British politicians of all colours, creeds and allegiances have been tripping over themselves this week in their rush to denounce the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as an act of Russia malice. Virtually every mainstream politician from the “centre” to the right has bounded forward to seize the chance to declare the Kremlin guilty, without any attempt to wait for decisive findings from the relevant investigative bodies now looking at the case. From Chuka Umunna to John Woodcock, Theresa May to Hillary Benn, all the Serious People taking foreign policy Seriously appear to agree loudly and eagerly with each other and to a startling degree.
Corbyn resists the rush to judgement
However, one notable politician with an anti-war past has stepped forward to throw the chummy Westminster consensus into disarray. On Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, dared to raise the possibility that it would be wiser to abide by international law and gather evidence before a rush to judgement, citing the important role of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in any such actions:
If the government believes that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? How has (Prime Minister Theresa May) responded to the Russian government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack, to run its own tests?”
This seems reasonable enough. Pay attention to international law, follow agreed upon procedure and then work from the findings of the investigation when all the facts are in. Corbyn also has personal experience of evidence free witch hunts, having recently been baselessly accused of being a Czech spy. Surely his evidence-based approach would not therefore be controversial? However, Theresa May criticised Corbyn for not taking the opportunity to join the House of Commons herd:
I am only sorry that the consensus does not go as far as the right honourable gentleman, who could have taken the opportunity as the UK government has done to condemn the culpability of the Russian state.
The culpability of the Russian state, while a possibility, is far from proven as May well knows. In fact, several factors strongly indicate that Russia is an unlikely culprit. For example, the OPCW has confirmed that Russia has destroyed all 39,967 metric tons of its chemical weapons, with the final check coming in September 2017. In addition, the British Ambassador to OPCW Peter Wilson recently confirmed this in a congratulatory note to OPCW, praising OPCW’s help in the “verified destruction” of Russia’s chemical arsenal.
How interesting then to hear that, after his recent praise for the “excellent work” of OPCW, Ambassador Wilson declared that Russia had “failed to declare” hitherto unknown, and possibly phantom, stocks of the chemical Novichok (a substance that OPCW confirmed it had found no evidence of in Russia’s chemical weapons program). It’s hard to know exactly what prompted such a radical change of heart from Ambassador Wilson, although a cynical mind might suggest that the extraordinary anti-Russia pressure in the current British political climate might have had some effect. Pressure may have been applied, under which Wilson appears to have wilted.
The pressure grows
One person who hasn’t wilted under the pressure yet is Corbyn, a pressure that has only increased since Corbyn’s spokesman Seumas Milne dared to draw comparisons between the current poisoning scandal and the ultimately fact-free case for invading Iraq:
I think obviously the government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intelligence which is problematic to put it mildly.
Pointing out that the British government has a “problematic” relationship with weapons intelligence in it’s recent past hardly seems unreasonable. The rush to create a case before the facts were in ultimately led to vast numbers of deaths in Iraq, as well as inevitable violence in surrounding countries. Dodgy intelligence taken to its sinister conclusion by war-hungry ministers led to the internationally recognised war crime of aggression, the paramount crime from which all other war crimes are derived. Milne continued:
So I think the right approach is to seek the evidence; to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibited chemical weapons, because this was a chemical weapons attack, carried out on British soil. There are procedures that need to be followed in relation to that.
This echoed Corbyn’s calls to wait for the appropriate body, OPCW, to make their findings known before any unnecessary or dangerous action was taken. Milne remarking on this “problematic” history seems wholly relevant if the ultimate aim is to sooth alarmingly high tensions between nuclear powers and ensure justice for the victims of the poisoning.
Something almost everyone in Westminster can agree on
This was not how it was interpreted by many in the Westminster bubble however. The usual suspects from both Labour and the Conservatives lined up to decry Corbyn and his spokesman. Labour MP Yvette Cooper echoed Theresa May, receiving a rapturous round of applause for agreeing that:
(May’s) conclusion about the culpability of the Russian state is an immensely serious one, and that, in addition to their breaches of international law, the use of chemical weapons, but also their continued disregard for the rule of the law and for human rights must be met with unequivocal condemnation.
Unequivocal condemnation? For an act that hasn’t been shown conclusively to be Russian? Never one to miss a witch hunt (or to kick Corbyn and his supporters when the opportunity presents itself), Chuka Umunna pitched in with a condemnation of Milne’s statement:
Have read the comments of the Leader of the Opposition’s spokesperson. Mr Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs. We’ll get abuse for saying so but where British lives have been put at risk it is important to be clear about this.
— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) March 14, 2018
Hillary Benn (he of the famously impassioned and lauded speech to bomb Syria more) joined in, as well as Mike Gapes, who endorsed Emily Thornberry’s own fact free interpretation of the current situation:
And the Guardian reported that:
Several Labour MPs, including John Woodcock, Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, later signed an early day motion – effectively a petition laid before parliament – the text of which said: “This house unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergey Skripal.”
With friends like that…
And the Conservatives and their DUP pals had even stronger condemnation for Corbyn’s evidence-based approach to the unfolding situation. DUP MP Sammy Wilson described Corbyn’s stance as “a policy of appeasement”, while Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith added that Corbyn had “fallen well short”. Conservative MP Anna Soubry, darling of the pro-Brexit media, noted Corbyn’s defiance of the uniform opinion of the House:
It is noticeable that the length and breadth of this place has completely supported not just the wise words and the leadership of the Prime Minister but also her firm actions, with the notable exception of the front bench of the Opposition. That is a shameful, shameful moment.
While Tory MP Nick Boles followed with:
Today @jeremycorbyn faced a simple test: would he condemn the Russian government for launching a chemical weapons attack on the UK, and back the actions of the British government? His failure to do so reveals where his loyalties lie.
— Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) March 14, 2018
And the SNP and Liberal Democrats made sure to offer their full throated support for anything the government proposed:
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, and Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, gave their full backing to the Prime Minister. One Conservative MP could be heard shouting “That’s how you do it” as Mr Blackford finished speaking.
And even Green Party stalwart Caroline Lucas was swimming with the tide of opinion swamping Westminster:
It should not be controversial to say UK intelligence agencies have made serious, dangerous mistakes in the past.
But it's also fair to conclude – on the evidence given today – that the Salisbury attack was highly likely to be from Russia & tough action is needed. https://t.co/cGqi2Q7rY2
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) March 14, 2018
Prepping for war
Appeasement? Suggestions of secret Russian loyalties? “Shameful” opinions outside of unanimous Westminster groupthink chorus? These condemnations from an enthusiastic majority of the House bring to mind infamous comparisons to the UK’s warlike past but also invite an inspection of the historical record. When has Parliament been this united for war in recent history? Below, I’ve listed the votes taken where the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of invasion/bombing in the past 20 years:
Syria 2015 (397 supported a bombing campaign, 223 against)
Libya 2011 (with 557 voting for war and just 13 against, including one J. Corbyn)
Iraq 2003 (412 for, 149 against)
Dangerous times ahead
A unified house has been the cause of much suffering historically and has regularly been most unified when endorsing the “mistakes” or deliberate lies of the government of the time (such as Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier). The uniformity of opinion across all parties on this poisoning issue, the rush to judgement before the evidence is in, the finger pointing without clear cause should all remind us of less glorious and more violent chapters from Parliament’s very recent past.
Jeremy Corbyn and the few other MPs willing to take a reasonable and non-aggressive stance on Russia should be praised. Instead, they are being pilloried and accused of being appeasers with loyalties to Russia over the UK. Is this the kind of talk that will result in us finding out what happened to the poisoned individuals or who holds ultimate responsibility? Or are the majority of MPs only interested in following the most aggressively anti-Russian stance possible, regardless of the diplomatic, political and security fallout from their actions?
It seems that many in the Commons have already made their stance on this perfectly clear, regardless of evidence or international law.
To end on a light note, here’s EI Political Commentator of the Year 2016 (and the most consistently wrong assessor of UK politics) Dan Hodges’ take on the whole thing:
Corbyn says government’s response to attack should focus on “reducing tensions” with Russia. Unbelievable.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) March 12, 2018