There’s nothing wrong with being Russian. Perhaps this is so obvious that it’s unnecessary to say so. And perhaps it isn’t – as Vladimir Putin launches the first full invasion of one country by another in Europe since World War Two.
Some of the rhetoric aimed at those of Russian origin (such as the automatic banning of their children from private schools) is no more or less than collective blame, as odious when applied to them as to any other people. At this rate, borzois will be stoned in the street, as dachshunds reportedly were during the First World War.
If a Russian wants to come to Britain, create wealth and jobs, and take British citizenship, that’s a change for the better, in principle if not necessarily in practice. My hesitation takes us to the question of whether the Conservatives have erred in taking big sums from rich Brits of Russian origin.
For since Russia is ruled by a kleptocracy, the acquisition of wealth there will always be questionable. Furthermore, Putin pursues his interests here by any means necessary – be that poison applied to his enemies in Salisbury or influence peddled by his stooges in London. If in doubt, read Putin’s People.
As he furthers his war of aggression against Ukraine, there’s no shortage of people saying “told you so”. Some of them didn’t. The explanation lies not only in selective memory but in the recent past. The Salisbury attack took place in 2018, less than a year after the Manchester arena atrocity.
The point I am making is that we have moved very rapidly from a time in which Islamist terror was the main threat to stability, peace and security in western Europe to one in which Putin’s aggression has displaced it. The 2010 Strategic Defence Review set the scene for the Coalition years. It focused on the Islamist threat here and abroad.
In the mission to counter it, Putin was seen at the time as at worst neutral and at best an ally. In those narrow terms this view was correct: the consequence of a world in which threats to our security are multi-source rather than single-source, as they were during the Cold War.
Hence the exploitation by Putin of the City of London. Have his creatures also exploited the Conservatives – giving money and peddling influence? Different Tories of much the same seniority give different answers. “Absolutely,” one told me yesterday. “Not at all,” said another, pointing to Russian corruption on a bigger scale in mainland Europe.
“I can think of on occasion when a senior Minister was about to be put in a room with donors containing a Russian who was desperate to meet her to press certain claims, and when we found out we pulled the meeting, and told CCHQ that it couldn’t do these things without proper due diligence,” I was told.
I must draw a veil over which Minister it was, just as I must over the identity of questionable individuals – not only because of the grotesque condition of our libel laws, but because I’m in no place to know who’s on Putin’s Christmas cast list, in any event.
One ingenious defence of the Conservatives taking money from pro-Putin people is that these will have been thoroughly fleeced by the Party. “Big donors haven’t twigged yet that it hears them out, takes their money – and they then get nothing, including honours in most cases”, I was told yesterday.
My source cited Boris Johnson’s response to Putin’s recent aggression against Ukraine as evidence. But that claim potentially cuts two ways. If Government action against Russia is to be considered as evidence, then what of Government inaction – of the kind of which Tom Tugendhat’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee has complained?
I suspect that neither suggestion is on the money, either literally or figuratively. British inertia against Putin’s corruption is more convincingly explained by Treasury instinct (it wants as open a City of London as possible) and Ministerial inertia (with government distracted by two other big threats: the Islamists and China).
The more one thinks about it, the more one comes to see that to peer at party political financing through the lens of Russian-origin donations is to look through the telescope the wrong way round. The question is not so much whether political parties should take big sums from certain people as whether they should take any from anyone at all.
If Labour wants to raise money through its Rose Network Chair Circle at £5,000 a pop, that’s fine with me. Better that than that the taxpayer is forced to shell out instead. Ditto for the Conservatives’ Leader’s Group (£50,000) and the Treasurer’s Group (£25,000).
Though in all cases it would be best if details were declared, as they were during David Cameron’s time as leader. And as I argued when writing recently about the newish Conservative “advisory board”, how it operates is as much as matter of taste as anything else. At least at the moment.
For the attempt by Labour and its allies to raise unproven claims of impropriety, thereby smearing every British citizen of Russian origin who has ever given any money to the Conservatives, is part of a wider game: that of delegitimising its opponents.
Two can play at it. And will. Labour raise us claims about dirty Russian money; the Conservatives reply with allegations about anti-NATO socialists. Some of these have the merit of actually being proven. After all, the party was recently led by one.
And why would the Kremlin want to pay Jeremy Corbyn when he is willing to recycle its talking-points for free? CCHQ will go on to cite other Labour MPs, as Boris Johnson did in the Commons yesterday, and suggest that the entire Labour Party is soft on Putin.
This is unfair on NATO-supporting Keir Starmer. Nonetheless, the Labour leader campaigned to make Corbyn Prime Minister, and whether a future Labour-led government would be a reliable supporter of NATO, given the loopiness of many of its members, is unknown.
During the last Labour administration, talks between the main parties on funding reform broke down. Both were working towards a settlement in which there would be no big donors and more state funding (of which there has been some since the Short money of the 1970s).
Labour blamed Conservative unwillingness to wean the party off large donors. The Conservatives blamed Labour’s to cut itself looser from the trade unions. Francis Maude, who was involved in the negotiations, had another go after the Coalition was formed.
He told the Commons that Cameron was ” ready to cap donations if it is agreed the cap applies to all donations, whatever the source” – a reference to the Labour position which had helped to sink negotiations only a few years before.
“We could also look at how to boost small donations and broaden the support base for support for parties, at the way in which existing state funding works, and at how we might further increase transparency around fundraising activities,” he said.
It’s not absurd both to oppose a state-imposed limit of say £50,000 on individual donations to political parties while also believing that the Conservatives would be wise to work towards one, as CCHQ is perhaps doing with its incessant fund-raising e-mails to party members.
In a rational world, the parties would cut down on the big donations and live within their means, rather than compel the taxpayer to stump up. But we don’t live in such a world – as the desperate Ukrainians know this morning, while Putin unleashes the terror of war, more horrifying than most of us can imagine.