Conversations (1)

The Proud Dad will surely have one or other things on his mind (and plate) today, but let's see if we can't squeeze another round or two out of you.

Some might well wonder about the "Our Yesterday is their Today" narrative.  The more we contemplate those likenesses between Russia-Ukraine today and Britain-Ireland a century ago, the more some striking differences emerge.  The British parliament by that time had long echoed with mighty voices condemning British policy.  William Gladstone was already loudly and passionately endorsing Irish Home rule in the 19th century, because he lived in a state with law and civic institutions that allowed him to do so.  Who is Russia's Gladstone today?   Elisabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre set the tone for an emerging if hard-fought future.  The progressive or reformist visions of Nikolai Rostov or Pierre Bezukhov, by contrast, are very deliberately presented as at best futile and at worst fatuous.  Two centuries later has that changed?

Or take your more contemporary comparisons to the Middle East.  Speaking of proud dads, you and I certainly agree that nothing will be resolved by marching Dad's Army to the Kremlin doors.  The involvements in Iraq and Libya (although I'd certainly not put them in the same box, as many do, in terms of the policies or planning behind them) have certainly led to grievous numbers of innocent civilian deaths. 


And yet, since you invoke that region (in which the Russian role has been heinous), ever more anomalies arise.  They lead us to examine more closely this apparent "law of the excluded middle", namely, that we either (a) declare all-out law or (b) lend some moral support to a few isolated dissidents and otherwise sit back and lament British history, because after all it's "just as bad".  Yet no one better than professors in our respective institutions would know that there are certainly options between those two extremes.  Observers from Mars might well wonder why they such options scarcely discussed, at least if they claimed for themselves the same political values which you claim in your approach to Russia and Ukraine.

So back to your Middle East comparison.  In the past century the Jews have faced one of the most systematically planned and executed genocides in history, on the heels of a millennium of antisemitism.  Yet, as we are sternly and tirelessly admonished, that is "no excuse" for the way a rather small landmass became the Israeli state.  When it comes to perceived Jewish "imperialists", countless university campuses in Britain and elsewhere, in a curiously mellifluous harmony with several dozen states that have loads of time on their hands to shuttle through UN resolutions (most of them far worse human rights abusers with few if any resolutions against them at all).  None of those forces seem to be at a loss about concrete actions to be taken about a state they deem to be criminal. Suddenly they snap into the most vibrantly concerted action.  Suddenly no one seems stumped about what to do or about how to move beyond sheer words and gestures. Suddenly no one is at a loss to scream the rawest and most incensed invective and to shout down anyone who ventures disagreement.


During that same century, indeed on the heels of previous centuries, Russian governments have orchestrated genocide (notably the Holodomor), they have committed murders of millions of other innocents, they have impoverished countless populations stretching over colossal landmasses from Central and Eastern Europe clear into Asia, not to mention their own role in grossly aggravating the Middle East tensions through the pernicious distribution of antisemitic tracts and support for brutal dictators (claiming yet further innocent victims--indeed along altogether racist lines), and Russia still counts among the most abusive nations despite being under declared war or informal attacks from absolutely no one, and indeed aggressively initiating such attacks itself in each of the regions you yourself enumerated above.  And yet now, just as suddenly, it seems the best approach is to tip-toe gingerly, to prudently weigh and balance all factors with Ciceronian sobriety, to feel deeply "sensitive" to all sides, to "understand" Russia's "legitimate" concerns, to assess the situation all with all the probity supplied by historical context, and to draw comparisons with Western nationalisms and with the evils of the British empire: and therefore to actually do nothing more in practical terms (if I'm understanding correctly) than set up a few Goethe Institutes.  When did you last see an anti-Russia boycott campaign at Birkbeck?  Where was that "die-in"?  Where is that blood-in-the-face outrage?  I understand one of your colleagues is institutionally barred from research in Israel.  Has that same institution kept you away from Russia?  

With no slight chill in my spine, I suspect no one there could even easily think of any particular reason for such action against Russia.  I suspect (though I'm happy to do the experiment with you--just say when) that if we were to stand outside the Student Union polling for attitudes about Russia and Israel, very different "policies" would indeed emerge, explaining indeed why we view and treat the two so differently, and why we manage to look at Russia and see nothing worse than a morality tale about how the British have mistreated the Irish.  So it seems there are all sorts of things that could done.  The barriers arise not from pragmatics, but from sheer will -- and from core values. 

(I guess the standard line would be: “Yes, but the US helps Israel”.  Except that the US has shed exponentially more innocent blood at home and abroad than Israel has ever done, while none of the BDS-crowd, not even the American ones, ever call for an anti-US boycott.  In fact the BDS-ers I know seem to be flying to the US every five minutes—only for "constructive engagement" of course, and never to lie on a beach in Honolulu or Miami or to dine in fancy NY restaurants.)


So it seems we can rehearse all the history and draw all the analogies we like. Yet far from consulting facts in order to choose policy accordingly, we merely end up with already pre-fabricated policy, for which facts are then selected altogether post hoc in order to support that policy. 

And perhaps that was never a surprise.

I only ask again - what is "the West"? 

My line has always been that relations between Russia and Ukraine mirror those between England and Ireland... the same jokes at the expense of the "little brother" - and the same history of conquest and hard-won independence. Though Irish independence cost far more blood from 1916 onwards (and several uprisings before then) than did the relatively peaceful disengagement of Ukraine from the USSR - up until 1914.

Moreover, English constitutional law was shaped by A V Dicey, who was a die-hard opponent of Irish Home Rule - and of trade unions and local government. The internal armed conflict from 1969 to 1997 in the UK can be compared with the Chechen insurgency in Russia. And the McKerr (shoot to kill), Finucane (murder of a solicitor) and other Northern Irish cases against the UK at Strasbourg have not been resolved to this day - refusal by the UK to conclude an effective investigation. 

So, while trying to avoid the pitfalls of moral relativism, I would be very cautious about seeking to intervene in any way. The English must resolve their own problems, probably without Scotland and maybe without Wales and Northern Ireland; and the same goes for the Ukrainians and the Russians.

I do hope, Eric, that - unlike Owen Smith, who seems to favour armed intervention - your absolutely justified moral outrage and concern does not justify a repeat of the disasters of Iraq and Libya.... , 

I'm now on the ferry to the Netherlands - my daughter's wedding on Saturday! England was a staunch supporter of the 80 years war of the Dutch for liberation from Spain, for example Philip Sydney at Zutphen. The Dutch burned the English fleet in the Medway in 1667, but we are friends again...