Matt Hancock is a former Secretary of State for Health, and is MP for West Suffolk.
The battles we see across Eastern Ukraine, for Mariupol, Donetsk, Severodonetsk and countless towns and villages, is not just a fight to protect European security against brutal, criminal, aggression. Of course, it is that – and, alone, that need to bring justice for the horrific crimes committed is enough to justify the war.
It is not even just a fight for the immutability of international borders, and the protection of all nations from strong offensive neighbours, vital as that is. It is not even just about protecting the food supplies to the poorest countries on earth, although that alone is an ethical imperative.
The battle for Ukraine is a fight for enlightenment values, of the liberty of people and the freedom of self-determination of nation states.
The brave soldiers fighting these battles for Ukraine are winning a fight for us all. In doing so, it is critical we support Ukraine in a fight to win. It is, as the inspirational Volodymyr Zelensky has said, for Ukraine and Ukraine alone to determine her future. That is what self-determination is all about.
The recent drive, apparently coordinated between Paris and Berlin, to push Ukraine for a compromise settlement must be resisted, as it would incentivise aggression, on the grounds that at least you might win some ground. Would you offer a wolf the sacrifice of just one limb?
On the contrary, Russia’s attack has so spectacularly failed in its bid to split NATO and undermine the West, and we must ensure that Ukraine alone decides her future. Giving up any ground now may appear to help in the short term, but it will undoubtedly cause far-reaching problems down the line.
If we fail to support Ukraine to win back her land, what’s stopping China, or any other dictatorship for that matter, doing exactly what Russia has done to Ukraine? Any such action would inevitably act as a green light – offering little to no deterrent.
While the war in Ukraine still rages on, we have seen some progress this week. Amid the bitter fighting, one border post was recaptured, painted in the now familiar yellow and blue that we see on flagpoles everywhere. In a highly symbolic manoeuvre, the Ukrainian army has pushed back the invaders to their border. Who are we to tell the Ukrainian people that some of them would have to live under the Russian yolk, with the dictatorial tyranny this brings?
For this war is bigger than being about security, or justice. It’s about our way of life.
Here, I see a glimmer of hope. For we can now see, with the clarity that comes from a shocking sight, that the drift to dictatorship in Russia and China has awful consequences. Throughout my political life, support for democracy has waned, and those who see the cacophony of debate as a weakness have espoused their “strong man” theory of government.
I have long worried about the increasing numbers of people who have seemingly admired one party systems, and seen the long term horizons and lack of debate as a good thing, or at least, a price worth paying for prosperity and strength. In the wake of the economic crash, the expenses scandal, and growing social media noise over the past decade or so, it’s been harder to make the argument for the principles embedded in the enlightenment of the promotion of individual liberty and democratic institutions as the cornerstone of a good society.
If, like me, you think that everyone has a contribution to make, and that the role of society is to help everyone reach that potential, then the counterexample that the rights of the individual should be subordinate to the needs of the state seemed to be gaining ground. Open, liberal democracies support innovation and protect people from the overweening state.
Instead, over the past decade, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and President Xi’s removal of term limits should have told us clearly where this move away from supporting democracy would lead. But the case for democracy, especially among younger voters, has increasingly fell on deaf ears.
But democracy isn’t only morally superior but practically superior too. Dictatorship is not only bad but rubbish. Dictators and dictatorships suffocate innovation. By their very nature, they restrict freedom and don’t allow people to get on with whatever they choose to do without getting consent from any given dictatorial regime.
In a dictatorship, people tell you what they think you want to hear. I know from experience that, in liberal democracies like ours, plenty of people tell you what you don’t want to hear. It is essential we in the West don’t take this for granted and win again the case for democracy.
Now those of us who cherish democracy, with all of its noise and flaws, have two stark and real examples. China’s continued attempt at a Zero Covid policy is bringing misery. Its refusal to use vaccines that work, like the Oxford vaccine, because they aren’t Chinese, is plunging their economy into freewill and driving up prices and harming prosperity everywhere. And just look at the shocking treatment by the Chinese dictatorship revealed by the Uyghur Police Files story this week.
China’s abuses of minorities and Russia’s horrific war are showing dictatorship up for what it is. Talking to the wonderful Ukrainian family I’m hosting in my home in West Suffolk makes me feel this particularly acutely.
No longer can democracy be seen as a soft alternative to bold and decisive regimes. So yes, we must help Ukraine win its war, for the justice for people in Ukraine, and we must support them to win without concession to bolster security everywhere.
But even more than that, we must win once again the case for freedom, for the moral force of the democratic way of life, and win over another generation that this, in the words of Churchill, is the worst system, except all the others that have been tried. That, once more, is proving itself a timeless truth. That is what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are fighting for – and we must be with them to the end.