The story of these past two weeks in Britain has been the contrast between the incredible breadth of support for Ukraine, and the narrowness of our collective efforts to show solidarity with the war’s victims.
Everyone agrees that something must be done. You could be a Labour voter, you could be a middle-of-the-road Conservative, and your first instinct is to be on the same side as the suffering people of Ukrainiane. You could be a nurse, you could be a millionaire, and the only voices you will hear, the only people you will see are those trying to help, collecting food and clothes.
It really isn’t a very difficult demand, to empathise with people whose homes are being destroyed, who are being shelled or killed.
I have seen people complain about this tyranny of opinion, blame it on the press or the corporations, the sorts of businesses which are relabelling their products, emptying Russian goods off their shelves. But this is to misunderstand the direction of solidarity. Although Labour is in opposition, and Labour voters are more distrustful of the government, they are also more likely to demand action than Conservatives. If our businesses are rushing to the head of this movement, it is because they started off behind.
So what can we actually do? When people are being treated in this way, it feels as if the only meaningful acts of solidarity are those which go through the state.
Anything else inefficient by contrast – even buying and transporting goods has its downsides.
Everyone agrees that Ukrainian refugees must be welcomed here. Everyone – left and right – is ashamed that Britain has taken so few people. Good. It’s grotesque that while all this is going on the government is still consulting on the repeal of the Human Rights Act, giving as a central justification for repeal the need to prevent “illegal and irregular migration,” but what could be more “irregular” than people fleeing from a war? Perhaps, if we learn the habit of solidarity in relation to refugees from Ukraine, we will keep that reflex the next time people fleeting here come from Iran, Eritrea and Syria.
There’s a reason why fewer people have been allowed into Britain than you see at a No 10 party, while border towns in Poland have been processing tens of thousands of applications a day and it isn’t just geography (even Portugal has taken more refugees than Britain), it’s because for 25 years both the Conservatives and Labour have shared a toxic narrative in which migrant is suspect, and every foreigner a living reason to pull up our drawbridge. That must change – now and hereafter.
The single most useful thing which people in Britain could do to help Ukrainians would be to abolish the Home Office. But no politician would dare put their name to that Bill. In Keir Starmer’s new model Labour Party such a demand would probably be an expulsion offence.
The unanimity of public opinion – that sense that all of us agree in support of Ukraine – ought in theory to make it easier to formulate such demands. Yet my sense is that it doesn’t. Rather it compels us to go at the speed of Priti Patel, makes us proceed with her plans: visa for fruit-pickers maybe, but not for family members, not for people fleeing for their lives. We need more disagreement. We need the contrast between this government promises and its delivery to dominate the news.
As for sanctions: little as I’d welcome actions which would make the majority of Russians poorer, I would urge friends on the left to support those measures that would impound the homes and yacht and football clubs owned by the pro-Putin oligarchs. We are talking about people who have built their wealth hand in hand with the regime – benefitting from a concession here, returning a loan to the state there.
The French revolutionaries used to demand Peace to the Cottages, and threaten War on the Palaces. The more we create a tradition that great wealth is capable of expropriation – should it be used to support torture or war – the more that other blocs of capital, also used to prettify murderous regimes, come into question. If Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea was an exercise in using sport to wash away murder, what do we think of the ownership of football clubs by likes of the governments of Saudia Arabia, or UAE?
The people of Ukraine are demanding military support. On the left, we remember the long history of countries destroyed by US and UK empire-building (Iraq, Afghanistan), but there’s a second history of people betrayed by a refusal to help (starting with Spain in 1936 and going on through the Kurds to Syria). The demand for assistance is going to get louder as one by one the cities fall.
The Ukrainians have seen how this war ends. They saw it in Grozny – a city still 100,000 people smaller than it was 20 years ago. They saw it in Aleppo.
Lots of friends have been asking why didn’t anyone in Britain see this invasion coming? It’s not because we weren’t told. We were. Intelligence reports were discussed in the newspaper and on TV. It did not help though that the messenger was Boris Johnson. And he sniggered as he told us the Russians were coming, and he guffawed and you could see the tension sinking out of his face (It’s not Partygate, he was thinking, he wouldn’t have to resign). No wonder nobody believed him.
Somehow, we – the people and our movements, weakened as they are – have to find a way to take back solidarity and change the assumption that it can only take the form of military aid.
The reason we have to do that it that conventional warfare is the opposite of socialist or democratic politics. By which I don’t just mean the obvious point that if there’s a nuclear war, we will all be dead. I mean that war becomes the preserve of whoever has the guns, whoever is the best set on vengeance. It creates its own dynamic in which even whispering a doubt becomes treason.
The mechanism which causes troops to mutiny is not the prospect of an equal fight, but the thought that the fight might be unequal, and they might be the perpetrators of an injustice.
If you want a different model of war and politics, think of the people putting their bodies on the lines of Russian tanks; it is their bravery, the assymetry between their hands and the guns of the occupiers, which creates war-guilt, the desire of ordinary Russians for forgiveness, and opens up the possibility of millions of Russians turning against the war.
Somehow, we in Britain have to find a way to do the things which help to make this a political struggle for justice rather than merely a war in continuation of the war.
When you see people putting their hands and hearts in the way of a moving tank, the natural response is to support them in whatever they call for. And yet any support from Britain will be partial, conditional, will focus more on our interests than those of ordinary Ukrainians – so long as our rulers remain in charge.