Novichok for the Soul
Jeremy Corbyn and the murder of the Russian spy
People with unpalatable opinions rarely broadcast them in all their glory to the world. Instead they obfuscate by making impossible demands for evidence; deflect with whatabouttery, and make false equivalences with vague references to historical wrongs. The casual observer can never glean their true motives and opinions without undertaking more than a little work.
George Galloway, for example, would rage eloquently against the mendacity and double standards of the capitalist West for the BBC’s cameras without ever disclosing his own rotten values in full. A well-meaning viewer with a casual interest in politics might easily have caught Galloway on Question Time in 2004, in the midst of one of his famous tirades on the hypocrisy of US foreign policy — suffocating Iran with sanctions while simultaneously lining the pockets of Saudi Arabia with oil money and gorging itself on arms deals — and think, “the man’s got a point”. You had to dig a bit deeper to find Galloway’s fawning interviews with the holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Press TV, or personally slobbering over Saddam Hussein in his palace.
Those who have followed the career of Galloway’s old friend Jeremy Corbyn know that he too is a veteran of the same section of the hard left that spent a generation in the political wilderness before launching its successful conquest of the Labour Party two years ago. But where Galloway’s narcissism, bullying and outright enthusiasm for fascism eventually revealed him for the fraudulent crank he is, Corbyn’s total lack of ambition prior to 2015 and gentle, fuddy duddy demeanour have shielded him from the same level of exposure.
For those that have followed Corbyn’s career, his attitude towards foreign despots has always been a source of anxiety. While he has never entered the same realms of brazen dictator worship as Galloway (with the notable exception of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro), Corbyn’s tendency towards tyrants of a certain nature has always been one of limp indifference at best and sympathy bordering on admiration at worst.
Corbyn’s reaction to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal has shown him at his most troublingly — and publicly — equivocal over a dictator since he entered the spotlight of British politics. Since Theresa May confirmed her belief in Russia’s — and more specifically Vladimir Putin’s — culpability for the attack on Skripal, Corbyn has set to work busily debunking this logical conclusion with a level of conspiratorial scepticism and deflection that was once rarely seen in mainstream politics.
Corbyn has repeatedly cast doubt on “the evidence” that Russia and Putin were behind the attack, and, a week after May announced her conclusion, he still refuses to blame Moscow outright for commissioning it.
Corbyn claims to need “an absolute, definitive answer” on who supplied the novichok to murder Skripal before he rushes to judgment. But what grounds are there, really, for doubting Russian responsibility? Mr Skripal is a former spy and an enemy of the Russian state, who has been attacked with a chemical weapon created by the Soviet Union which is only realistically available to the Russian government. Russia has a history of similar attacks in Britain, and Vladimir Putin has a taste for ruthless displays of power and manufactured foreign threats — particularly at election time. Add to that the total absence of any other plausible explanation, and it is difficult to see how anyone could conclude that there was any reasonable doubt as to Russia’s guilt.
But this is apparently not enough to satisfy Corbyn. What would? Corbyn has remained vague and faintly ridiculous on this — absurdly suggesting that trustworthy Russia should be allowed to test the novichok used in order that they can confirm their culpability once and for all. The fact that Russia has already been given an opportunity to engage constructively with the UK, and has responded with contemptuous scorn and sarcasm, has apparently not swayed Corbyn from believing in the wisdom of this course of action.
Not content with this unmerited scepticism, Corbyn has also deflected attention away from Russia and Putin at every opportunity he has been given, either through the classic hard left tactic of raising the straw man of Western hypocrisy, or through simply talking about something similar but unrelated. Rather disgracefully, following Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour called into question the reliability of our own chemical weapons intelligence, making a not-so-subtle and totally specious comparison to the fabricated evidence used to justify entering the Iraq war. The fact that the two situations are not remotely analogous (for those seeking clarification: Russia attacked the UK; Iraq did not) would not deter him from, again, deliberately casting doubt on Russian responsibility.
Corbyn has also raised the two red herrings of war with Russia and Russian oligarchs. In an article for the Guardian, he urged the UK not to “slide into war” with Russia or to “create a division where none exists” before making more phoney calls for “dialogue”. The reality that in fact the only mainstream politicians mentioning war at all are Corbyn and his acolytes has not prevented him from using it as yet another way of deflecting attention away from the seriousness of the attack. Corbyn’s sudden interest in Russian oligarchs who stash their ill-gotten gains in London property is equally misleading: this is a good cause to raise at any time in Parliament except now, because whatever else they are guilty of (and that is a long list), “the oligarchs” are not responsible for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal — and if any are, then they are accessories to Putin and his inner circle.
What is so frustrating about Corbyn is his ability to disguise his conspiracism in the language of measured, calm rationalism. In isolation, his words seem reasonable. As with Galloway, the casual observer could easily be forgiven for hearing Corbyn’s calls for “caution” and “evidence”, his warnings against war and subtle references to previous government failures that seem superficially relevant but actually aren’t, and think “the man’s got a point”.
But if one takes any time to think about it, it is clear that Corbyn’s reactions have been anything but rational. For what rational person could reach the conclusion — on no evidence whatsoever — that “mafia-like groups” are as likely to have obtained novichok and used it to murder an enemy of the state as Putin and his government cronies are? What rational person responds to a deliberate chemical attack on British soil, that puts the lives of several British citizens at risk, with whatabouttery? What rational person sees the expulsion of some diplomats — in response to a chemical weapon attack — as a disproportionate act of war?
It takes some effort to see Corbyn’s comments for what they really are. Unlike Galloway, Corbyn does not scream conspiracy, he implies it. He does not directly voice support, or make open apologies for Putin, but he does his work for him when he casts doubt on clear evidence of his guilt and employs open apologists like Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray as advisers. His foggy and equivocal stance on Russia should not be compared with Theresa May’s — instead it should be compared to the clear and unambiguous terms in which he (often justifiably) condemns the USA, calls for immediate sanctions on Saudi Arabia and Israel and slams the Tories on domestic policy.
This makes being a Corbyn critic hard work. The task of first researching and then explaining his history to those with better things to do is long and arduous. Corbyn and his supporters maintain a veneer of respectability that makes it difficult for people with only a passing interest in politics to understand their insidiousness. As his critics work themselves into a frenzy over the morsels they are given, latching on to his associations with terrorists, anti-Semites and fascists that no one can remember anymore, in a desperate attempt to persuade an apathetic public that actually his “failures to condemn” and the people he calls his friends MEAN something, the majority laugh them off as the cranks, rather than the mild, kind-bearded leader of the opposition.
Perhaps the Skripal episode will change people’s minds. But it probably won’t.