prime Minister’s actions. She had to be quicker on the draw than the then (Labour) government, and more severe (in a headline way) – 23 v 4 expulsions – to satisfy her party’s large cold warrior constituency (the same constituency, as it happens, that needs convincing about her desire to deliver on Brexit).
In so doing, however, she is embroiling the UK in a diplomatic fight that will hobble yet again our own efforts to read Moscow correctly; risk putting the UK on the wrong side of an international convention (if we don’t produce the evidence), and put off still further the day when we have anything like normal relations with Russia. To cap it all, the Government’s chosen approach makes it less likely that we will ever really solve this heinous crime.
Source: The Independent