Book review: Murray tries and fails to stir up panic about a “war on the West”

27 May

The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason  by Douglas Murray

This author makes, in his introduction, a number of preposterous claims. Here is his opening paragraph:

“In recent years it has become clear that there is a war going on: a war on the West. This is not like earlier wars, where armies clash and victors are declared. It is a cultural war, and it is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.”

How can Douglas Murray suggest that this “war”, as he terms it, has only “in recent years” become apparent?

At pretty much any time one cares to name in recent centuries, conservatives have feared that tradition is in danger both from barbarian invaders, and from reformers within the gates who wish to sweep away all we have built, and erect a glittering new edifice in which their reign of virtue can begin.

The French Revolutionaries promised this. Various varieties of Communist promised it. In the 1960s, rebellious students and satirists set out to subvert every traditional source of authority.

In order to justify his hysterical tone, Murray goes in search of enemies who today pose a mortal threat. By page four he has found the Communist Party of China, and complains:

“almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West.”

That is true, and this reviewer would not wish for one moment to downplay the horrors perpetrated by China. But the same double standard was applied by many in the West to the Soviet Union.

The problem is not new, and working out what to do about it, or how to contain it, is the work of decades, perhaps of centuries.

But Murray’s fiercest argument is with those inside the West who wish to debilitate the West. In 2017, he recalls, he brought out The Strange Death of Europe, in which (as he says in the volume under review) he asked why the Europeans have allowed mass migration, “and why they were expected to abolish themselves in order to survive”.

According to Murray, only Western countries “were told constantly that in order to have any legitimacy at all…they should swiftly and fundamentally alter their demographic makeup”.

That is a gross over-simplification. In pretty much every Western country, there have been big arguments about immigration. In Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, pretty much anywhere one cares to name, politicians have come to realise they will only possess legitimacy if they avert unrestricted immigration.

Africans are at this moment suffering in abominable camps in Libya because the European Union has devised ways to stop them crossing the Mediterranean.

A further paradox, untouched on by Murray, is that many British politicians of immigrant descent – one thinks of such figures as Kwasi Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch – express conservative opinions with wonderful gusto.

If Enoch Powell were still alive, he would perhaps concede that the British nation and British political tradition have proved more adaptable, and durable, than he had feared.

Where does Brexit fit in Murray’s narrative of a war on the West? He ignores that question and is instead indignant that “we have been pushed into racial hyper-awareness”:

“In recent years, I have come to think of racial issues in the West as being like a pendulum that has swung past the point of correction and into overcorrection.”

He continues:

“Racism is not the sole lens through which our societies can be understood, and yet it is increasingly the only lens used. Everything in the past is seen as racist, and so everything in the past is tainted.”

Is this really true, or is the pendulum already swinging back against such a simplistic reading of history? On one of my regular walks I pass a house, on a leafy slope on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath, in the window of which for some months I was faintly irritated to see a hand-written sign which said “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”.

The sign has now been taken down. I accept that this does not amount to conclusive proof that the moral panic which swept at hurricane force across Britain as well as America after the murder of George Floyd has blown itself out.

But things have died down a bit. No more statues have been thrown into Bristol harbour. Churchill still stands in Parliament Square, his plinth at present unsullied by accusations that he was a racist.

On page 126 of his book, Murray alludes to a Policy Exchange pamphlet in which Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes rebutted the slurs cast at Churchill in February 2021 during a panel discussion at Churchill College, Cambridge.

So the pendulum does still swing, and contentions which for a short time have held sway are exposed to criticism, and cease to be quite so fashionable. It turns out to be possible to disapprove in the strongest terms of racism, without supposing it offers a complete interpretation of the past.

Gebreyohanes has just become Director of Restore Trust, an organisation set up, as she explained in a piece for The Times, to return the National Trust to its founding values and objectives.

Murray is in grave need of opponents, and inclined to magnify their importance. Many of those he finds are in the United States. He digs up Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, both of whom used to be more influential than they are now, and various other figures who may or may not become influential.

Karl Marx is dug up too, and we are reminded of some of that thinker’s today unacceptable views on race. Murray remarks ruefully that although the bust of Marx in Highgate Cemetery has from time to time been daubed in red paint, there have been “no online petitions or crowd efforts to pull it down and kick it into a nearby river”.

There is actually no river nearby, and to kick this colossal bust anywhere would be a difficult task, liable to end in many stubbed toes.

Marx, however, suffers what is in some ways a greater humiliation. He is ridiculed, or treated as a mere curiosity. If one does not wish to pay to enter the cemetery, one can see him through the railings on the southern edge of Waterlow Park, at a distance which reduces the bust to an acceptable size.

That is how the British public has long been inclined to deal with intellectuals who take themselves too seriously: it peers through the railings and laughs at them.

It seldom occurs to Murray that the best way to deal with fashionable absurdities is to laugh at them, and to trust to the good sense and conservatism of the wider public. Edmund Burke (absent from this book) put the point with genius in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Murray has flattered the loud and troublesome insects of the hour by writing a whole book about them.

Since this ill-titled volume went to press, Vladimir Putin has ordered the invasion of Ukraine. There the true war on the West is being waged. The Ukrainians’ fight for freedom reminds us how trivial most of the pseudo-war recounted in this book really is.

Alicia Kearns: This week’s NATO summit must be used to speed Russia’s defeat

22 Mar

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Last week, I had the humbling privilege of hosting a delegation of Ukrainian MPs. They call themselves the Women’s Diplomatic Battalion of Ukraine: Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko. It is currently treason for a Ukrainian MP to leave their country, but the four had secured special presidential dispensations to visit the UK to secure further support from their foremost bilateral ally.

At the time of writing, it is Day 23 of Putin’s invasion – an invasion that has followed almost exactly the intelligence assessments I received in Kyiv in January: Putin would invade within the month, he would seek to decapitate the country by occupying Kyiv and that, contrary to his assessments, the Ukrainian people would fight like lions.

It was also foreseen then that there would be an enormous capability and speed gap between Putin’s understanding of his armed forces and the reality. This has all played out, with our Ukrainian allies pulverising Russian troops thanks to British NLAWs (Next Generation Anti-tank weapons), American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktar drones provided in anticipation of invasion.

The Russian setbacks are extraordinary. There are rumours that ultra-loyalist “Zagradotryady” had to be formed – barrier units to shoot Russian soldiers who retreat or desert. But these losses have unleashed a new level of barbarity; in which Putin’s forces indiscriminately bomb civilians in an attempt to break Ukraine’s resolve.

This week, an emergency NATO Summit is being held, and the UK’s voice is pivotal. We must redouble our efforts around Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, surge support for the humanitarian catastrophe and bolster deterrence against chemical weapons’ use, as well as launching deterrence diplomacy to prevent Putin’s aggression from turning to the Western Balkans.

On defensive capabilities, the UK is walking a line whereby we cannot be accused by Putin of escalating the conflict, and culpability for any escalation is on him. There has been much discussion about a no-fly zone and, whilst all options must remain on the table, these are proving a distraction from the meaningful efforts of the UK to establish a de-facto no-fly zone through the use of surface-to-air weapons.

Through this means, Putin’s forces have already been unable to establish air dominance and are barely able to fly in the daytime. We must entirely deny them the air, and the deployment of new StarStreak missiles announced by Ben Wallace will further support this aim.

It is artillery causing a great deal of the damage we’re seeing, and at the NATO summit our allies must step forward with anti-artillery weapons. In this respect we have been world-leading, but our counterparts are not pulling their weight. Just one-fifth of Germany’s promised (if very late) defensive weapons have arrived. Ukraine fights for our shared freedoms, and if our allies fail Ukraine now, they fail us all.

On the humanitarian side, just one word is needed to understand the depravity of Putin: Mariupol. Once a coastal hub for heavy industry and education, Ukraine’s besieged city has become a byword for the barbarity of his campaign.

Ninety per cent of its buildings are damaged or destroyed, and its population of just under half a million has been without food or water for days. Civilians are forced to drink sewer water and, last Wednesday, the city theatre – where women and children were sheltering – was destroyed by Russian air strikes. Satellite photos show that before it was hit, the Russian word for children, “DETI” had been spelled out in large letters by the building in the hope Russian pilots would find a conscience. Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.

However, there’s one enormous difference: aid agencies just aren’t on the ground working to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Government has just pledged another £80 million of aid, and the generosity and goodwill of British public is likely also in the millions.

But while we are giving, Ukraine is having difficulty receiving, as international agencies squabble over mandates and appallingly, the idea that Russian permission is needed to be on the ground. These same agencies were working on the ground in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – why have they abandoned Mariupol? We must lead calls for international humanitarian bodies to step in to save lives; it is not enough to be in Lviv alone.

There is an equally dark element of this conflict that has been largely absent from reporting: rape and sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence are too often silenced by the shame that is wrongly inflicted upon them. In Ukraine, women are being raped, and that almost certainly means that men and children are as well. There are reports of women over 60, those unable to get out, being raped and then hung or committing suicide. The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity, including rape. The UK should lead efforts to expose and document these war crimes and support survivors.

As Putin grows more desperate, his use of thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions becomes more extensive, and we face the threat of chemical weapons use. We and our allies must determine now the repercussions Putin would face: we have a legal duty to intervene if chemical weapons are used, and that is a duty we must not fail.

Much has been made of the threat of Putin pressing his big red button, but this belies a much more likely reality. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, several of which are now controlled by invading Russian forces. Destroying a nuclear reactor is very difficult, but damaging a nuclear waste facility is frighteningly feasible, and any such incident would disperse radioactive particulates across Europe, reaching the UK, as they did following the Chernobyl disaster.

NATO and all freedom-loving nations must be resolute in telling Putin now, that any nuclear incident in Ukraine – no matter how extensive the false flags – will be met with the swiftest and harshest repercussions.

Whilst we rightly focus on Ukraine, we must not forget Putin’s wider ambitions and the potential of a second front in the Western Balkans.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina threatened the country with the “same” as Ukraine. There is a fragile peace, one already under attack from Putin’s stooges such as the secessionist leader, Milorad Dodik.

Now is the time for NATO to prove that deterrence diplomacy can work, and prevent bloodshed on two fronts. Certain European countries disregarded the UK and US’s intelligence assessments on an invasion of Ukraine. At the NATO Summit we must ensure the same complacency and arrogance does not enable bloodshed in Bosnia.

It was a difficult goodbye last week. These courageous women travelled back to Ukraine knowing that Putin has put all Ukrainian MPs on one of two lists: a kill list, and those to be taken to Moscow.

One sentence our Ukrainian counterparts used repeatedly haunts me: “You will have no choice but to intervene, but this decision is being measured not in hours or days, but by the numbers of Ukrainians killed.” These brave MPs made their mark in Parliament this week, and did their country proud. When the war is over, and Ukraine has won, we’ll all meet again in Kyiv; but for now we must use this NATO summit to do all we can to hasten Putin’s defeat.

Sarah Ingham: Social inequality cannot be fixed by erasing Britain’s history

15 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Along with Jon Bon Govey, thanks to the Prime Minister another hero burst into our collective consciousness last week: Hereward the Woke.

The PM’s Conference speech might have skirted around the many challenges facing the United Kingdom, but he was clear whose side he was on in the country’s culture wars, highlighting a key battleground: history.

Hereward the Wake (or Watchful) led a five-year insurgency against William I’s all-conquering Normans around 1070. They were fighting in what by then was recognisably England, even if it seemed more like Game of Thrones’ Westeros. The frequent descriptions of the legendary Hereward as one of the ‘greatest Englishmen’ might, however, be pushing it: the resistance leader could well have been as much Danish as Anglo-Saxon.

If only there were more 11th century texts to view through the post-modernist lens of critical theory, Hereward might be the subject of numerous academic papers on identity and colonisation. Wake or Woke; structure or agency.

Voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll in which more than one million took part, it is Winston Churchill rather than Hereward who has come to embody the current cultural conflict within history – and indeed within wider society.

As the author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples, our most illustrious Prime Minister also joins the fight as participant, as well as prize, in today’s history wars. His style is less the drums and trumpets school and more Land of Hope and Glory: ‘… on that little Anglo-Saxon island there was kindled the flame of freedom and equality for the individual … This idea grew and was spread over the earth by the English-speaking peoples, and has now brought democracy to the whole free world …’

If Prime Ministers Johnson and Churchill are battling for history in the metaphorical blue corner, in the red is the seemingly self-hating Churchill College, Cambridge. In July, it announced it was disbanding its Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group.

This follows a panel discussion ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ – still available on YouTube – in which various publicity-hungry academics denounce the British Empire, which is given moral equivalence with Nazi Germany, while among other howlers, apparently mixing up Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Historical accuracy; so yesterday, right?

Last week’s report from the Office for Students stated that universities were ignoring poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. ‘To achieve or promote inclusivity’ some institutions are turning a blind eye to the rules of basic written English. Not only is this jaw-droppingly patronising, but harming students’ career prospects. But who cares about the future of £9,250 a year fee fodder, when there is decolonising the curriculum to get stuck into?

‘They Kant be Serious’ was The Daily Mail’s Johnson-esque response to reports that students at School of Oriental and African Studies wanted to side-line various philosophers, including Plato, as part of its Decolonising Our Minds campaign. Across Britain, universities are following suit, treating the canon by dead white men as if it were radioactive.

Exeter University’s History Department declares that it is ‘working to decolonise the way we teach, research and work with one another’. Its counterpart in Durham is not only committed to decolonisation but to creating an ‘all-inclusive culture and environment’.

With about one-third of their students privately educated, Exeter and Durham aren’t too far off the top of the posh list. Are we quite sure that this current fad for new narratives, which was given fresh momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement, is nothing more than Britain’s academic leaders appeasing their noisier students? After all, they are happy to pander to student-led, mind-closing gestures like no-platforming.

It is ironic that so many of the country’s higher education institutions are making a virtue of decolonisation while structural inequality is obvious in many lecture theatres. It must be questioned how far the cause of social justice is served by ensuring Josh and Jemima, whose schooling cost £40,000 + a year, have more non-white radicals on their reading list than Frantz Fanon.

Last week the Prime Minister warned that our national story is being rewritten. Just as Trotsky came to be air-brushed out of the Stalin-era Soviet picture, whole periods of our collective past are being re-interpreted to fit in with today’s orthodoxies. Statues must fall, links – however tenuous – with the slave trade denounced, street names changed. Supposed guardians of Britain’s history, including the Church of England, art galleries, museums and the National Trust, pander to present mood of iconoclasm.

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyam province, smashing 2,000 years of history. A decade later, not content with burning alive or beheading opponents, ISIS obliterated artifacts and ruins of the Greek and Roman empires across an arc from Libya to Iraq. In trying to wipe out any trace of a pre-Islamic past, these cultural nihilists decimated a common global heritage for future generations. They could not, however, change the immutable past.

In the context of today, Britain’s history is a litany of uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Most of it is problematic, some of it heart-stirringly glorious. The current canyons in social equality in this country are not going be bridged by obsessing over what happened hundreds of years ago.

In the current rush to re-write and re-interpret it, what is overlooked is how little history many know. This mass ignorance was reflected last year, when Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, called for a disclaimer on the Netflix series The Crown. Viewers needed reminding that the events depicted were fiction, not historical fact.

As Black History Month continues, it is apt to reflect on the words of Marcus Garvey: ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Last week, the Prime Minister declared that ‘we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance’.

To the barricades.

Garvan Walshe: Leaving Afghanistan wont’ stop terrorists using failed states. How do we learn from this failure?

16 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former national and internationals security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

The rewriters of history have got to work in the weeks since the American rout in Afghanistan. The mission failed because Afghanistan was a graveyard of empires. Or because humanitarian intervention never works, according to realist high priest Stephen Walt.

This is far from the truth, as Robert Kagan explains at length. We went into Afghanistan because of 9/11, not for purely humanitarian reasons. Even in more overtly humanitarian interventions, like NATOs in Kosovo or the removal of Gaddafi in 2011, strategic considerations mattered.

Success in Kosovo owed much to Milosevic, always an opportunist with a healthy sense of his own self-preservation, agreeing to give in after NATOs bombing campaign. The alternative, an invasion of Serbia and Montenegro through Albania and Hungary, while Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia rose up against the Dayton peace settlement would probably have led in Serbia to a destructive guerilla war not unlike that in Iraq or Afghanistan. The last minute paradrop into Pristina airport should remind us that even late Yeltsin Russia would not have been helpful.

Nonintervention is not the easy option frozen-blood realists like Walt would like it to be. They would have stood by as Kosovars were raped and murdered, or the inhabitants of Benghazi driven into the sea. They got what they wanted in Syria: hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of people displaced. Whether this sits more easily with their conscience or ideas of a globally influential West, I leave to readers to judge.

It is harder still where there is a strategic objective. How comfortable would we have been, for example, relying on Polish tanks to dash through Eastern Ukraine to protect Lviv? (Hint: it matters that the Poles call the city Lwów).

Or consider the French intervention in Mali, against central African jihadists. Would you be the President pulling troops out only to find your citizens attacked by a plot originating there? What of an allied government, with which you had important commercial or strategic ties, being toppled by hostile rebels?

Commercial ventures, military operations, people, religion and ideas now flow across borders more easily than they could in the past. Or rather, they have started to flow back the other way. Western business, armies, people and ideas have after all been flowing out of Europe to the Americas, Asia and Africa for five hundred years. Along with supply chains and investment flows, conflicts have become globalised.

It’s not viable any more for a single country to retreat, and there is no disputing the principle that if we’re to provide security at home, we need to get involved abroad. Disagreement is only over the manner of involvement.

In the last twenty years, the difficulty has never been to remove a hostile force from power, either through direct intervention, or Western air power supported by allies. Problems have set in afterwards, even though the need for long term post-conflict stabilisation is very much a “known known” (however much Rusmfeld himself was in denial about it). The question is why we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again.

Afghanistan suffered from intermittent attention and dispersed accountability. It only drew high level political focus at the beginning and when problems mounted. Different administrations tried varying strategies, with greater or lesser emphasis on state building, smaller footprints, or a “surge” of troops.

Meanwhile the mission was split, between the mission to capture bin laden and that to stabilise the country. The former a unilateral American operation. The latter a multilateral NATO one. Similar problems bedevilled the postwar reconstruction in Libya (with France and Italy backing rival governments), or Iraq, with the US reducing troops only to find it had to increase them to fight ISIS.

Without attention, disorder was allowed to fester, more civilians and troops got killed, and governments were unable to justify the intervention to their publics. Politicians picked up the public dissatisfaction, and rushed to leave as soon as they could.

Direct political control works best when there’s a single locus of accountability and continuous attention on the problem. In these multilateral interventions there’s neither, so public attention wanders, and the pressure on the different components of the alliance causes friction. This should not have been a surprise. These problems affect all complex and long-term international cooperation, which needs a certain amount of structure if it is not to become a sequence of ad-hoc adaptations to circumstance.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the CSCE (later OSCE) was set up to supervise disarmament, and continues to engage in security and democracy related aspects of the European international architecture. On climate change, the “Conference of Parties” has evolved into an organisation with an indefinite timescale (we are now on number 26).

A specific, but permanent organisation has a number of advantages: consensus on strategy is achieved through multilateral diplomacy. Participants allocate budgets that are spent by the organisation as a whole. A permanent secretariat maintains focus even when political attention is lacking. Membership can be limited to countries that agree with the organisation’s aims (to avoid the fate of the UN Human Rights Council).

Perhaps it is time to consider some sort of international stabilisation and counter-terrorist organisation.

Those establishing one will face a number of difficult questions about how it should work, not least over how to get security forces and human rights organisations to tolerate each others’ involvement, and over who should be included. For example, what roles should hostile powers like China, or highly relevant friendly countries with terrible human rights records, have?

But the last twenty years of unstructured unilateralism have hardly been an unqualified success. It’s surely time to give more structured alternatives a go.

Sarah Ingham: With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s role in the world

3 Sep

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”.

In June 2011, announcing a cut in troop numbers of 10,000 personnel, President Barack Obama anticipated Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh which marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

A decade ago, the 44th President’s enthusiasm for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan was lukewarm at best. Back then, a mere $1 trillion had been spent. Given America’s crumbling infrastructure and rising social problems in the wake of the global financial crash, Obama wanted more homeland bangs for his huge number of bucks.

Another $1 trillion later, on Tuesday the 46th President gave the speech that Obama probably wishes he had made back in 2011. Alluding to the country’s “corruption and malfeasance”, Biden was clear: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

For a man allegedly in his dotage, Sleepy Joe delivered an admirably clear-sighted statement of future American national security policy based on vital national interest. As well as ending the forever war, the President pulled the trigger on 20 years of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states – also known as nation-building.

If American policy is now also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, exactly where does this leave Britain and our Armed Forces? After all, ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have sent Britain’s Service personnel overseas on all manner of Operations Other Than War, as our people in khaki with the SA80 A3s like to call them.

The impulse to save lives was used to justify a number of military interventions since the beginning of the 1990s, including policing Iraq’s safe havens and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The Rwandan genocide – about which the outside world did too little far too late – is a permanent reproach to those who consider state sovereignty paramount.

The successful humanitarian-based military operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the Blair government’s much-mocked pursuit of an “ethical” foreign policy, together with the Prime Minister’s Doctrine for the International Community.

Set out in Chicago in April 1999, it suggested five guidelines for intervention. They chimed with the Strategic Defence Review of the previous year which had declared that Britain would not stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. “We want to give a lead; we want to be a force for good.”

Ever since, subsequent Defence Reviews have all been the heirs to the Blairite sentiment that the British military are an instrument for global wellbeing, just as Britain should get stuck in and tackle the world’s problems.

As the Coalition’s 2010 Review stated, “Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions.” Similarly, in 2015, Britain was “strong, influential, global”. In setting out his vision for Britain in 2030 in the recent Integrated Review, Boris Johnson foresaw “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”.

The unforeseen American withdrawal pulled the rug out from under not only Afghanistan but also from assumptions about Britain’s defence and security posture that were made in the Integrated Review less than six months ago.

With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it is now time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s place and role in the world that, mantra-like, are repeated and have gone unchallenged in all of 21st century Reviews of the country’s defence and security.

The Blairite approach to foreign policy – “which should reflect our values” according to the 1998 Review – should have been shattered in Iraq. A war of questionable legality and zero legitimacy made a nonsense about ethical lodestars.

Equally, Labour’s view of the role of British soldiers in Afghanistan as globe-trotting, nation-building do-gooders – armed Mrs Jellybys – has surely had its day. The Coalition’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011 was nothing if not Blair-lite. Thankfully, the same itch to intervene was thwarted when it came to Syria.

For all policymakers’ non-stop talking up of Britain’s continuing interventionist global role, the public might well be sceptical. Over the past decade we have become ever-more culturally heterogenous and less happy with the concept of “white saviours” parachuting themselves into the world’s benighted regions and bossing the locals about.

In 2001, the UK’s Muslim population was 1.6 million; by 2018 it had reached 3.4 million: do these voters back Britain’s instinct for involvement in the problems of, say, the Middle East? Equally, the issue of this country’s colonial past is surely the most toxic on any syllabus – and very much at odds with any present-day neo-colonial nation-building.

Almost 30 years ago, another Foreign Secretary was in hot water. Sceptical about intervention in the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd dubbed those who demanded action after the media spotlight fell on any particular trouble-spot as members of the “Something Must Be Done Club”. He could have observed that Pen Farthing’s dogs would bark, but before too long the media would move on.

Like its predecessors, the Integrated Review invokes the values of liberal democracy. After almost 18 months of government by ministerial fiat in the name of public health, with Parliament side-lined, the media suborned and Police over-reach, we should perhaps be focusing on renewing those values here at home. The defence of the West begins in Britain.

James Frayne: Polls suggest the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal in Afghanistan

31 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?

Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?

Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.

While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).

The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.

While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).

Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.

They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.

These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).

Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).

Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.

While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.

The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.

While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).

This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.

Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).

In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.

It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.

While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.

This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.

Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.

In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.

It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.

But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.

This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alan Duncan: The recently-rehashed Foreign Office is facing an identity crisis

24 Aug

Sir Alan Duncan is a former Minister of State at both the Foreign Office and the International Development department.

Any mention of Afghanistan deserves an immediate outpouring of respect for those killed, wounded, or traumatised in the service of their country.

They have been defending a just cause. During the last few days, the dutiful resolve of Sir Laurie Bristow, our Ambassador, who has remained in Kabul to the sound of gunfire, speaks volumes for the best traditions of UK diplomatic service. The danger he faces, and the apocalyptic scenes of desperation around him, starkly illustrate how decisions made in the comfort and security of a political capital can have such massive consequences for people far away. And so it has proved for Joe Biden.

After Donald Trump’s moody and fractious foreign relations, there were high hopes that the new President’s would be more thoughtful. His early focus on Yemen offered hope but, since then, there has been little else of significance – until now.

His historic error has been to think that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a simple matter – just tidying-up a remnant of 20 years of US engagement. War, some say, is the only way to teach Americans geography: tragically, this catastrophe has now become a cruel lesson in history.

The experience of the last fortnight is not specific to Afghanistan. The history books contain many examples of conflict and upheaval which have resulted in the supposed victor leaving havoc in their wake. Nature abhors a vacuum and, where strong authority is removed, the hole can be rapidly filled by something much worse. That is the lesson that has been so willfully ignored in Afghanistan.

You don’t have to look back very far to understand this obvious danger. There is ample evidence from just the last ten years. There has been near-continuous chaos in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi; and the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen let the Houthis walk freely through the gates of Sana’a, starting a conflict which has condemned Yemenis to famine, disease, and violence. The US was involved in both, and the West should have learnt from the experience.

US policy has frequently been ‘smash in’, or ‘crash out’, or sometimes both. Any defence capability should be prepared for rapid reaction to unforeseen events, and the coalition response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a classic case of successful and fully justified military action. The same can be said of the UK’s re-taking of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

But most such interventions are far more complex, and require massive planning and understanding. In the case of Kuwait and the Falklands, the objective was absolutely clear-cut, and everyone understood why armed forces had been deployed. They also benefited from unequivocal political leadership which, when combined with the highest standards of military competence, ensured that popular support for the action was massive. In each case, political authority was restored to the previous government: job done.

However, it is precisely because the reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place were more complicated, that the process of departure is too. What are you leaving behind? The experience of invading Iraq should be deeply engrained in US thinking. It is essential to ask oneself not just whether and how to become involved in military action, but also how then to get out of it.

Put simply, the process of departing is as great a strategic and moral decision as the one to become involved in the first place. The failure to appreciate this crucial truth has been President Biden’s colossal mistake. Military engagement has a beginning and an end, and each decision is as important as the other. Starting something, be it an argument or a conflict, can look easy at the time, but ending it rarely does.

The appalling chaos in Afghanistan, and its possible relapse into medieval barbarity, highlights a broader malaise: the world is preciously short of leadership and political wisdom. There is a dearth of intellectual and moral authority across international politics. This is not a golden age for the wider world.

Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs was volatile, arbitrary and shallow, dominated by fuming outbursts on North Korea, China, and Iran, and tetchiness with even NATO and the EU. He showed no interest in proper policy, and stripped the State Department of much knowledge and expertise. This will have undermined the new President’s foreign policy capability, but ultimately it was no excuse for choosing to walk away from Afghanistan, and for proving so naïve about what would ensue. Twenty years were spent containing a bestial force: it has taken Biden 20 days to release it again.

The consequences go far beyond the terrified Afghans at Kabul airfield. Those they leave behind fear vicious oppression, the UK’s immigration policy is in shreds, and Moscow, Beijing and Teheran are all looking on with glee. They will be dancing a jig at the humiliation of the West.

Our commitment to Afghanistan, and the courageous sacrifice of so many, have brought pride and dignity to the UK. We have been there alongside the US; but we are not their wholly-owned subsidiary. Being a strong ally of the US should never stop us from firmly expressing our own opinions. But we have become too supine. We should talk more confidently of our own foreign policy, and not just mimic that of the US.

The Foreign Office used to be a beaming lighthouse of global competence and influence. It still contains a cadre of highly impressive people, but its status has been battered and diminished during the last 20 years. Embassies have been sold off; a diplomat’s career path has become arbitrary; the last Permanent Secretary prioritised diversity over diplomacy; and too much experienced advice has been ignored and subordinated to the whims and instructions of Downing Street. Its recent amalgamation with DFID has never been convincingly justified, and it has created a muddle of purpose and practice which is far from settled.

Intellectually, the newly-labelled FCDO is facing an identity crisis. Its development reputation has been tarnished, and nobody is able to define quite what the UK’s foreign policy actually is. Intoning the words ‘global Britain’ or ‘the rules-based international order’ ring hollow, and have become meaningless. We have cut funding to poor desperate Yemen, and while so many voices across the world were condemning Israeli illegality and excess in East Jerusalem, the UK hardly emitted a squeak.

Personal relationships, which are so essential to our diplomacy, seem few and far between; and where they do exist, they must be prepared to be gritty, not sycophantic. We have ambassadors and officials of unrivalled competence and integrity, but their morale is low. The new order seems to rely heavily on less experienced special xdvisers, who unacceptably filter the flow of paperwork and access to their master.

Our Prime Minister is a former Foreign Secretary. His most impressive moment was when he took personal control of the Government’s response to the Russians’ use of Novichok in Salisbury. That experience should give him the confidence to re-empower the Foreign Office, and appreciate that doing so would enhance him as Prime Minister, not threaten him.

Had the Foreign Office been a much greater force, it could have offered the antidote to President Biden’s folly.

Daniel Kawczynski: Libya needs a political solution taken from its recent history

8 Jul

Daniel Kawczynski is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Libya has not recently featured prominently on the government’s agenda – a perfectly understandable fact, given the priority the government has given to handling the more immediate issues of Brexit and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

But two recent high level ministerial visits to Libya by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, offer hope for increased British engagement with an area of the world where Britain can, and should, have an impact.

As the only non-French speaking country in the Maghreb, Libya is indeed a place where our post-Brexit Britain is uniquely poised to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future. Yet more importantly, it is in our interest to lend a helping hand to Libyans in shaping their future.

The opportunities range from helping Britain meet its energy consumption needs through oil imports, 10%-15% of which already come from North Africa; to stemming the flow of refugees to the shores of our European neighbours; to keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean, preventing it from placing anti-air and anti-ship missiles on Libya’s Northern coast in a move that would hamper NATO’s ability to defend Europe; to shutting down a human trafficking route that has been the source of untold suffering for thousands, including hundreds of Libyans, every year.

Beyond interests, Britain further has a moral responsibility to do something in Libya, having played such a key role in creating the dangerous vacuum that is swallowing Libya today.

As many will remember, the UK and its French allies played an integral role in spearheading the 2011 humanitarian intervention, undoubtedly stemming the tremendous humanitarian cost of what has been North Africa’s most protracted conflict of the millennium.

To our significant consternation, the same leadership was missing in 2015, when in an open letter to Prime Minster David Cameron I stated that, “We simply cannot stand by and let this humanitarian tragedy escalate day by day without any retaliation against ISIS and the other Islamist terrorist groups”. The decision was made not to not heed this call— despite the 2015 YouGov polling, which indicated that 59% would have supported British involvement in airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, more than double the 25% who would have opposed action.

Worse still, after conducting the airstrikes, Britain absconded from following through: 13 times more of our budget was allocated to conducting airstrikes than with the subsequent development of Libya. Despite this squandered opportunity and moral travesty, however, all is not yet lost.

The UK is still able to help Libya secure a democratic future. The government must be certain, however, that any role that it attempts to play in the war-torn country indeed has the potential to improve, rather than exacerbate the situation on the ground.

It is no secret that I have been a long-time supporter of the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution and British-style constitutional monarchy along with it. I remain convinced that the 1951 constitution, and the monarchy, can and should play a role in building Libya the future it deserves.

Libya has a presidential election scheduled for December 24, one which, according to Minister Cleverly, could provide Libyans with “a real opportunity to write the next chapter in the history of their country”. Yet Libya is racked by factionalism, like many other countries emerging from civil war.

Despite claims to the contrary, which were addressed in my 2015 New Statesman piece, tribalism is but one of many other fissures between Libya’s cities, regions, ideologies, and ethnic groups. These fissures are all the more evident today, and those divides have the potential to tear Libya apart not just physically, but as an idea.

To mend those divides, Libya needs a legitimate, durable, and widely-accepted constitution, all long before it needs an election. Because the task of drafting a constitution is so fraught, the international community has decided to kick the proverbial can down the road, and is instead rushing to have an election.

The absence of any foundational document means the election has little political or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of Libyans; this is one reason— among others— that many Libya experts doubt that an election will go ahead at all. Voter turnout will doubtlessly be unprecedentedly low, and will fail to capture Libya’s ethnically, politically and geographically diverse range of interest groups.

Without a historic national vision, such as that of the 1951 constitution guiding us, foreign actors will continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of Libyans, plunging the country further into chaos on the heels of the discord which will surely emerge as we get closer to December.

Yet even if the election is a success, the constitutional questions at the heart of the Libyan conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Instead of starting from scratch then, what Libya needs is a starting point grounded in history and legitimacy. The 1951 constitution offers just that.

Working with a construct based on Libya’s own history, which in the recent past has proved its ability to generate national consensus, it has significantly greater potential to facilitate the emergence of much needed national institutions than any new concoction.

Among the many good ideas contained in the 1951 constitution are a non-politicised police force and army, capable of upholding the integrity of political decisions and representing the will of the people.

While the constitution would no doubt require an update to account for the social, cultural, and demographic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, Libya would benefit from an idea that in the past worked and provided the country with a significant degree of political freedom until it was overturned by Colonel Gadhaffi’s undemocratic military coup in 1969.

The key lesson is that it is imperative to understand the intricate role that historical experience plays in building sustainable political futures. The tendency of the West, as tragically showcased in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to resort to a “one size fits all” approach to democracy.

It is high time we learnt from these lessons of the more recent past, and that we in the West cease trying to export our domestic political animals to foreign climes. After all, democracy at its most basic level is, “government of, by and for the people”.

While the UK should embrace whatever democratic solution is chosen and embraced by the Libyan people, we should consider putting on the table the 1951 constitution, a constitutional document formulated by the UN with that same tailored-fit approach in mind.

If the UK seeks genuinely to contribute to a solution that has a chance of addressing the myriad of needs faced by Libyan society today— chief among those being unity— the 1951 option has a historic track record, and stands a solid chance of creating a real source of authority and trust in the future.

Those of us who have been following events in Libya for the past decade know that its current unity government is transient; it is not the first to try its hand at assuaging the country’s domestic tensions. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last in the medium-term. There is however, no real reason to assume that this time things will end differently. This alone, if nothing else, is a reason to consider a fresh, yet historic take that the 1951 constitution would offer.

I have many times before made the argument for looking to the past as a way to shape the future. I will make it again here: There may be no more solid and sensible basis for a transition to peace available than the 1951 Constitution. While it is for Libyans to decide on the nature and text of the constitution that binds them, the UK can play a truly creative and constructive role by advocating for putting this solution on the table.

If, however, the UK is to play a serious and comprehensive role in shaping the future of Libya, it must look back before it looks forward. Lessons of the past are indeed integral for shaping our vision for the future.

Garvan Walshe: Navalny’s given Putin a splitting hedache: here’s how to make it worse

28 Jan

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia was brave to the point of foolhardiness. The opposition leader was pretty sure that he would be arrested on trumped-up charges, and knew he was putting himself in the life of the hands of the Russian state that tried to poison him only months ago.

The charge against him, of breaking parole by failing to report to a police station – while recovering from that poisoning attempt – wouldn’t be out of place in a Soviet joke book. The message he released, indicating that he has no plans to commit suicide while in jail, was an altogether more grim chronicle of an accident foretold.

In Navalny, the Putin system faces an opponent endowed with the recklessness of ambition. By returning after the state had tried to kill him, Navalny has elevated himself into Putin’s main rival, preparing for single combat against the ruler.

He has thus shown a cynical society that he’s willing to take personal risk. The difficulty for Putin is that his position depends on projecting strength and inevitability. The reason Navalny was barred from running in the last presidential elections was not that he would have won, but that he could have done well enough to make Putin seem beatable – ushering in instability, as even men within the system jostled to suceed the President.

But having failed to kill Navalny, Putin now risks looking incompetent. And while it wouldn’t be difficult to have something to happen to Navalny in prison, it would leave Putin looking weak – a scared dictator who can’t face his opponents, or even admit that the vast palace on the Black Sea is his own.

To Navalny’s personal standing, his Anti-Corruption Foundation organisation must be added. On January 23, it showed it could bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets, all across the country: in minus 50 degree temperatures in Siberia, and third-tier cities such as Ufa and Perm.

This movement cannot be dismissed as reflecting the well-heeled residents of St Petersburg and Moscow – it is composed of the ordinary Russians that Putin himself claims to defend. Perhaps even more importantly, even Russia doesn’t possess enough well-trained riot police to put down simultaneous demonstrations across the country without risking undue bloodshed. It was excess brutality, after all, that drew Ukrainians back out onto the streets after the original Maidan protests had died down.

Navalny’s friends, however, have now to prove that his organisation can maintain its creativity without him (several senior associates of his were also arrested on the 23rd). He has drawn Russians in with skilful media performances and slick reports of anti-corruption investigations – the latest of which exposes Putin’s kitsch Black Sea palace, complete with dancing pole. The upcoming Duma (parliamentary) elections will be a test of whether Navalny’s tactical voting campaign, which worked well in the Moscow City Council elections, can continue with him behind bars.

Navany’s courage has given Putin another headache: getting rid of him risks creating a martyr; keeping him in prison gives a human form to his anticorruption campaign – and releasing him would allow him to continue his opposition.

This choice comes on top of a year in which Putin has found himself outsmarted by Turkey in Libya, spooked by the uprising in Belarus, and losing his biggest ally from the presidency of the United States. The Nordstream pipeline is under increasing pressure, and disinformation campaigns no longer have the advantage of surprise.

The prominence of Russians in the UK — both opponents of the regime and its beneficiaries — means that the UK can play an outside role in making Putin’s headache worse. The 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Launding Act gives ministers powers to apply Magnitsky-style personalised sanctions against figures affiliated with Russian security forces who benefit from the regime’s theft of Russian natural resources.

A good place to start would be the list of regime-affiliated figures published by Navalny’s organisation. The anti-money laundering powers should be deployed systematically against bankers, lawyers and estate agents who have facilitated them.

People working for Russian security forces including the National Guard, could be denied visas, and Sputnik and Russia Today’s broadcasting licenses should be reviewed. Ordinary Russians, by contrast, should be welcomed, by giving them generous rights to work after studying, for example. In Tsarist times, Britain became a place of refuge for dissidents and democrats. This is an area where it can lead the world again.