The prospect of war in our continent is more than enough to avert our gaze from the latest Whitehall troubles.
However, a prime minister who has found it so hard to speak the truth throughout his career surprised us all with a hard dose of it when he stood before parliament last week to address the situation in Ukraine, saying: “Ukraine asks for nothing except to be allowed to live in peace and to seek her own alliances, as every sovereign country has a right to do.” It was a sentiment echoed by the leader of the opposition, by my own party’s Westminster group leader, Ian Blackford MP, and by every other SNP MP who responded to the statement.
As someone who has spent my life campaigning for the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine our own futures, sovereignty is a principle fundamental to my own worldview. To see such pressures being exerted on a state that has resolutely set itself on a path to integration with the liberal democratic order is unspeakable. Like any European country, Ukraine must be free to organise its governance and security alliances as it sees fit.
A Europe split into 19th-century “spheres of influence” is not one in which small independent countries would prosper. The wealthier and more equal the nations of Europe become, the more equitable the relations between them should be. Indeed, the great steps that the likes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have taken in the past 30 years are testament to the invigorating effects of independence in Europe.
However, my agreement with the prime minister on these principles did not last long: question after question from the floor of the House of Commons brought him back to the issue of Russian funding in the Conservative party, and the continuing existence of “Londongrad”-style influence operations in the UK. Meanwhile, as long as the fortunes of Russia’s elites are based abroad, threats of economic sanctions are limp and ineffective.
It has been two and a half years since the publication of parliament’s “Russia report”, which laid bare the extent of links between the Kremlin and Russian-backed financial interests – and the resulting endless flows of illicit cash through the City of London. The UK’s allies are beginning to take note of the intractability of the problem. A report from the Center for American Progress – a thinktank close to the Biden administration – stated last week that “uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry”.
After all, clear mechanisms to crack down on these practices exist. My government has long called for Westminster to legislate on the improper use of Scottish limited partnerships – just one favourite instrument of financial exploitation – to ensure that they are no longer used to facilitate the sort of financial corruption that has benefited authoritarians and their wealthy cronies for far too long.
Corruption and lack of transparency are a drag on liberal democracy, and authoritarians have become adept at using these scandals as a way of saying to people ground down by them that all forms of government are the same, and all politicians are as bad as each other.
And so I can only call on the prime minister to finally take action. He must recognise that his government and his party have enabled this situation, and he must acknowledge that the most resolute action he can take is at home, to rebuild his government’s tattered reputation. To quote the author and journalist Oliver Bullough from his book, Moneyland, which documented so much about the London “laundromat”: “Without trust, liberal democracy cannot function.” And as Bullough wrote more recently about the situation in Ukraine: “No one is more to blame than us for the fact that Russia’s richest can treat war like a spectator sport.”
And while during such periods the temptation is to focus on individuals in power, this can lead us to forget the role of the competing factions within the Russian security state and the pressures they are exerting on the situation, and it may lead some to forget the pressure this is putting on 40 million Ukrainians – our fellow European citizens – as they go about their daily lives.
In some ways, this is a reality many have been dealing with since 2014, especially those in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. As we deal with the effects of our own cost of living crisis, with a spike in food and energy prices, it is worth remembering that Ukrainians have been facing this for some time, and as a direct consequence of the Russian government’s actions.
So while Ukrainians must and will defend themselves from aggression if attempts at diplomacy fail, we cannot be blind to the circumstances that have led to the current crisis, and that includes the situation where wealth with direct links to the Putin regime has been allowed to proliferate here in the UK with often the scantest regard paid to its provenance or to the influence it seeks to exert on our democracy.