The story Boris Johnson and his colleagues now tell us about Vladimir Putin and his regime is simple enough. The Russian president, Johnson says, is “a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest”; he has violated “every principle of civilised behaviour between states”. What is happening in Ukraine, moreover, reminds us of the cruel, amoral way that Putin governs his own country, and its contrast with the ideas that unite the west. The world, it is said, is once again polarising between dictatorship and freedom – and in cooperation with its allies, the government has proudly entered what one Tory MP recently described as a global “battle for democracy”. Johnson, indeed, sees himself as leading the charge, repeating the mantra that “Putin must fail”, and claiming that Britain is “out in front”.
All this might seem welcome, but it is also rather absurd. For a long time now, the Conservative party has been happily backsliding on its commitment to liberal values, and dismantling some of the basic structures of political scrutiny and accountability. Brexit, the reckless project that put Britain on the periphery of Europe and brought Johnson to power, was a huge blow to exactly the kind of multilateralism the prime minister now affects to believe in. As further proof of the ethical vacuum at the heart of Tory politics, Conservative politicians have been happily accepting Russian money while averting their eyes from the Putin regime’s meddling in British politics. Now, though, all of that must suddenly be forgotten: the din of bombs and guns has suddenly awakened the Tory conscience, and the prime minister will soon be telling us that huge hikes in the cost of petrol, gas and food are the price to be paid for values he himself seems to scarcely believe in.
When Johnson bemoans “the Kremlin’s blizzard of lies and disinformation”, the gaff is blown. Clearly, he is no Putin, but that is not quite the point. His time in power, let us not forget, has seen not just serial mendacity, but the unlawful suspension of parliament, attacks on the courts, plans for clampdowns on the right to protest – and, via the government’s cynical insistence that voting will depend on presenting photo ID, new restrictions on our most basic democratic rights. The games the government has played with the Northern Ireland protocol don’t exactly suggest a deep attachment to international rules. And the impression that the BBC is now being victimised for not being as obedient as the government would like has the same whiff of the worst kind of power politics, along with ministers’ seemingly endless “war on woke” and the introverted nastiness of Priti Patel’s Home Office (highlighted on Saturday, when an immigration minister apparently suggested that Ukrainian refugees could attempt to come to Britain using the government’s seasonal workers’ scheme).
When it comes to a very modern mixture of reactionary politics and disregard for democratic norms, there is a continuum that ends with Putin and also takes in such figures as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán; and Johnson is definitely on there somewhere. Even if he’s an opportunist rather than an ethno-nationalist, that’s still some indictment.
There is a particularly glaring example of the Conservatives’ current moral contortions: the estimated £2m in Russia-linked donations that have come the Tories’ way since Johnson became prime minister. An exemplary benefactor is Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin (Pandora papers documents published in October last year suggest he was allowed to leave Russia in 2004 with assets worth about £350m and retain Russian business links). She is now a member of the Conservatives’ 14-strong “advisory board” of donors, with a habit of handing the party six-figure sums.
In 2020, Electoral Commission records showed that six members of the cabinet and eight junior ministers had taken money from individuals or businesses linked to Russia. If senior Tories now insist that such donors are often opposed to the Putin regime, and all is therefore well, that is not convincing: as anyone who knows about modern Russia will tell you, retaining significant business interests, connections or assets in Russia entails obligations to Putin, and relationships with a state that constantly seeks information, intelligence and foreign influence. Any political party with the most basic grasp of national security should surely know that.
Clearly, unease about Tory donations dovetails into serious questions about the government’s lamentable record on Russian interference in our politics. When the findings of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee’s long-suppressed, heavily redacted inquiry into that subject (aka the Russia report) were finally published, in the summer of 2020, they prompted loud noise about the lack of attention the government paid to evidence of Russian meddling in UK elections and referendums – but Johnson pathetically batted away such worries as the neuroses of “Islingtonian remainers”. From the members of the House of Lords with Russian business interests to London’s so-called laundromat for dirty Russian money, other issues that the Ukraine crisis has once again pushed into the political foreground were also laid bare. But what followed was even more of the same inaction that the report bemoaned, which is one of the reasons why Johnson’s sudden scramble to look resolute and tough looks so desperate.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the political right, there is something even more awful: the meek apologism for Putin seen lately in the endless excuses for the Ukraine invasion proffered by Nigel Farage – who moronically reduces Ukraine’s plight to the consequences of Nato and the EU “poking the Russian bear with a stick” – and the Brexit-backing millionaire Arron Banks, who once compared Crimea’s relationship with Russia to the Isle of Wight’s with Britain.
It would be comforting to think that their views are confined to the same political fringes as comparable ideas on the hard left, but the context is markedly different: these, after all, are people who played a crucial role in our exit from the EU, and have strong support in the rightwing press (and, for what it’s worth, the TV channel GB News). They are also the figureheads of a strand of rightwing politics that blurs out not just into Toryism but parts of English society characterised by money and power, where the influence of what the Russia report called “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin” is increasingly clear. Here, in fact, lies another reminder of links that connect pro-Kremlin voices with the City, the London property industry, high-end private schools, and conservative politics with both a large and small C.
What a mess all this is, but what a clear alternative it demands: politicians and public figures whose attachment to our fragile, damaged liberal values is just as fervent as the belief in democracy and the rule of law that evidently runs deep among so many of the Ukrainians – and Russians – who are currently in such a desperate situation. In the absence of such authentic voices, all the government’s sound and fury threatens to amount to a flimsy and cynical performance – no basis for leading us through the economic turbulence this crisis is already creating; and, worse still, something that Putin may well interpret as a sign that things will once again align in his favour.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist
Join a panel of journalists, hosted by Michael Safi, for a livestreamed event on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. On Thursday 3 March, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 12pm PST | 3pm EST. Book tickets here.