Why conservatives can’t be trusted on Russia

Conservatives of all stripes increasingly can’t be trusted on what is potentially the biggest geo-political issue of our time, writes James Bloodworth.

Conservatives of all stripes increasingly can’t be trusted on the biggest geo-political issue of our time, writes James Bloodworth

Anyone on the left will have been accused at some point not only of being insufficiently patriotic but very probably of loathing their country.

We saw it last year when Ed Miliband’s late father, Ralph, was slandered as a man who “hated Britain”. It also rears its head any time Britain goes to war – those who fail to obediently line up behind ‘our boys’ are automatically portrayed by the right-wing press as subversive fifth columnists.

And indeed, in the past in was forgivable to view a certain portion of the far-left with an element of suspicion. I say this because, until the Berlin Wall came down, a not insignificant number of people clung to the idea that, if it came to the pinch, one ought to side with the Soviets rather than the United States and her allies.

Even many on the non-communist left clung to the vague notion that, rather than being a new type of totalitarian despotism the USSR was in fact some sort of ‘deformed workers’ state’; or in other words, it simply needed a bit of tinkering around the edges rather than fully fledged democratisation.

But how things have changed. Today one is far more likely to hear a conservative making excuses for Russia than a socialist or social democrat. Certainly there are a few Russophiles knocking around the hard left who remain mentally marooned in the Brezhnev era, but in 2014 it is in the Shires and the City, rather than the working men’s clubs, where one is most likely to hear admiring remarks about a Russian strongman.

For those brought up against a backdrop of post-Cold War triumphalism it might seem strange to see the heirs of Margaret Thatcher lining up alongside a strategic enemy of the West who yearns for the restoration of the USSR.

And yet it shouldn’t.

Conservatives in the both the UK and the US have long admired Russia President Vladimir Putin for his unapologetic assertion of Russia power, his promotion of ‘traditional’ values and his utter cynicism when dealing with Western diplomats. UKIP leader Nigel Farage publically described Putin’s handling of the Syria tragedy as “brilliant”, but as so often with Farage, he was only daring to say what many on the right of the Conservative party privately think but keep to themselves.

At the tail-end of last month an email appeared in my inbox from the Bruges Group, a self-described “neo-liberal think tank” which “spearheads the intellectual battle” against the European Union. The group is an all-party one, but in practice it draws its recruits largely from the right flanks of the Tory party. Norman Tebbit is the group’s President and Lord (Michael) Howard, Lord (Norman) Lamont, Lord (Stanley) Kalms, Lord (David) Young, and UKIP’s Lord (Malcolm) Pearson sit on its board.

Looking at the list of names it won’t come as a surprise to learn that the main aim of the group is to cut ties with Brussels. What’s interesting is where the group’s detestation of the European project has led it politically. Not only are the group opposed to any kind of punitive action against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, but according to one of the group’s Tory MPs it is the actions of the EU (rather than Putin’s flagrant aggression) that is to blame for the situation in Ukraine.

A short film produced by the group claims that Ukraine is “close to becoming a failed state”, not as a result of Russian interference, but because of, you guessed it, “EU meddling”. Russia may have behaved badly, but the EU “also did a lot of bullying”, the narrator assures viewers.

The film also veers into comedic understatement when it comes to the record of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, whose biggest flaw was not that he ordered the shooting of Euromaiden protesters before fleeing his palace for Russia, but that he was “hardly a role model for selfless public service”. To top matters off, the Bruges group insultingly refers to ‘the Ukraine’ rather than ‘Ukraine’, a phrasing Ukrainians got rid of after the fall of the USSR because it literally means ‘the borderland’ – i.e. a part of Russia.

Ok you say, so it may be true that there is a sneaking sympathy for Putin on the right flanks of the Tory party, but less ideological Conservatives such as prime minister David Cameron are surely capable of dealing with Russia with at least a modicum of principle and intelligence. It’s certainly true that one is unlikely to see David Cameron wholeheartedly adopting the Russian line in the fashion of UKIP or the Bruges Group.

And yet the prime minister is hamstrung by his own mercantilist ideology. This was revealed in the cabinet papers, photographed by the Guardian, cautioning against sanctions targeting Russia which might hurt the City of London. According to Savills estate agency, 4 per cent of buyers in ‘prime central’ areas of London, such as Chelsea and Westminster, are Russian, spending an average of £6.3m. Russian wealth has permeated the upper reaches of society in Britain more completely than in any other Western country, according to the Economist.

Despite events in Ukraine, one suspects that many conservatives will be far more concerned about their beloved City than about the national sovereignty of a faraway foreign country. As was demonstrated during the Arab Spring when Cameron travelled around the Middle East hawking British arms to autocrats, commerce will come before principle even for many of the so-called ‘modernisers’.

Ultimately, it isn’t only Nigel Farage who believes that Putin has played a “blinder” in Ukraine. Conservatives of all stripes increasingly can’t be trusted on what is potentially the biggest geo-political issue of our time.

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