The one we'll remember: to strike a nerve

29th March 2018

The East has had a lot of air time this March. First, the beast, in the form of a blistering snowstorm, grinding Britain’s infrastructure, all too predictably, to a halt. Then, as the nation thawed, a new cold war emerged when a former Russian spy was found on the streets of one of its prettiest towns—frothing at the mouth, alongside his unconscious daughter. The minute hand tapped a second further toward midnight; the world crashing back to the days before Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’.

What happened?

At a quarter past four that Sunday afternoon, emergency services were called to a bench outside a shopping centre in Salisbury. They found a man and a woman in what was described as an “extremely serious condition”. The pair – identified as Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia – remain in hospital in critical condition. Witnesses described them as looking like they were “on something really strong”. They were right.

By Tuesday, as the Cabinet assembled, Paul Waugh at HuffPost wrote that the Home Secretary Amber Rudd was expected to have an update on the case and attend an emergency COBRA meeting the following day. “The story sounds like a bizarre mix of Midsomer Murders and James Bond, but the implications are deadly serious if the fears of an assassination attempt are confirmed,” he observed.

It was then that speculation tipped into weapons-grade hysteria.

The Economist worried that Skripal’s collapse could signal a “rewriting of cold-war rules,” remarking that “another brazen poisoning on British soil would present several problems for British authorities.” Even Loose Women joined the fray, as Andrea McLean underlined the diplomatic gravity of the situation by squealing: “I can’t believe this would happen in sleepy Salisbury. Are you a tiny bit excited?” Thrilled, Andrea.

But just as the BBC was reporting that scientists at Porton Down – the UK’s weapons research facility – were still studying the “unknown substance,” the Foreign Secretary lost his script and stepped up the rhetoric. Inviting the House to remember Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in 2006, Johnson warned that the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian involvement—a theory previously unspoken. Consider the touch paper ablaze.

The Russian embassy in London retorted: “Looks like the script of yet another anti-Russian campaign has been already written.”

Unimpressed, the Prime Minister kicked off the following week with a potent statement to the Commons. The reports, she said, were in; the investigation near-conclusive. The spy, his daughter and the first policeman on the scene had been poisoned by a powerful nerve agent—Novichok. And either the Russian state had sanctioned the attack, or it had “lost control of the deadly poison”—putting paid to Moscow’s proclamation that its chemical weapon stockpile had been destroyed in the ‘90s.

Fingers pointed, deadlines firmly set: Russia had until the end of the next day to explain. Otherwise, the government would conclude that Britain had been the victim of “an unlawful use of force”.

As The Economist wrote, astonished: “This marked the return of the feisty politician who all but disappeared after June’s election disaster.” Goodbye Theresa Maybe. Here, right here, is the strong, stable leader who once leaned over the despatch box and snarled “Remind him of anyone?” at the Leader of the Opposition.

Just like his first day battling the new PM, Corbyn crumbled. Here was a moment of national unity, of patriotism and bluster. And his party-political jibe – that the Tories were known benefactors of Russian investments – landed poorly, drawing jaws to the floor behind him and jeers to the floor ahead.

But, a sarcastic silence from Russia, disinformation spread through its state TV – and possibly some of its many bots planted throughout social media – was all that followed. (The hashtag #RussiaHighlyLikely gained in popularity as ‘citizens’ poured scorn on the West’s eagerness to blame their state for “random incidents” around the globe.)

Then, lo, a second statement from Theresa May. Britain would expel 23 Russian diplomats. Neither ministers nor the Royal Family to attend the World Cup. Suspicious Russian state assets frozen. Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight. No state visit for the Russian Foreign Minister.

What happened next was an extraordinary moment of international companionship and unabashed virtue signalling. Britain quickly won the support of France, Germany and – after some delay and another White House dismissal – the United States. Even the European Council agreed. The EU withdrew its Russian ambassador for ‘lengthy consultations’.

President Trump swung into action, ordering 60 Russian diplomats to leave the US. 14 EU countries followed suit, as did Albania, Australia, Canada, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway and the Ukraine. (After a short pause, New Zealand announced that it would happily expel Russian spies … but couldn’t find any.)

This unprecedented and widespread condemnation of Russia by the West, which expelled a total of 145 diplomats, scored an unlikely coup for Mrs May, according to CNN.

Could this be her Falklands or her Vietnam? History, dear Francis, is far from over.

The Fleet Street fallout

Since the Foreign Secretary spoke aloud the words ‘Russian state involvement’, the headlines have rarely betrayed the story. Leader columns brimming with nostalgia, fury and regret; terrified witnesses struggling not to look toward the camera; war-time rhetoric on College Green and bombastic reportage from the Commons press gallery.

With May’s advisors in quiet celebration, the media caricatures of both Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg also presumably rejoiced: their foggy dream had been realised. An island nation, battling a discontented winter and the coldest of wars. Perhaps we were hurtling at such a speed toward regulatory misalignment, we’d overshot and landed in 1973 itself.

(Boris Johnson, too, is cock a hoop, escalating his unruly verbosity with each engagement—Putin was “overwhelmingly likely” to have ordered the attack [16/03]. And then, as declared to a baffled audience at the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet, “They make Novichok, we make light sabres.” [28/03])

Indeed – as Jeremy O’Grady points out in The Week – it comes as a peculiar relief to have a story that is overtly political, free of process, customs barriers and trade regulations.

What’s more, the nation has long needed a common enemy. Kim Jong-un, dangerous though he is, has always had too juvenile a quality to chill the spine of middle England. However close his fingers may be to the button, it’s hard not to imagine he’d rather wrap them around another slice of cake instead.

A cartoonised autocrat unashamed to trick his electorate, poison his enemies and cut off our gas supply, on the other hand? Satire really is having a rough year.