It’s ages since I last went on a decent demo and had a bit of a dust-up with the pigs. I should get out more, there’s a lot of fun to be had, throwing stuff at the police and shouting things in a self-righteous manner. I think the last one I attended was in the very early 1980s, in Cardiff. Sinn Fein was marching through the centre of the city in support of its right to maim and murder people, and the National Front decided to march against them. As a consequence, the Socialist Workers Party’s most successful front organisation, the Anti-Nazi League, insisted that it had a right to march against the fact that the NF were allowed to march, and that was the section I was in.
Of the three chants in evidence that day, we had the least interesting: ‘The National Front is a Nazi front, smash the National Front’. Meanwhile, the snaggle-toothed hags and tinkers from Sinn Fein were singing ‘Have some fun with a tommy gun, join the IRA’. And the NF gave a reprise of their famous, if non-sequitur in the circumstances, ‘If they’re black/send them back/if they’re white/that’s all right.’ All three contingents shouted abuse at the filth, trapped between these three furious and mentally ill platoons.
I nearly went on the Stop the War march in 2003, and now I wish I had. There were at least a million people on that, perhaps two million. By our own government’s criteria, and certainly by the BBC’s, that more than enough for us to demand regime change, isn’t it? More than enough for the Russians to get involved and demand that the protestors be negotiated with and the prime minister leave the country forthwith. Sadly, none of that happened. We have demos here, but no matter how many people turn out, it is accepted that while the protestors may feel terribly strongly about stuff — the poll tax, hunting, the invasion of Iraq — we have a democratically elected government and, by and large, that’s that: we note your objections and your strength of feeling, but you may not be the majority.
However, we do not extend this rational response to demonstrations when they happen overseas. Not when they happen in Turkey, for example, or Egypt, and certainly not when they happen in Ukraine. When it’s Ukraine, we demand regime change, and we get it. And our television news reporters refer to the protestors not as ‘protestors’ but as ‘revolutionaries’, to be supported almost unconditionally, their aims assumed to be right and just and shared by the population as a whole (apart from a minority of Russkies living in the east), and the sitting government — democratically elected, remember, with a rather stronger mandate than the one enjoyed by our coalition — to be condemned and ousted. Our double standards are remarkable.
With Syria, the western media was behind the uprising immediately, despite the fact that at first it was extremely localised and there was no evidence whatsoever that the grievances against the Assad dictatorship were broadly shared. Nor was there any investigation of the ‘rebels’ — their aims and aspirations, their political or religious motives. The media and the government became entranced by the mob, apparently believing that this was a grass-roots rebellion of decent, liberally minded, secular, ordinary people, against a loathsome tyranny. This was, I would venture, a mistaken assessment — but the case is at least arguable, if you are a bit naive. Assad is indeed a tyrant and an autocrat, after all, regardless of how vile many of his fundamentalist opponents may be.
But what is our justification for siding with the mob, and against the government, in Ukraine? The trouble — ‘Euromaidan’ — began when the Ukrainian government decided not to pursue closer trade links with the European Union, to the dissatisfaction of many in the west of the country — that part which in previous times was part of Poland, or Lithuania, or the Austro–Hungarian empire — and the contentment of the east, with its high proportion of Russians. Again, there has been little or no reporting from the south and east of the country, which wishes to retain close ties to Russia; the huge demos there in support of the now ousted president were not reported at all.
Only now, as they begin to turn nasty, and the pro-Russians feel, with some justification, that they are being co-opted into a very different country, and co-opted by the actions of some elements who cheerfully fought alongside the Nazis in the second world war, are we beginning to hear from Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk and Simferopol. And yet it is too late: the government has apparently fallen, regardless of what the mass of ordinary Ukrainians might want, and a corrupt and autocratic former president — Yulia Tymoshenko — is released from prison and back, centre stage, lapping it all up.
I cannot work out if we are with the mob in Kiev and Lviv because we are starry-eyed and gullible, or because we are devious and Machiavellian. My guess is that on the part of the media it is the former and on the part of the western governments rather more the latter. Either way, I do not think that we have helped either Ukrainians or the world by our interventions and encouragement, any more than — in the end — we will be seen to have helped Syria, Egypt or Tunisia.