Brexiteers and Putin have a lot in common, both pine for empire
Chris Johns: looks like we’re back in the cold war of 1970s
A Soviet military parade: Vladimir Putin and the Brexiteers are both pining for empire
There is a scene from the classic 1970s TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when the captured Soviet agent, Bill Haydon, confesses why he spied for the Russians. Mostly, he explains, it’s because he hates America. “Do you know what’s killing Western democracy . . . ? Greed. And constipation. Moral, political, aesthetic. I hate America very deeply. The economic repression of the masses institutionalised.”
Anyone puzzled by the way some UK politicians managed to sound so equivocal in their condemnation of chemical attacks being conducted on British soil need look no further than those sentiments expressed by the fictional spy. Actually, not quite so fictional: Haydon is thought to be based on the real life spy Kim Philby. Both Haydon and Philby were Oxbridge educated, brilliant men who ended up responsible for a lot of dead bodies.
Loathing of America and fondness for Russia were widespread in the 1970s: it was hard to attend a British university in those days and not be taught by several self-described Marxist admirers of Moscow.
What is astonishing is how those more than 30-year-old beliefs have persisted to the present day. For all the revelations about the old Soviet system, for all we know about the modern kleptocracy that is today’s Russia, there are still people in positions of power, perhaps even future UK prime Ministers, who still find it easy to appear sympathetic to Vladimir Putin.
Extremes of left and right seem to meet themselves coming backwards in their admiration for Putin. A lot of the recent populist and anti-immigrant winners in the Italian elections are openly Putinesque. Austria has similar right-wing politicians with affection for Putin. Left-wingers in Greece are united with neo-fascists in Hungary in their alignment with Russia. Putin admirers are to be found in Germany, especially among the far right. A Labour ex-mayor of London once said, “I wish Obama was as effective a leader as Putin”. And, of course, there is Donald Trump.
In that same spirit of strange alliances, the hardliners of the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative UK government have something in common with Putin: the loss of Empire. In Putin’s case it is simple revanchism: recovery of lost territory, rebuilding of control and inchoate expressions of anger and resentment. I don’t imagine the Brexiteers dream about restoration of lost Empire, although some have suggested that reunification of Ireland with the Commonwealth – or even with the UK itself – is one way to solve the Border problem. Their resentment is less revanchist, more nuts.
Many of those 1970s Marxist fellow travellers did give up on Russia when the extent of Stalin’s (and other) gulags became known. But some did not. Corbyn’s current communications chief is a chap called Seamus Milne, another 1970s Oxbridge man (PPE at Oxford is another peculiar feature uniting British right and left wingers). He has said, “for all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment . . . Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination”. Nothing seems to upset Milne more than anyone who tries to equate Hitler with Stalin. At the time of the Brexit referendum there were suggestions that Milne was at least partly responsible for Labour’s lukewarm support of the Remain campaign. Many of us also think Putin’s troll farms also helped the Leave vote.
Seeing the world through a very narrow lens is not something unique to the British left. We may marvel how intelligent people manage to retain views, formed over a generation ago, that should have gone the way of the Berlin Wall. Instead, we find they regret the fall of that wall.
None of this mattered much during those years when the British Labour Party was, in words now used by its current leaders, “pro-business”. They don’t mean that in an affectionate or nostalgic sense. The belief is that those pro-business forces temporarily captured the Labour Party and now normal activities can be resumed. Where normal attitudes and beliefs are those formed in the junior common room of Balliol College Oxford, circa 1977. And frozen in aspic ever since.
Could these people end up in power in the UK? According to current opinion polls, quite possibly. The latest gives the Tories a narrow three-point ahead. So it’s too close to call. Given the incompetence of the current government, it is perhaps surprising that Theresa May has any kind of lead at all. What unites all sides of the Brexit debate is an opinion that the government couldn’t have handled the negotiations any worse.
The UK feels febrile and unstable. A Corbyn-led government would mean a very changed country. Noel Whelan was correct when he wrote in this newspaper that if Sinn Féin ended abstentionism a united Ireland becomes a real possibility. Another feature of those 1970s British Marxists was their affection for Irish Republicanism.