Friday, October 17, 2014

The SDP: From Cold War warriors to placating Putin

Back in the 1980s, one of the dividing lines between the Liberal Party and the SDP was defence.

While the Liberal Party had many unilateral disarmers and was generally keen to reduce Britain's nuclear arsenal, the SDP was convinced for the need for strong nuclear defence against the Soviet threat.

That debate has a period charm now, because what neither side realised was that the Soviet Union was just a few years from dissolution.

The only person in Alliance circles who seemed to have grasped this was an academic called Brian May (not the rock guitarist turned badger campaigner), who argued that the idea that the Soviets still dreamt of invading Western Europe was mistaken. But he was a marginal figure who soon disappeared from the debate.

Time has moved on and now we have a Russian leader who does invade other countries - Georgia and Ukraine - and threaten others, such as Estonia. His allies in Eastern Ukraine brought down a passenger jet and killed British citizens.

So are the founders of the SDP warning us of the need to stop Putin?

Not a bit of it. Just look at the Lords' debate on Russia earlier this week.

Here is David Owen:
It is very hard to see Ukraine, with all the financial difficulties that it has had and its considerable and long record of corruption, achieving the economic growth and prosperity that it deserves without co-operation, first, heading towards membership of the European Union, and secondly, retaining good, strong working relations with the Russian Federation. There is no escape from that, and some of the language that we have heard in the past few months, seeming to think that a solid division between Ukraine and Russia is in the interests of Europe, let alone the world, is a great mistake.
And here, more remarkably, is Shirley Williams:
I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said: the Ukrainians did not start very sensibly by trying to rule out Russian as the second language of Ukraine. The blame is not entirely distributed on one side. 
The noble Lord was also absolutely right to say that we do not sufficiently consider the history of Russia. The history of Russia is a history of one invasion after another, one occupation after another, and growing fear within Russia herself which has led to security being the overwhelming consideration for those who vote. ... 
Of course we should accept the independence of Georgia and Ukraine, but it is unwise to talk as widely as we do about the possibility of both joining NATO. Ukraine has long been the buffer for Russia against the attacks of other countries. The thought that she might roll NATO’s power right up to the border of Russia itself is not timely.
It was left to Kishwer Falkner to speak up for human rights in Russia and the countries it menaces:
Ultranationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, predatory capitalism, gross human rights violations and a stealthy expansion of the state at home are there for all of us to see in Russia—a European country. One can add to that list belligerent action against neighbouring states, annexation, the use of hybrid warfare, cyberwarfare, targeted assassinations abroad and disappearances of people—that is the new normal as the projection of Russian power. 
This miscalculation on the part of the West was not just revealed in the morning mist in Crimea this February; for the 140 million ordinary Russians, it has been coming for some time. In fact, it has been building up since 2000, when Vladimir Putin first came to power. It is the people of Russia who have paid the price for their country’s misrule, which looks set to continue well into the 2020s as elections are fixed again and musical chairs reflect choice between President and Prime Minister. 
But now Ukrainians are also paying for Putin’s imperialism. The invasion and occupation of Crimea is already rendering Crimeans poorer as their economy has collapsed along with the region’s tourism. Crimean Tatars are once again dispossessed in their own land. Non-ethnic Russian Ukrainians are displaced or consigned to being non-citizens in their own country.
I believe that Kishwer joined the Liberal Democrats after the two parties had merged, so there are no neat Liberal vs SDP lines to be drawn here.

But it is worth pausing a moment to reflect on how far David Owen, at least, has travelled in 30 years.


James said...

Thanks Blogfather. Greetings from a place I did not ever hope to visit, still less to live in, during the 1980s.

Estonia. The most liberal and Liberal country in Europe. The freest press, the freest internet- I know, I know, you already know I am the Estonia bore.

Russia. The least free, well of more or less anything.

The battle is joined. I mean that literally.

Anonymous said...

A quick look at the Register of Peers' Interests will show how heavily dependent Lord Owen's income has been on Russian business ventures for more than a decade.

Matthew Green said...

To be fair on David Owen (and it hurts) his stance in SDP days was that the West should engage with Russia from a position of strength. He wanted nuclear weapons, etc, but also détente. In that light his quotation is not so inconsistent. I don't think he's suggesting running down the level of NATO armed forces because the Russians are our friends...