There is great fury about the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal - but Paul Demarty detects crocodile tears
The attempted assassination of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal - with his daughter, Yulia, also hospitalised - would create a stir under any conditions. It is rare enough that nerve agents are deployed in Salisbury, the sleepy southern city with little more than a grand cathedral steeple to give it fame.
On the face of it, it is highly unlikely that anyone other than agents of the Russian state conducted the attack on the Skripals. There are the usual jeremiads of the conspiracy theorists in their endless battles with the ‘sheeple’, according to whom this was an inside job; and a story is doing the rounds that it may be a provocation on the part of the violently anti-Russian government of Ukraine. The former may be dismissed out of hand, and the latter - while at least concerning a government that might actually have access to this class of nerve agent - seems like a wild risk for Kiev to take, given the potential consequences of being found out.
Unless some spectacular revelation appears, Occam’s razor governs our judgments: just as most murders of wives are committed by their husbands, so defectors may be presumed to be in the crosshairs of their former spymasters. The Russian state denies all involvement, but does not offer any alternative explanation for the fact that a man who sold out 600 Russian intelligence agents to the British should have ended up on death’s door thanks to a Russian nerve agent. In truth, we suspect that this was as much for domestic consumption as anything else. Autocrats find it easy enough to win elections, but harder to do so on the sort of turnout that confers legitimacy, and this spectacular act of national posturing - in spite of the denials - cannot have hurt matters. Allegations of irregularities abound, but from where we are sitting, it looks like last week’s election was a job well done for Putin and his cronies.
Yet it is one thing to say, in an abstract sort of a way, ‘It was the Russians’, and another to actually solve the crime - which Russians? There are close to 150 million of them, after all. Who ordered it? It seems impossible for Putin not to have approved, given the presidential election; but conjecture is surely not good enough to bring anyone to something resembling justice. How did a Russian poison get to Hampshire? The current theory seems to be - rather improbably - that it was planted in Yulia’s luggage, but no doubt other conjectures will arise. Many questions remain open - and why wouldn’t they? Crimes like this, in their details, are necessarily obscure.
Among those whose immediate response was not simply to bang the drums for sanctions and so on was Jeremy Corbyn, who advanced a series of pretty unobjectionable questions to Theresa May. He asked to see the evidence collected so far, criticised a number of donations from Russian oligarchs to the Tories, and made a few other unremarkable and painfully moderate demurrals. The response was bizarre in its intensity, as if Corbyn had let off the attack himself. TheSun declared him Putin’s man, Newsnight allegedly photoshopped him into Red Square with a more Leninish hat, and yet another rumour of a ‘moderate’ political breakaway from Labour began circling.
What on earth is going on? Between the tinfoil hat brigade and the anti-Putin hysterics, there is a vast, excluded middle, in which all manner of people might find a home, were it permitted by the aforementioned chauvinist shriekers. You do not need to be an historically leftwing leader of a Labour opposition to point out the dirty Russian money swilling around the City, or the Tory party coffers, or to ask questions about how on earth there could have been a nerve gas attack in Hampshire. Frankly, we can well imagine a Tony Blair excoriating John Major’s government on just such grounds, had this taken place in 1996. It is just routine opposition sniping: what’s the big deal?
What is going on, on this front, is a variation on an increasingly clapped-out theme, whereby the British establishment uses some confected scandal to tame Corbyn, with varying degrees of success. Thus the “shed loads” of money farrago over commemorating World War I; the question of whether he would sing the national anthem at state occasions; the permanent, mendacious needling at the question of anti-Semitism; ad infinitum. Corbyn’s instinct is generally to retreat, and fortify himself on the single issue of austerity - thus the lame line of his about Tory cuts to the diplomatic service (no doubt the budgets of MI6 and GCHQ have been cruelly slashed too … ). This demonstrates to the great and the good that their bullying works - and they do it again. Thus the current situation, whereby these cynical creatures weaponise the comatose Skripals.
So far as the left is concerned, the most eyebrow-raising stunt is, of course, the Newsnight incident; but, if the allegations are correct, the BBC merely made the mistake of doing in the most vulgar possible way exactly what every other media outlet - ‘respectable’ or otherwise - was doing, in naked defiance of the facts of the case. We have indicated already that this episode fits into a wider pattern of the establishment’s relationship with the Labour leader, but frankly there are other reasons too for cynicism in this instance - not the least of which are matters raised by Corbyn himself in his oh-so-unacceptable parliamentary interventions.
He spoke of “vast fortunes” swashing in from Russia to London - sometimes connected to “criminal elements”. Quite so! Even the ‘legitimate’ fortunes - that of Roman Abramovich, say - have pretty murky histories; never mind the well-known mafiosi. And they all come to London for preference; they buy generously proportioned houses in Chelsea and Hampstead, and newspapers, football clubs and works of art; and we help every step of the way. The ne plus ultra of Britain’s accommodating nature was the civil court case between Abramovich and former colleague Boris Berezovsky, which used the British courts to test bizarre details of events that had taken place 15 years earlier in Russia (Abramovich won; Berezovsky was later found hanged, presumably by his own hand).
All of this is perfectly well to be expected in the shabby little money laundry in which we live. Russian oligarchs are not the only people throwing money at anyone who can be relied on not to ask questions about it. This is a fairly usual part of the decline of great world powers, as their empires give way to younger and more vigorous ones. Britannia no longer rules the waves; so now she must sell her virtue down by the docks. (Even a blockbuster court case like Abramovich-Berezovsky can help, by paying a lot of lawyers a lot of taxable income.)
The particular circumstances at present reinforce this tendency. Brexit negotiations proceed, glacially, onwards: the European Union looks set to deny the City any special treatment, come the fateful day, thus increasing the damage the loss of Britain’s status as preferential destination for the smart kleptocrat’s plunder would do to our senile island. It was reported recently that David Green, the chief of the Serious Fraud Office, was in danger of losing his job because, under his tenure, the SFO had actually started prosecuting people successfully. We should not overstate matters - the ‘prosecutions’ are for the most part deferred prosecution agreements, which do not involve anything so vulgar as jail-time. Even that is apparently too much for Theresa May, who has been trying to wind the thing up for half a decade. Imagine how much more damage would be done by a Labour government that actually attempted to sort the dirty money from the clean.
We suspect, ironically, that the blasting of Corbyn for softness on Putin comes at least in part not from concern that he would reduce Britain to a Russian vassal, but the opposite - that he might blunder his way into destroying the appeal we currently have for the oligarchs, and other delightful characters (Saudi princes and so on) to boot. It is notable that, for all the shrieking, the actual sanction against Russia consists entirely of the expulsion of a few diplomats - a matter so routine it is difficult to stifle a yawn. That is the story here: the British economy is built on corrupt relations with regimes like Putin’s and their beneficiaries, and a little of that money drips neatly into the Tory Party, where we are sure it is accepted with the utmost probity and not a hint of political influence is yielded in return.
No wonder the great and the good are so keen to turn the bizarre attack in Salisbury into a ‘bash Corbyn’ episode,