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UK Politics Stands at a Crossroads – Which Path Will the Conservatives Choose?

Robert Saunders assesses whether war in Ukraine will result in British governance rolling-back its recent destructive tendencies – or whether it will further retreat into them

Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March 2022. Photo: Alberto Pezzali/PA Images/Alamy

UK Politics Stands at a CrossroadsWhich Path Will the Conservatives Choose?

Robert Saunders assesses whether war in Ukraine will result in British governance rolling-back its recent destructive tendencies – or whether it will further retreat into them

As carnage rains down on Ukraine, the consequences for British politics are trivial by comparison. But they are worth considering nonetheless, not least because they are more subject to our control. There are optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. 

In the optimistic scenario, the UK begins to roll-back some of the more destructive tendencies of its recent politics. It finally tackles London’s role as a laundromat for dirty money, overhauling legal and regulatory systems that protect stolen wealth while shielding its owners from scrutiny.

In this scenario, UK politics – and the Conservative Party in particular – ends its addiction to donations from the super-rich. It shuts down the ‘advisory boards’, ‘unincorporated associations’ and cash-for-access networks through which the tendrils of plutocracy force their way into democratic politics and choke it off. 

It begins to address the absurd mismatch between the scale of Britain’s global ambitions and the resources it is willing to commit to them.

And it starts to pursue a grown-up, post-Brexit relationship with the EU, rather than behaving as if the EU had ceased to exist in January 2020.

In this pathway, the UK also rebuilds the constitutional defences against the political model Vladimir Putin represents. It rejects the lure of authoritarian ‘strongmen’, upholds independent media, fortifies the state against corruption and recognises the extreme danger to democracy when leaders can lie to the public with impunity.

Perhaps most optimistically, the Government recognises the costs that sanctions will impose at home, as food and fuel prices rise. It acknowledges that the burden cannot be allowed to fall on the poorest; and that if the UK is to present a united front abroad, it needs to rebalance burden-sharing at home. 

That’s the optimistic scenario. But the forces against which it is pushing are deeply entrenched. It is not an accident that London has become the oligarchic playground of choice.

For years, those close to power actively promoted that model to the world. The co-chairman of the Conservative Party ran a luxury concierge service, which boasted of helping wealthy Russians to buy property in the capital. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urged ‘billionaires’ and ‘oligarchs’ to fight their legal battles in London, celebrating the profits to be reaped from ‘libel tourism’.

Rewiring the legal and regulatory architecture of oligarchy would be a long and complex task, which is not the sort of thing at which British politics currently excels. It seems more likely that the Government will give itself discretionary powers to sanction specific individuals, accelerating the transfer of power from Parliament to ministers, while leaving the fundamental problems unaddressed. 

In other words: the pessimistic scenario is that current events simply exacerbate the existing problems of UK politics. Instead of reforming the law, we will enhance the ability of the Government to override it. We will have more chest-thumping about global leadership, while ignoring the resource gap that is yawning beneath it.

There is already a serious danger that economic pressure on the Russian state, and on the foreign assets of its elite, will morph into a ‘kulturkampf’ on ordinary Russians who have made their lives in Britain. We have seen appalling statements from some MPs to this effect, including a demand from a prominent Conservative to “rescind all visas for Russian citizens currently in the United Kingdom and send everyone home”.

In this gloomier scenario, calls for ‘unity’ will be used to stifle criticism and to disable political scrutiny. A cosplay Churchillism (only loosely connected to historical reality) may amplify a desire for strongmen of our own, who embody ‘the will of the people’ and are not subject to the usual rules and obligations. 

In another recurring failure of British politics there is little sign, as yet, that the Government is ready to be honest with the public about the domestic costs of sanctions. That urgently needs to change: if it does not, ministers may struggle to maintain public support for those measures, as food and fuel prices escalate.

Unless there is a serious and sustained attempt at sharing the domestic costs of sanctions, legitimate concern about energy prices may accelerate the backlash against net zero – a prospect that has been building on the right for some time.

The future is not yet written and both paths currently lie open before us. But the options will rapidly foreclose, if we do not take decisive action quickly.

The war in Ukraine is raising hard political questions across the world: from defence spending in Germany, to nuclear policy in Japan, to the Trump legacy in the United States. In Britain, we badly need an end to illusions. The danger is that we choose instead to retreat into them.

Robert Saunders is Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is ‘Yes to Europe: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

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