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Tue 19 November 2019
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The far right’s collusion with Vladimir Putin is now well-documented, but support from the left puts democracy in even greater danger.

At last. After years of debate over whether Vladimir Putin is a pragmatist, opportunist or just an old-style managerial bureaucrat, the Russian President has made clear quite why he has spent the last five years funding far-right parties in Europe and using his propaganda tools to subvert elections.

“The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population,” Putin told the Financial Times. After the annexation of Crimea, invasion of east Ukraine, the intervention during the British EU Referendum and interference in the US presidential election, the pattern is not just disruption. It’s more. It’s an ideology that mixes old ‘white’ and ‘red’ strains of Russian nationalism, as Timothy Snyder explains in The Road to Unfreedom.

Of course, the most likely next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spotting an opportunity to burnish his credentials said “Putin will be proved wrong”. But, this kind of lip service to liberalism has no more meaning than that the far-right commentators who put ‘classical liberal’ on their Twitter bios. His actions speak louder.

Johnson’s lack of support for the British ambassador in the US, Kim Darroch – under attack from both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage – proves he cannot uphold one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy: an independent civil service.

Johnson’s gung-ho ‘jacuzzi justice’ attitudes had senior criminal justice figures at a Byline Times and Proof magazine panel event this week agreeing that he would appeal to “penal populism” and set back our criminal justice system by decades.

But, perhaps the most important foundation of a liberal democracy is a multi-party system, and the presence of an active and fearless Opposition that can hold the government of the day to account, and provide a possible replacement.

That’s what’s most disappointing about the British Labour Party’s leadership in its response to the multiple attacks on British democracy outlined in these pages and elsewhere. After months of silence, the party’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson did call for a public inquiry into Russian interference at last year’s Byline Festival. But, his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has kept a much more studied silence.

In this week’s Byline Times we have documented the attitude of Corbyn’s close adviser Andrew Murray towards the past five years of ‘active measures’ by the Kremlin, starting with the shooting down of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 (which killed 10 Britons) to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury last year (which left one British woman dead).

At every stage, Murray – and so it would be seem his boss Corbyn – have sought to play down the evidence of Russian involvement in these atrocities, followed by protests against whatever sanctions or expulsions followed.

We find it hard to believe that anyone with any knowledge of Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on journalists, his homophobic laws, and – above all – his exfiltration of wealth to offshore accounts, can possibly think he’s on the left.

But, by appealing to the authoritarian far-right and hard left simultaneously, Putin is proving the ‘horseshoe’ theory of politics could be true – that both extremes bend towards each other. And British liberal democracy is caught in the pincer movement.

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