30 August, 2023
The Critic, by Henry Hill
Just who killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader who just a couple of months ago staged an abortive coup against the Russian government?
It isn’t a mystery that’s puzzling many people. Yes, there are suggestions that given the Wagner boss’s long acquaintance with Vladimir Putin and apparent confidence in whatever deal the two struck, it might perhaps have been some rogue element in the security services or elsewhere in the regime that actually ordered the hit.
But this is Russia, where the President’s enemies have a nasty habit of tumbling from windows or getting inexplicably poisoned with rare nerve agents exclusively manufactured by… Russia. The only thing that seems to have surprised Kremlin-watchers is that death was so swift in coming; usually Putin takes the view that revenge is a dish best served very cold indeed.
However, the Russian state broadcaster can’t say this. Putin’s is one of those weird end-of-history despotisms that still feels the need to maintain the increasingly-threadbare pretence of democratic, constitutional government. The official line is thus that it’s a terrible coincidence.
But one high-profile broadcaster has another theory: the British did it.
Ihor Markov, a former Ukrainian MP now living in Russia, claimed that it had the unmistakable fingerprints of John Bull. Why? Because where the US would surely have done something flashy with a drone, this strike was subtler. “Very well-honed!”, he states, as if this fact was itself proof positive of British guilt. “Very well-honed!”
For all that some progressives in this country like to accuse their opponents, or indeed the nation at large, of being nostalgists for empire, even the most delusional pales in comparison to what your average Kremlin propagandist thinks Britain can do.
Atrocities perpetrated by Russian troops in Ukraine? “The work of British specialists”, obviously. The Kremlin’s failure to overturn an international rugby ban? “The World Rugby Council is under a very large influence of the British countries”. Of course.
The seeds of this obsession stretch back a very long way, to when the British and Russian empires squared off in central Asia in the era of the Great Game. And it was not, in the past, entirely without foundation: when a country successfully attacks your fleet, in-port in one of the most heavily-fortified harbours in the world, with a handful of speedboats, you cannot but afford them a measure of respect.
Today, however, it is palpably ridiculous. The UK does retain some relevant strengths, particularly when it comes to intelligence. But a cursory examination of the British state’s performance ought to dispel any notion that it still has the strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.
Our Armed Forces are continually pared back, and defence procurement is infamous for under-delivering whilst coming in wildly over-budget. We generate our fair share of cutting-edge technology, but time and again it is bought up and brought to maturity overseas, usually in the United States.
On crime, a chronic failure to build new prisons — and the wilful shuttering of at least one perfectly good one — mean that there are huge backlogs in the courts and many who do get convicted serve what seem absurdly short sentences. Meanwhile, a nation once famed for its quiet orderliness seems to have more or less given up policing burglaries and other petty crime altogether.
Economically, we have so wrapped the nation in red tape that, as new research from Britain Remade highlighted, it costs more to build essential infrastructure in the UK than in any comparable nation. And that’s when it gets built at all.
It’s impossible to imagine the Victorian architects of the British Empire allowing large parts of South-West England to suffer avoidable droughts every year because Vale of White Horse District Council kept vetoing the reservoir, just as they would never have thought of preventing Cambridge growing into a city of a million people and fulfilling its potential to serve as the laboratory of the world.
So no, we are no longer (to the extent that we ever were) the bogeyman of the fevered Russian imagination. But here’s the thing: it’d be good if we were.
Not in order to run around quietly perpetrating atrocities in Ukraine or shooting down Russian aircraft with its own surface-to-air missile systems, of course. But because our lives here in Britain, and Britain’s international position, would be vastly improved if we were once again a nation that could actually get things done.
This latter point is sometimes lost amidst all the (understandable) focus on how more homes, lower rents, cheaper energy bills, and stronger economic growth would transform our domestic situation. But it shouldn’t be. For all the idealistic language that so often accompanies international affairs, prosperity and strength are still the foundations of any country’s diplomatic bargaining position.
Such things matter less for countries content with a limited international role and to go with the flow of what their larger neighbours are doing. And the United Kingdom could, as some wish it to, resign itself to such a role, with as much dignity as it could muster.
But for politicians who still aspire for Britain to play an independent part in global affairs, to remain a significant military power, and to have more freedom to chart its own course, our decaying economic and military position — and its root cause, rotting state capacity — ought to be the number one concern.
Brexit was a harsh lesson in the reality that self-styled internationalists are quite happy to start quoting the Melian Dialogue (“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”) when it suits them, and they think they can get away with it. Spluttering about the unfairness of it is pointless; the only remedy is not being weak.
So perhaps some enterprising soul in the Cabinet Office should put together a highlight reel of Russian allegations of British hyper-competence and set ministers and civil servants a timeless challenge: to be as formidable as the Kremlin thinks you are.