Brendan O’Neill

Tom Tugendhat and the worrying rise of Russophobia

Anti-Russian rhetoric has been gathering pace in the UK for a few years now

Tom Tugendhat and the worrying rise of Russophobia
An anti-Brexit protest points the finger at Putin (Getty images)
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Public life in Britain has taken a dark turn over the past 48 hours. Russia’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine has caused some people to lose their minds. War hysteria is everywhere. Jingoism is surging. Russophobia itself threatens to take hold in polite society. I can’t be the only person who feels deeply uncomfortable with the stifling, conformist and accusatory atmosphere that has descended on these isles in such swift order.

Truth is the first casualty of war, they say. In fact it’s more often freedom and reason. Especially freedom of conscience: the freedom to think differently to those banging the drums of war, or, in this case, those calling for a huge Western showdown with Russia. In recent years, the start of every war in which Britain has some role or some interest has been accompanied by a clampdown on free discussion, by the demonisation of those who dare to deviate, however slightly, from the mainstream narrative. And so it has been following Putin’s shock-and-awe in Ukraine.

Those of us who implacably oppose Russia’s invasion but who also believe that Nato played a key role in stoking the Ukraine crisis are being mauled as ‘Putin apologists’. ‘You love Putin’ is the infantile cry of laptop bombardiers who cannot believe that some of us have refused to join in their brave social-media campaign for 20-year-old working-class men to be packed off to Ukraine to fight the Russians.

We’re used to it, of course. When we opposed the war in Iraq, we were Saddam apologists. When we advised against the Nato-led bombardment of Libya, we were Gaddafi apologists. That the only thing we were ‘apologists’ for was not bombing the hell out of countries, not introducing yet more violence and instability into already violent and unstable situations, was utterly lost on these binary moralists for whom intellectual complexity and moral depth are alien concepts.

The so-called ‘Putin apologists’ – that is, people who criticise Nato as well as Russia – have been promptly brought to heel. Consider the Labour party’s warning that it would withdraw the whip from 11 left-wing Labour MPs who signed a Stop The War statement that was critical of Nato’s eastward expansion. All the MPs agreed to scrub their names from this apparently heretical document that had the temerity to suggest that the Ukraine crisis is complex.

One Labour source said to the Mirror

‘You can be a mouthpiece for the Kremlin or a Labour MP. But not both.’ 

I find this incredibly chilling. Criticising Nato does not make one a mouthpiece for the Kremlin any more than criticising America’s calamitous actions in Afghanistan makes one a fanboy of the Taliban’s violent subjugation of women or its murder of its critics. It is possible to hold more than one moral thought at a time. To believe that the Taliban is wicked and that Western intervention made the situation in Afghanistan even worse. Or that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an outrage against peace and national self-determination and that Nato’s ceaseless eastward expansion is a reckless and unnecessary provocation.

The rapid backtracking by those Nato-critical Labour MPs is being described as a ‘rapid victory’ for Keir Starmer, who is keen to demonstrate that Labour is back to being centrist and sensible. In truth, all that Starmer has confirmed is that he is an intolerant politician, who will not even allow his MPs to criticise Nato. This was essentially a Nato loyalty test. You apparently must swear allegiance to Nato if you want to be a Labour MP.

I’m sorry, but if being a member of respectable society means bowing down to a military outfit that has bombed Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya, with frequently devastating consequences for life, limb and stability, then count me out. I’ll take my chances with unrespectability, thanks.

Then there’s all the talk about banning Russia Today. Some want it taken off the British airwaves; others, like Nadine Dorries, have called on Ofcom to ‘review’ RT and keep a check on its propaganda in relation to Ukraine. What a way to show Russia that we in the West believe in freedom – by threatening to censor a broadcaster whose content we don’t like.

Alongside the juggernaut of conformism that is taking out the ‘Putin apologists’, there has also been an explosion in something very like Russophobia over the past 48 hours. Everywhere one looks there is talk of ‘dirty’ Russian money. You don’t need a PhD in community relations to fear that this incessant association of Russians with ‘dirt’, with cheating and fraud, could impact on the sense of security of ordinary Russians who live in the UK. If I was a Russian-Brit I’d be pretty alarmed right now by the rolling political and media chatter about dirty Ruskies polluting our cities with their questionable cash.

I’d be even more alarmed by something that was said in the House of Commons yesterday. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat was discussing the actions Britain can take to reprimand Russia when he said

‘We can expel Russian citizens – all of them.’ 

To my mind, this is the most disturbing and unacceptable thing said by an MP in a very long time. It is a grave insult to the very many good Russians who live, study and work in our country. And it is a testament to just how reckless anti-Russian jingoism has already become.

Of course, Russophobia has been gathering pace in the UK for a few years now, especially among the supposedly liberal middle classes. Anti-Russian conspiracy theories are all the rage in the right-on set – witness their belief that Moscow made Brexit happen by meddling in our social media and in dim voters’ brains. Last month the New European had a front cover showing a giant Putin puppeteering Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, speaking to the chattering classes’ paranoia about a supposedly all-powerful Russian menace.

It must be possible to oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine without descending into fear, prejudice, hysteria and censorship. Here is my humble proposal: we stand up for Ukraine’s right to self-determination and we also defend to the hilt the freedom of speech of Nato’s critics and the civil rights and security of Russians in the West. Park the jingoism, people – reason is always preferable, and always less dangerous.