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March 05, 2023
Stalin died on 5 March 1953 -- seventy years ago today. How should Stalin be remembered? I answered this question once before, in 1979 on the centenary of the Soviet dictator's birth. My article was published in Marxism Today, the monthly "theoretical and discussion jouirnal" of the Communist Party of Great Britain -- of which I was, at the time, a fully paid-up and active member. (I've written more about the communist party and me here.)
If you take a look at my 1979 article, you might be curious about a couple of strange details. One is the date of Stalin's birth, given in my article as 21 December 1879. This date was generally accepted at the time I wrote, but in 1990 it was discovered that in 1920 for unknown reasons Stalin had taken a year off his age. He was actually born on 6 December 1878. The other odd thing is that the article doesn't have my name on it, again for unknown reasons. I was listed as author on the journal contents page, and that's all.
Earlier this year I was prompted to think about how my answer might have changed since then, when someone wrote to me out of the blue.
I have recently read an article on Soviet history in an ancient copy of Marxism today and just wondered if you were the author?
Yes, that would be me.
My correspondent came back to me:
I thought it was a very interesting take on the subject and the great majority has stood the test of time.
That sounded nice, but I wasn't too sure. What exactly had I written more than forty years ago? I dug the 1979 original out of my personal archive and read it carefully. Then, I replied:
I thought I had better reread the article before taking your praise for granted. I continued to work on the subject for the rest of my career, which included thirty years in various former Soviet archives dealing with military and economic affairs and internal security). These experiences have perhaps left me with a darker view of the Stalin era (or of the whole Soviet experience) now than I had at the time.
Writing about the Russian Revolution today, I would probably not ascribe agency to the working class as a class (there was plenty of agency, but not of the working class as such).
If Stalin’s rise can be ascribed to an “organic” relationship that he developed with anyone, it was with the party cadres more than the working class.
Turning to the 1930s, what I wrote about a reformist faction led by Kirov was nonsense: as we know now, there were never any disagreements within Stalin’s circle, and no factions whatsoever, only transient personal alliances of convenience that were quickly dissolved as soon as Stalin got to know about them.
I was ignorant of the motives, mechanisms, and scale of the mass purges of 1937-38, and of the extent to which they were started, managed, and then stopped on Stalin’s personal instructions.
I described the “enemies” destroyed by the purges as “non-existent” because I had not fully understood Stalin’s anticipation of war nor had I come across his belief that Soviet society was full of “unconscious” or “potential” enemies who would become traitors when war broke out. I had not really grasped how Stalin thought he could identify the potential enemies based on family background and social and ethnic markers. I was unaware of Stalin’s rule that it was better to kill 20 people than to let one spy get away and I did not understand the encompassing Soviet definition of a spy.
I skated past Stalin’s role as Hitler’s accessory in starting World War II.
I overstated Stalin’s postwar efforts to return Soviet society to its prewar mould: by 1945, we now know, Stalin was physically no longer able to control everything as he had done before, and this set many changes in motion that would become fully apparent only in 1956.
Finally, I did not stress enough what is suggested by the article’s illustrations (which I did not choose): military power-building (which long pre-dated Hitler) and the comprehensive militarization of Soviet society.
Of course, I wrote what I wrote. I’m pleased if I got anything right, and I’m also pleased if it was possible to learn from my mistakes. You can decide for yourself whether the points above count as minor or major corrections.
I went on to explain the circumstances under which I wrote the article.
The article has a back story that is not completely without interest. As you say, Monty Johnstone was the party’s premier expert on the Soviet Union, and I joined the party only after meeting him in London and spending a day talking with him. Others of his generation included the economist Maurice Dobb, Dennis Ogden (who had reported for the Morning Star from Moscow in the 1960s), Brian Pollitt (son of Harry Pollitt, the party’s general secretary from 1929 to 1960), and Pat Sloan, who had visited Russia on a number of occasions. In my slightly younger generation, several others had similar interests: Jon Bloomfield, Geoff Roberts, Jan Sling, and Ken Spours to name a few. (Also Julian Cooper, but our perspectives had less in common then than now.) We had encouragement from Monty and Dennis.
The thing is that the British party leaders were very sensitive to what could be written about the Soviet Union -- and by whom. In 1975 or thereabouts I submitted an article to James Klugmann, then the editor of Marxism Today, for publication on the twentieth anniversary of the twentieth Soviet party congress. The article never appeared, and I no longer have a copy. When the occasion arrived, Marxism Today published another article, this one written by John Gollan (the general secretary who succeeded Pollitt). Gollan’s article included a number of passages using my words. It turned out that Klugmann had shared my draft with Gollan, who borrowed from it. At first my nose was put out of joint, but Klugmann explained to me that this was politics, and I should take it as a compliment. Anyway, I took advantage of the next anniversary (I don’t recall if it was on Klugmann’s initiative or mine) to send in the article that you have to hand.
The one thing missing from this explanation is something that I knew perfectly well but had momentarily forgotten: by the time of my 1979 article, James Klugmann had stepped aside from Marxism Today and Martin Jacques had taken over as editor, so it was thanks to Martin that my article was accepted and published.
February 16, 2022
Writing about web page https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqfHEedYv2c
Lukas Smith of the Vienna-based International Center for Advanced and Comparative EU-Russia-NIS Research (ICEUR-Vienna) interviewed me the other day about the present tensions focused on Ukraine (12 minutes 40 seconds here). Part of the interview was focused on what economic sanctions -- or the threat of them -- can achieve in managing the confrontation. Afterwards I wrote up my notes as follows.
In the context of the present dispute between Russia and NATO over the status of Ukraine and the stationing of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, I am in favour of the use of further economic sanctions to limit Russia's aggression. Promised sanctions can act as a threat and a deterrent, and they can be a countermeasure in the event of conflict.
But . . . there's a large "but."
I'm concerned that the public, and maybe politicians too, often lack clarity about what sanctions can achieve and what are the risks. When we contemplate sanctions, the starting point should always be: What is the adversary’s best response?
Too often we think: Economic sanctions will impose an unaffordable burden. The adversary will be deterred – end of story. In practice economic sanctions take time to work and can often be predicted. The adversary always has ways to work around the sanctions or to neutralize them. It’s true that the countermeasures may be costly. But, all too often, the costs of the countermeasures turn out to be quite affordable.
One way to think about this is that sanctions have an immediate effect and an ultimate effect. And the ultimate impact of sanctions is never the immediate impact as it seems at first sight. The ultimate impact will be to force the adversary to pay the cost of countermeasures, and generally the ultimate costs will be smaller than the immediate costs appear.
Another factor is that the adversary might become more ready to pay the costs than appeared beforehand. The reason is that an attack on the adversary’s economy is still an attack, and it is usually experienced as warfare. In the short run, at least, warfare tends to stiffen national feeling and makes people more ready to pay the price of war, even if they were unready beforehand. You can see this today. Because Russia has threatened NATO, the NATO countries today are more unified and more ready for war than they were yesterday. The question is: is Russia also becoming more ready for war?
What are the countermeasures to Western sanctions available to Russia? Russia’s leaders can make the Russian economy less dependent on the West for markets, currencies, payment systems, and internet technologies. They can strengthen ties with China. They can also wage economic warfare against us. They can frighten foreign investors out of Ukraine. They can blockade Ukraine on land and sea, and they can throttle back gas supplies to the EU. Most of these things are already happening or beginning to happen.
But Russia’s countermeasures might not be confined to the economy. There is also a military response: to escalate violence. To escalate, not de-escalate. History suggests a number of examples, but the clearest case might well be found in 1940.
In 1940, the United States wanted to stop Japan’s war of aggression and conquest in China. America imposed oil sanctions on Japan, which were expected to be extremely costly to the Japanese economy. The Japanese response is instructive. Japan’s leaders did not say to each other: “We cannot afford this. We must either wait for our war capability to be ground down, or we must give up now.” Instead, they launched a surprise attack on the United States in 1941 at Pearl Harbor. They knew that this was an outrageous gamble, and in fact the gamble failed, because the United States went on to win the war in the Pacific. The point is that Japan’s leaders preferred the gamble to the alternative, which was certain defeat.
As I said before, in the present context, I favour economic sanctions against Russia, especially if a wider war is realized. But we should understand that economic sanctions are not a cheap way to avoid military conflict. They are not a substitute for military force. They are a phase of conflict, not an alternative to conflict.
In particular, economic sanctions can contribute to deterrence only if they are combined with a strong military defence. If we wish to achieve our foreign goals without violence, strong defences are also necessary.
If we signal to the adversary, which today is Russia, that they are strong militarily but we are strong economically, the signal can have an unfortunate effect. We might make Russia’s leaders more likely to turn to their strength, which is the capacity to escalate the confrontation by violent means.
In short, the threat of sanctions has to be complemented by strong defences. Without those strong defences, the effect of sanctions can be exactly opposite to what what we wanted in the first place.
March 22, 2021
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/moscow1982/
This column is about a moment when three wars collided: the Cold War, the Second World War, and the Falklands War. It was April 1982; the Cold War was in full swing, and East-West relations were not in good shape. I was in Moscow for a month, thanks to the British Academy's exchange programme with the Soviet Academy of Sciences; I was engaged in a project on the Soviet economy in the Second World War. As I arrived, the Falklands War broke out.
The events that led directly to the Falklands War were taking place as I left the UK. But I had paid little or no attention, so I arrived in Moscow more or less unaware that the Falklands Islands were a British possession, that their sovereignty was disputed, who lived there, and even which hemisphere or ocean they were in. Once in Moscow I was pretty much on my own, with no access to Western radio or newspapers, and I was busy, so I did not even try to follow the news. All in all, I was the last person to find out.
The first I knew of the conflict was a chance remark at the Institute of USSR History, where I was visiting – someone I knew distantly broke into a conversation in a corridor to as: "Why is your country at war with Argentina?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. As I recall, I thought it must be some obscure Soviet joke that I did not understand, so I probably smiled enigmatically and carried on with the conversation as before.
After that, I tried to catch up. But my only source was Pravda, the daily party newspaper. In the first days of the conflict, the Soviet line was strongly anti-imperialist and pro-Argentinian, so they called the Falklands the Malvinas, and they portrayed Argentina as helping the Falkland Islanders to free themselves from colonial oppression and exploitation. I picked up the idea that the islanders were originally brought there as plantation slaves.
After a few days the line shifted. I don't know why, but the Soviet stance became more neutral. The press began to refer to the "Falklands/Malvinas" and, most importantly from my perspective, to report developments from both sides in a more objective way. So I began to get a more accurate fix on what was going on.
In the midst of all this I continued to work on my project, which was on Soviet economic planning in the Second World War and would lead eventually to my first book. Something I was trying to puzzle out was the reliability and consistency of the Soviet official measures of the scale of the war effort. In those days there was absolutely no question of getting archival access to such information, so I had spent a long time combing through all the Soviet publications on World War II and putting together all the data I could find. Not surprisingly, I was left with a lot of questions: things like the concepts and methods used to calculate the growth and scale of Soviet war production, the proportions of resources used for the war, the squeeze on wartime consumption, the role of Allied aid, and so on. The reason I wanted to do this was to be able to make more accurate comparisons of how the different countries fought the war.
I hoped that in Moscow I might find some answers. Of course, I knew that all this information was quite sensitive. I also knew that the Soviets were very proud of their war effort, but I did not see any way in which my digging away would threaten that. With that in mind, asking for help seemed reasonable to me.
In the Institute of USSR History I was attached to the sector on military history. I had a number of interesting conversations there, but i did not get any help with my data issues. When I raised this, I was told: You'd better talk to Mitrofanova.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova was a well-known figure; she'd written the definitive history of the Soviet working class in the war, and at least some of the figures I was puzzling over came from her big book (published in 1971), so this seemed like a good idea. A meeting was arranged. As I was not completely confident in my Russian, I wrote my questions down.
The afternoon of our meeting came around. We met at the institute in a large, rather dingy room. Avgusta Vasil'evna (as I called her, respectfully) was in her early sixties. After all this time I couldn't give much of a description, but I remember a trim lady with an authoritative manner and unshakeable self-possession. There was no small talk. I described my project, and I explained that I had a bunch of unresolved questions which I'd written down, and I passed her the list. She took it and read it. Then, she looked up at me. She said:
Mr Harrison, tell me. Are you an economist, or a historian -- or what?
This was not a good start. Not everyone will recall the atmosphere of the time, but the Cold War meaning of "or what" was perfectly clear to me in that moment. She was asking me if I was a spy. I replied politely. I said that I was a scholar, an economist by training, and my field was economic history: I was an economic historian.
Her next question:
Mr Harrison, who told you to work on these questions?
She might as well have asked who put me up to it. I explained that it had been my decision: no one had assigned the topic to me. She gave me to understand she didn't believe me; I was too young and too junior to choose my own research. Afterwards I remember figuring out that perhaps she was just thinking on Soviet lines. If I'd been a young Soviet scholar, I wouldn't have had the authority to define my own project. My department or sector would have had a plan of work, agreed with the administration and the party committee, and I would have been assigned a part of that plan. Anyway, her implication was that I was really just a hired investigator.
By then I knew I was in trouble. I would have continued to argue my case, but she said to me:
Mr Harrison, I don't know the answers to your questions.
And, if I did, I wouldn't tell you.
After that, there were no more questions. Instead, she gave me a lecture. As I recall, it went on for well over an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It certainly felt like a long time. The highlights that I can remember were the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in the war, her own personal sacrifice (her husband was killed in the defence of Moscow), the huge costs of the war effort, the deaths, the destruction, the homeless refugees, the struggle for postwar recovery. I wondered what I could say. Then I realized there was no point my saying anything. I was not expected to respond.
When Mitrofanova reached her conclusion, I nearly tried to prolong the discussion. I think she'd gone back to the iniquities of capitalism and the shirking and backstabbing of the Soviet Union by the wartime Allies. Her final words were:
But, you see, ours is a different social system. We don't need other people's islands.
Ah! I thought. Now we're back in the present, and she's thinking about the Falklands. But me, I'm thinking about an interesting analogy: If yours is a different social system, why does the Soviet Union continue to hold onto the Kurile Islands and Southern Sakhalin, which historically belonged to Japan but were occupied in the final days of World War II and never returned? That's a great question! Why don’t I ask her?
Perhaps better not. My desire to escape from the room defeated my curiosity. I held my tongue. The meeting was over. Mitrofanova swept out through the door, and I strolled after her into the bright sunlight and the warm breeze of an April afternoon.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova lived for another 30 years, dying in 2003 according to an obituary that I found online. She was born in Akmolinsk in 1910. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by war, revolution, civil war, and famine. Evidently a true believer, she became a party worker in the press and a party lecturer; that's how she passed the years of collectivization, more famine, rearmament, terror, and war again. A woman in a man's world, she successfully converted her skills to scholarship, at least as the Soviet Union understood the term.
In our only meeting she was condescending and confrontational, but in the Soviet Union it was often hard to know who was sincere and who was just playing the role that the situation required of them. Maybe the circumstances and timing of our meeting were sure to provoke an East-West confrontation. Maybe in less formal circumstances or at another time she'd have looked for some common ground. But I think she probably meant every word.
One thing that never occurred to me was to say to her: Why are we fighting? Aren't we both on the same side? For, like her, at that time I was a communist party member. All I can say is that it didn't feel as if we were on the same side. Her communism wasn't mine, and I didn't want to pretend it was.
As for the questions on my list, I had to wait another ten years. In April 1982, the country was on the edge of change. Most of the top party leaders were near the end of their biological lifespans. Leonid Brezhnev was 75 and obviously ill. He died before the end of the year. The Politburo voted twice for continuity, appointing first Yurii Andropov (who died in 1984), then Konstantin Chernenko (who died in 1985).
At last the Politburo bowed to the inevitable, turning to the next generation in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. After several years of attempted reforms, Gorbachev surrendered the party's monopoly of power. It turned out there was nothing else to the pillars holding up the temple, which collapsed. In 1992 the secret archives were opened, and I found my answers (the result was another book).
In 1982 the spring weather was beautiful. During my time in Moscow I walked around with a camera in my pocket (an Olympus Xa-1 or Xa-2, I think) and I took a ton of photographs. I walked a lot around Oktyabr'skaya square, where I was staying, the roads to the city centre, and a few other places. I remember a disused monastery, a visit to friends in the suburb of Sviblovo, and a short trip out of town to the flea market in Malakhovka.
Recently I noticed that my photos were fading. I decided to scan them and to put them online as my record of Moscow towards the end of the Cold War, on the edge of unimaginable changes.
April 28, 2020
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/papers/there_was_a_front_ver_6.pdf
For a few months in the 1970s I was a graduate student in Moscow. Capitalism and communism were fighting the Cold War. What was it like? I was dazed and confused. Now I've written a short memoir of that time. It covers cultural exchange, learning Russian, travelling to Russia, making wonderful friends, learning about informers and surveillance, feeling my way through Soviet academia and economic thought, being misunderstood, trust and mistrust, and travelling for work and for leisure, including my epic visit to a collective farm near Voronezh. I include a few photos from the time. Also, I reflect on what we know now about the Soviet system that I didn’t know then.
My memoir is called: “There was a front, but damned if we knew where.” To explain why, here is an excerpt from towards the end, a section that describes my homecoming. If you want to read more, the full version is here.
It was time to leave. I booked a train ticket on the direct service from Moscow to London, three days and two nights via Warsaw and East Berlin, including a Channel crossing by boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Out of interest, I added on a 24-hour layover in Warsaw – my only visit to another East European country under communism.
I was sad to leave but I was also tired and ready. It was a long journey and I would sit the whole way in a shared compartment. There was some small talk in the carriage, but the countryside was flat and monotonous, and the hours of daylight were few.
At the Soviet border, the whole train was raised off the track while the broad-gauge bogeys were removed and replaced by standard-gauge for the remainder of the journey. While this was done the carriages were inspected inside and out, under and over, by the Soviet border troops, looking for contraband manuscripts and Soviet citizens who for any reason did not want to live out the rest of their lives in the socialist paradise.
In Warsaw, I wandered around the old city, meticulously restored after the war. The only language I had in common with most Poles was Russian, which did little for friendship.
Berlin was shocking. The train rolled through the divided city in the middle of the night. I blinked at the sudden passage from the darkened East to the bright lights of West Berlin. We did not stop, and the lights went out again after a few minutes because West Berlin was an island, and the train rolled back over into the Eastern zone.
As with the journey out, it was better to travel than to arrive. Adjusting to home life was hard. It was hard for me and I’m sure I did not make it easy for others. Time had not stood still while I was away. My friends and loved ones had as much stored up to tell me as I had to tell them. The Britain to which I returned was not the normal country of the anecdote; it was preoccupied with its own class struggle. Many of my friends were warriors for social justice, and I aspired to be one too. To some the Soviet Union was a distraction; to others, it was “my enemy’s enemy” and therefore perhaps a friend. Their appetite for my stories was limited.
For weeks I dreamed about Moscow night after night. In my dreams Moscow was dark, confusing, and utterly strange; I was lost in it and could not find my way back. I saved myself by pouring everything into finishing my dissertation. Looking back, I am reminded of the words that Joan Littlewood put in the mouths of the soldiers returning from the Great War:
And when they ask us,
How dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some café,
And fought wild women night and day,
’Twas the cushiest job
We ever had.
And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win
The Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them
There was a front,
But damned if we knew where.
The Cold War was not the Great War, and we were not soldiers. In Moscow no rockets flew nor bullets winged. The hazards we faced were only moral. Still, I had been to the other side, and I had returned, and I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It changed my life. I spent the decades from then to now trying to understand where I had been and to come to terms with it. I am still trying. The only ones to whom I had nothing to explain were the former comrades-in-arms who had been there too, whose lives were also changed, just as surely as mine. So, I was not alone.
April 12, 2020
Writing about web page https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/coronavirus-what-happens-war-won-21852580
Nigel Nelson, political editor of the Sunday Mirror, was kind enough to quote me at the end of his article Coronavirus: What happens when war is won as UK stands on crossroads as in 1945, in this morning’s paper. Here’s the notes I sent him last week.
Do you think Boris Johnson will come out of this crisis as the hero of it or could he go the same way as his great hero Winston Churchill?
World War II fuelled a desire for change in British society, with more social provision for those people who faced the greatest risks that no one could control – sickness, old age, and unemployment. Churchill was (and for many still is) the hero of the war, but the voters still tossed him out afterwards because he did not sufficiently identify with the turn to a welfare state. Attlee and the Labour Party went that way and took the voters with them.
In a time of national crisis, it’s natural that people rally round the leader, and the polls suggest a degree of rallying around Boris Johnson right now. That may not last. Whether Boris keeps hold of the halo afterwards depends on whether he “gets” the swing of the popular mood and is able to go with it.
How are British values changing (clearly we put a new value on the worth of NHS staff and key workers who have been undervalued for so long)?
Our society is going through a severe shock. Lots of things we took for granted have suddenly been taken away: jobs, schools, incomes, easy shopping, foreign holidays, contact with friends and family. There is risk to life – of our parents and friends. There is fear of a rather cruel way to die. It’s natural to suppose that we will come out of this with a much greater desire for security against these risks. We will look to the government to “do something” to give us that extra security, so we will have greater expectations of the government than before.
There were signs of this before the coronavirus struck. The new Johnson government already did not look like an old-style Conservative free-market austerity administration. Whoever won the election was going to pay more attention to public services, infrastructure, and levelling up. These trends will be reinforced by the coronavirus emergency.
If that is correct, then we should expect that key workers and care workers will be paid more, social security will become more generous, and public services like the NHS will be allowed to build a margin of spare capacity in order to be able to respond better to emergencies. So cost-cutting and “efficiency gains” will go out of fashion. Meanwhile the taxpayers will be under much greater pressure to pay for all this – as well as for servicing our much larger public debt. Putting it all together, there will also be some levelling of inequalities.
Once we come through the crisis, not everything will go right. Mistakes will be made, and some measures will be taken too far. Some people will find they enjoy bossing others around in the name of the community, and they will find ingenious ways of defending their authority. Efficiency will be neglected in public services, even when it would benefit everyone. This also happened after World War II. Britain did not have to have food rationing for nine years after the war, but that’s what happened.
And more broadly will our attitudes to what is important be permanently changed by what we've been through in the way they were after the war?
The crisis has already shown that most people are thoughtful and sensible, they balance self-interest with concern for others, and they put a high value on community. Three quarters of a million of them have already volunteered to help with the NHS and care support. There are other people who might try to be like that, but they are also thoughtless or behave in ways that are divisive. A tiny minority are selfish and take advantage of the situation to exploit others. This won’t change.
What seems likely is that for most people community will feel a lot more real than before. We don’t have a foreign enemy, but we do have a common cause. Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, none of us can be excused. Those who serve in health care are in deadly danger. To help protect them, others stay home. The sacrifices may not be equal, but everyone contributes something. We all depend on each other for survival. These are important lessons, and they could last for a generation.
After that, it will probably be time for another change of direction.
March 18, 2020
Writing about web page https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c8nq32jw8r1t/boris-johnson
Many people have likened the war on COVID-19 to World War II. Those I've noted range from US Senators Bernie Sanders and Lindsey Graham to the head of Britain's Office of Budget Responsibility Robert Chote. Our own Boris Johnson says it is as if we have a wartime government.
I have some sympathy with this view. The time we are going through will be seen as an historical watershed, like the two world wars. The reason is that it is changing the way of life of every family worldwide, in a way quite unlike 9/11 or a financial panic. Moreover its effect will be persistent, at least for several years. Our world after COVID-19 will be more nervous, more prepared, and less globalized and interlinked for some time to come.
When historical novels are written about our time, every author will have choose the setting: before, during, or after the coronovirus epidemic?
Yesterday I was interviewed on this subject for a radio programme. Understandably, I think, the interview was spiked in favour of more practical and pressing concerns. Beforehand I made some notes, based on questions I was given. Below, I'll share my notes.
Was there any similarity in the challenges facing governments now and at the start of World War 2?
There are several similarities, although not a perfect fit. As in WW2, we face a clear enemy: a disease.
It is a surprise attack – even more than in WW2. In 1941 the Soviet Union suffered a surprise attack by Germany and the USA suffered a surprise attack by Japan, but still most people had seen a war building since the 1930s, so just about all governments had incorporated war into their thinking. This is not the case today: we are at a standing start.
Resistance requires resources to be mobilized urgently into the medical sector: people, equipment, power supplies and provisions.
At the same time the enemy is striking at our supply chains – it attacks economic cooperation and the division of labour. It is forcing us into isolation and self-sufficiency and isolated, self-sufficient people are very unproductive, so our economic capacity is falling. This is what bombing and invasion did in WW2, but the coronavirus is doing it much more efficiently. It is already among us and it is unseen.
There is fear and anxiety. Before WW2 many people feared a bombing apocalypse, which did not actually happen until 1945. A similar fear is present today.
Were there bailouts and nationalisations of businesses and industries disrupted by WW2? What about coronavirus?
World War II brought an explosion of demand. Rather than people losing their jobs, they were called up to serve in the military or in war production. Schools, shops, and pubs did not close but their staff of working or fighting age did. The war economy still required films and entertainment. As for business, most businesses repurposed their production for the war effort. The government paid for the building or converting of factories to war production. There was very little nationalisation. There were very limited bailouts (money for nothing) because the government was primarily spending money to pay people to do something else.
It is true that some small businesses lost out, but most people understood the needs of the war and complaints were muted. I have a letter of 1942 from the wholesale cocoa distributors to the London Chamber of Commerce. They complain that the government has taken over the distribution of chocolate. They no longer have a business. Milk wholesalers have been compensated: what about us? Will we not be needed again after the war?
So some suffered financially. Wealthy people took a hit. But everyone had a role. The war killed, injured, and bereaved millions, but no one was cast into destitution because everyone had a role and could find a job. Old people (fewer than now) benefited from a widening social safety net. After the war, British society was a lot more equal than before.
How did governments manage shortages and supply chain disruptions?
The main tools were licensing and rationing. These converted our market economy into a command economy. There were still markets and money and prices, but for the most part you could not spend money on anything without a government license. The most important exception was bread: through the war you could always buy as much bread as you wanted, so no one went undernourished. This made Britain different from many other countries at war.
But to buy steel or components, a business needed a license. To import materials, you needed a license. To borrow for investment, you needed a licence. You got this licence only if you were on the government’s priority list: important for the war effort. In this way the government could protect the essential industries and the inessential parts of the economy withered.
The problem was inflation – not price inflation, but priority inflation. At first, a few things were seen as crucial – priority A1. As the economy became more and more stretched many other things competed for top priority. When everything was top priority, the priority system stopped working, and government committees had to set limits even on top priorities. You’d think you could never have enough soldiers in a war, but in 1942 the government had to cap the armed forces at 5 million in order to keep enough workers in the war factories and other essential industries.
How was production of munitions (then, medical equipment now) ramped up, and how were people recruited for the war effort (then, for intensive care units etc. now)?
I read today that the government is hoping to find British manufacturers of a basic ventilator – 30,000 in two weeks. Here the standing start is important. For years before WW2, the governments of all the major powers were ordering new weapon designs and thinking about the industrial capacities that the next war would require. Nearly all the major aircraft types of WW2 were designed before the war broke out. Here we are in the middle of our war with a blank sheet of paper.
War preparations made it possible to boost war production to peak levels within one or two years of the outbreak. One or two years, not two weeks.
Market economies do have great flexibility. If the government throws enough money at it, I am absolutely sure that something will be achieved, although not necessarily on the timescale that is demanded, because of our unpreparedness.
My guess is that ECMO machines will be the tip of the iceberg. We have a £2 trillion economy. If we pay the top rate for ventilators, which is £50k, and buy 100,000, they will cost us only a fraction of a percent of national income. BUT in addition to producing them, you have to build the new infrastructure.
Again, I read that a bed in intensive care costs £15k a day – that’s staffing, maintenance, paying off the building. Keeping 100,000 of these beds open for a year would be a big slice of Britains’s GDP, maybe a quarter. And we are a rich country. No doubt we could do it for less by makeshift building and cutting back on training and standards.
And at the same time, we will be having a big recession: output might fall by 10, 20, or 30 percent, so the burden could be even greater. That’s more like Russia in 1942 than Britain or America.
Uncertainty: Did governments have to make things up on the fly?
To some extent. But most governments had spent a long time thinking about how the next war would go, and this helped. It was only 20 years from WW1 and every government had tried to learn the lessons. WW1 was much more improvised than World War II. In WW1 it took years to learn how to get out of the trenches and move on the battlefield. It took years to learn about the public-private partnership and the public finance necessary to ramp up production. So, in WW2 governments generally made fewer mistakes than in WW1.
That’s also probably why Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are having a better time today. They had the experience of SARS in 2003, and they were determined to learn from it.
What were long term effects on how the government ran the economy? And on society?
I think we are going to see a lot more compulsion in a short time. Certainly, compulsion in terms of quarantine. Everyone needs to understand there’s no such thing as a public health measure that doesn’t end up infringing on someone’s rights. The clue is in the name: public, not private health.
Compulsion in rationing basic supplies? Maybe. But my instinct is that we will soon all be making do with less.
Compulsion in service? Medical service, like military service in a war, is going to be dangerous. I hope there may soon be a pool of young, willing volunteers who have survived exposure and been immunized by it.
The persistence of these regulatory changes may be for years after, but not for decades after. The war gave Britain a much larger state and food rationing and food subsidies lasted for years after. The war essentially created the basic elements of a national health service, formalized after the war. But the war did not create nationalized industries. It was postwar socialism, not the war, that led to nationalization. If you look at the share of the state in economic activity in neutral Sweden over the long run, it follows a similar course as in Britain. There were deeper forces at work than the war. The war just brought things a forward a bit.
The same may be happening now. Before we were struck by the plague, things were already changing. Austerity was already ending, the government was already set to throw money at the police, the health service, infrastructure and the regions. That had already begun; maybe now it will be reinforced. There’s visible pressure in society for government to do the right thing and be accountable for it.
I would like to live in a free society and in most settings, it seems to me, free markets will do the best job. But in the present setting I would support a little more of the clarity that comes from compulsory rules. How do I reconcile these things? You can think about compulsion in two ways. One is the Chinese way: do as the unelected party tells you or fear the consequences. But there is also a British way, which is different: when the elected government tells you it’s your turn to do the right thing. It’s your turn to serve in a hospital, or stay at home, or go out to buy the goods you need. There’s a line: don’t step out of it.
That’s how it worked in Britain in WW2. There were lots of rules, which most people accepted, and the few that didn’t were vigorously pursued, with the support of most people. It did continue for too long after the war; that’s something we should aim to avoid.
August 19, 2019
This column is about the short-term costs of a no-deal Brexit. Like many economists, I tend to think any disruption will prove temporary, even in the case of no deal. It’s in the nature of temporary costs that, in the long term, they disappear. It’s the long-term costs that we will be left with, and they will exceed the short-term costs by many orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, the only way to the long run is via the short run. As the short run looms before us, we are all understandably fixated on a single issue: what will happen next?
According to yesterday's leaked disclosures, the Cabinet Office’s Operation Yellowhammer report predicts the short-term consequences of a no-deal Brexit: a three-month paralysis of Britain’s maritime trade, a hard border in Ireland, shortages of fresh food and medicines, and many other things. This is the central estimate, not a worst-case scenario.
One side of what passes for Britain’s Brexit debate has seized on the findings as confirming what was claimed all along: Brexit is an act of national self-harm. The other side derides them as more “Project Fear.” The government itself now claims that the report is already out of date: the government has everything in hand.
Uncertainty over the likely short-term outcome of a no-deal Brexit (or any kind is often blamed on the idea that this has never happened before. Never before has a major trading nation deliberately disengaged from deep integration with its nearest and wealthiest neighbours. But this is not entirely true. There are two precedents: 1939 and 1914. The precedents are not recent, of course. Still, they might offer something to discover.
The outbreak of World War I was preceded by what some today might call an Edwardian version of “Project Fear.” Liberally minded commentators – best known were the banker Ivan Blokh and the journalist Norman Angell – warned that war among the industrial powers would lead inevitably to disaster. They offered two predictions, one, that industrialised war would be horrible; and two, that it would prove economically and socially intolerable.
On the first prediction, Angell and Blokh were correct. Total war was horrible. But their second prediction was wrong – at least in the short term.
The industrial powers, they argued, had become so economically integrated that they could no longer tolerate the interruption of trade by war. Within a few months they would run out food – first Britain, then France and Germany. After that, they would starve and surrender. Russia might survive, based on its food surplus. But this is not what happened.
When Germany went to war in 1914, the direction of their attack was against their main trading partners. Britain alone accounted for more German trade than all Germany's allies. Russia was a major source of German food and fodder. Yet as the war dragged on the German economy did not collapse. Like Britain and France, which were even more exposed to the global economy, Germany mobilized its resources for four years of total war.
In every country the war imposed wrenching adjustments and sacrifices on soldiers and civilians alike. But the results were not intolerable, for the people tolerated them. Two forces were at work that Angell and Blokh had neglected, that prevented collapse or at least staved it off for several years. One was the basic flexibility of market economies, which enabled the industrial powers to adapt much more easily to the loss of trade and the demands of war than anyone predicted. The other was the arousal of national feeling among the peoples now at war, which led them to hate the enemy and to tolerate readily the changes and sacrifices necessary for war mobilisation to proceed.
It is true that after several years of total war the populations of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary gave up the struggle. But it was Russia, most self-sufficient in food, with the least industrialised economy, that dropped out of the war first. So Blokh and Angell were wrong about that too.
If the Second World War was different, it was that the great powers entered it knowing what had happened in the First. They prepared accordingly. From September 1939, the British blockaded Germany at sea and German submarines waged war on British shipping. Britain, importing 70 per cent of calories for human consumption, was as vulnerable to blockade in 1939 as in 1914. The volume of food imports into Britain halved between 1939 and 1942. Yet the economy and the people adjusted. Domestic farming expanded and prices and rationing shifted diets from meat to cereals and potatoes. The calories available for human consumption barely changed from year to year through the war.
What should we take from such experiences?
- First, market economies were generally more adaptable than government and public opinion expected. When particular goods were suddenly in short supply, it was natural for those who needed them to find substitutes and work around the shortages. As a result, shortages were usually temporary and rarely, if ever, endangered the economy.
- But second, in some countries, survival was endangered eventually, after years of war. In Germany, for example, this was much more because of war mobilization than because of the loss of trade. Still, trade had been lost, and substitutes and workarounds for missing supplies were never costless. Such costs accumulated and were added to the costs of the war. It took time for the overall costs to become evident to the point where they might drag down the war effort itself. The costs of lost trade were hidden from sight at first, partly, because the processes of market adjustment redistributed them around the economy, so that they were rarely salient and were lost in the general step-by-step erosion of everyone’s standards of living.
- Third, in the process, governments took over more and more responsibility for the basic functions of economic life. The methods of command economies were invented during World War I and were widely used from the outset in World War II. While these were usually effective in directing resources into the war effort, the consequences for ordinary people varied. In Britain, food rationing was limited to luxury foods, and was generally effective, so the nutrition of poorer households was levelled up. But where clean government and non-corrupt administration failed, food was diverted into black markets and inequality grew.
- Fourth, while the war continued, most people were motivated to accept the resulting sacrifices by leadership that provided the sense of a shared national struggle, that focused their anger at the enemy who imposed these losses on them. War leaders created an atmosphere of national unity and solidarity in which the overwhelming majority became willing to “keep calm and carry on” through years of hardship.
Since 1945 the nature of economic life and the structure of international trade have changed nearly beyond measure. Despite this, all four lessons are deeply relevant as we contemplate what will happen on 1 November, the day after Brexit.
- First, don’t underestimate the flexibility of the market economy. Any real disruption is likely to be short lived. (Unless the government makes shortages worse by adopting price controls, say.) Whatever is suddenly missing from our lives, we will adapt, find substitutes, or work around what is missing. Our lives will certainly change, but we will probably get by. If Russia and Iran can survive trade sanctions, we will survive Brexit.
- Second, adaptation and substitution will incur many minor costs, and the costs will cumulate and may well grow over time as Britain decouples from the European economy. The sharper the shock, the more trust will be broken. Since trust underpins all long-term relationships, the more our long-term relationship with Europe will be damaged.
- Third, demands for the government to “do something” about disruption and shortages will push the government to intervene more and more in our economic life. For a time at least, scarcity pricing will be regulated by public pressure if not by law. Supplies will be prioritised. Failing firms will be bailed out. Once in place, these controls will take on a life of their own. Don’t forget that food rationing, which began in Britain in 1939, did not end in 1945; the last controls were not relaxed until 1954.
- Fourth, our willingness to “keep calm and carry on” will be much less than was the case in 1939 or 1914. We are not at war. We are divided among ourselves. Our government is representative of an extreme, not of a broad national coalition. Half the country expects Brexit to be painless or quickly beneficial. The other half sees it as a self-inflicted wound. Neither of these constituencies seems likely to put up with much pain for the good of the cause.
This can change, only if the government is successful in persuading the majority that we are in fact at war, that Europe is the enemy, that pro-Europeans are the “enemy within,” and that departure from the European Union is worth any sacrifice.
August 24, 2018
Writing about web page https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html
Sometimes it is said that a popular image or tweet or a video clip has "gone viral." That means that it has been shared from person to person many times, like an infection.
When we use this image, we think of ideas spreading on an epidemiological model. Some people have little resistance and so they are highly vulnerable. After just one exposure, they are taken over by the idea and become carriers. Then, they pass it on to more people like themselves who are also of low resistance. A pool is formed of people who pass the idea in question backwards and forwards and, in the process, expose many others. These others might be more highly resistant, and are captured by the idea only after repeated exposure, which happens over a period of time. Eventually, as more and more people are exposed more and more times, the infection will spread to everyone who is not for some reason immune.
The same model, according to which ideas spread like a disease, is often found in the practical thinking of authoritarian regimes. Such regimes often prescribe a particular set of ideas as "healthy" -- for example, obedience to the state and loyalty to the ruler, each embodying or personifying the nation. A source of danger to the regime is then the spread of "unhealthy" ideas, which might encourage disrespect of authority or public demonstrations of discontent. They worry that ideas about free speech or the accountability of rulers, if unchecked, might go viral, undermining the stability of the regime.
The epidemiological model also prescribes the remedy. Risks to public health are contained by keeping the community under continuous surveillance, by quickly identifying outbreaks of disease, and stepping in immediately to isolate the people who have become ideologically sick, preventing them from passing on their infection more widely.
This remedy can be seen at work today in China's province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is trying to manage the largely Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs. On August 18, The Economist reported:
During the past year campaigners, academics and journalists have been shedding light on the detention for “re-education” of vast numbers of ethnic-Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. On August 13th the topic was raised at the UN, when experts undertaking an audit of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities said they had heard that as many as 1m Uighurs are being locked away.
The Economist's report went on to cite a recording by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region communist party youth league, made last year and published on WeChat. The full transcript can be found on the Radio Free Asia website, and that's where I have taken the following excerpt:
In recent times, amid a growing heavy crackdown, a small number of people—particularly young people—have gone to re-education camps to study. However, their parents, friends and relatives, and the general public don’t understand the benefits of re-education, and as a result they are worried and fearful. So let us give answers to their questions and their concerns today.
Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. In recent years, there have been violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang, one after another, instigated by the “three evil forces [of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism”], which has threatened the safety of people from all ethnic communities and caused serious damage and losses. These terrorists have one thing in common: they were infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.
The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine which confuses the mind of the people. Once they are poisoned by it, some turn into extremists who no longer value even their own lives … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.
Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.
In order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines. They mobilized the public to learn the common language [Mandarin Chinese], complete various technical training courses, and take part in cultural and sport activities, teaching them what is correct and incorrect … so they can clearly distinguish right from wrong … At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families.
Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses, in that they must be treated in time, and should never be ignored and allowed to become serious. Otherwise, later we will regret it, as it will be too late … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future. If people don’t attend re-education class because there is no one to take responsibility for the household chores, or if they choose to run away from re-education, that can be considered being very irresponsible to themselves, their families and society.
You can see that the Chinese communist party youth league's model of the spread of ideas, expressed in this long quotation, is not intellectually consistent. The unhealthy ideas are sometimes called a "virus," sometimes a "poisonous medicine." But the general idea of ideological infection could not be clearer: "Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses."
One feature of this perspective is that people who have been infected are not to blame (unless they refuse treatment). Another is that they are not seen as lost to the community; they can be saved (or they must help to save themselves). Nonetheless, as long as they are inflected by unhealthy ideas, they are a danger to the community as well as to themselves -- even if they are legally innocent of any crime. Therefore, compulsion is justified to treat them.
Why am I interested? In another context, the Soviet KGB (security police) used the terminology of "unhealthy" ideas and behaviours, and of methods of "prophylaxis" (a medical term for prevention), all the time in internal correspondence and reports. If you would like to read more about this, there are some human-interest stories and more discussion in my book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, especially chapter 5.
August 06, 2018
A great new paper by my CAGE colleague Thiemo Fetzer was in the news last week. It asks: Did Austerity Cause Brexit? Thiemo is one of those that know how to write a good abstract so, rather than try to summarize the paper in my own words, I’ll use his:
Did austerity cause Brexit? This paper shows that the rise of popular support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), as the single most important correlate of the subsequent Leave vote in the 2016 European Union (EU) referendum, along with broader measures of political dissatisfaction, are strongly and causally associated with an individual’s or an area’s exposure to austerity since 2010. In addition to exploiting data from the population of all electoral contests in the UK since 2000, I leverage detailed individual level panel data allowing me to exploit within-individual variation in exposure to specific rules-based welfare reforms as well as broader measures of political preferences. The results suggest that the EU referendum could have resulted in a Remain victory had it not been for a range of austerity-induced welfare reforms. These reforms activated existing economic grievances. Further, auxiliary results suggest that the underlying economic grievances have broader origins than what the current literature on Brexit suggests. Up until 2010, the UK’s welfare state evened out growing income differences across the skill divide through transfer payments. This pattern markedly stops from 2010 onwards as austerity started to bite.
Thiemo’s paper has already been widely reported (e.g. hereand here). The reports have tended to sustain a simple political narrative: In 2010, as Chancellor of the new coalition government, George Osborne set the course towards austerity. Austerity provoked the rise of UKIP and anti-EU sentiment. By implication, austerity was a mistake for which we are paying now with Brexit.
Not so fast.
Thiemo’s findings should be considered in the context of another story in last week’s news. In the Financial Times on 2 August, Chris Giles reported on the latest fiscal sustainability report of the Office of Budget Responsibility The report showed that, if the economy grows and if we continue to tax and spend on pensions, long-term care, health, education, and welfare at current rates, by 2050 there will be no funding for anything else. The government will be unable to pay anything towards defence, police, transport, arts and museums, business, and local authority services such as bins, libraries, and parks.
Driving this conclusion is two problems. One, the British population is ageing. Two, the economy is growing more slowly than in the past. Spending on old age will necessarily encroach more and more on a pool of resources that is finite and will fail to keep up.
In an era of low-interest rates it is tempting to suppose that the government can simply borrow more to pay for these things. Certainly, it can do this for a while. But that can only kick the fiscal can down the road. As deficits rise and once more accelerate the growth of the public debt, the burden of debt interest payments will also grow more rapidly, tightening the screws ever more harshly.
What does this have to do with Thiemo’s paper? It affects the implications that may be drawn.
First, when slow growth makes deficits unsustainable, austerity is inevitable at some point. Certainly, this does not deprive us of all choice. For example, we can choose to have austerity now or later. But for every unit of austerity that we postpone now, we will have more than one unit down the road; that's in the nature of the accumulation of debt. As Chris Giles points out, the government’s relaxation of fiscal targets in 2016, and its more recent boost to health spending, have brought forward the point at which the government will run out of money for “other” spending by six years. We can also choose who will bear austerity’s burdens. Are welfare benefits too generous? Should graduates pay higher contributions? Should companies pay higher taxes, or their shareholders, who include both relatively wealthy households and the pension funds responsible for the retirement incomes of the middle and lower classes?
These are all choices that could have been made differently, and that we can still make. But, as growth prospects diminish, what we cannot do is choose not to have austerity at all, ever.
Second, if you’re thinking that the government should not have imposed austerity in 2010 because that policy induced people to turn to UKIP and Brexit, think again. Rightly or wrongly, George Osborne was trying to return the UK economy to fiscal sustainability by following transparent targets and rules. The purpose of such rules has been to try to bind governments, so that they do not exploit their discretionary powers to time taxing and spending decisions in order to reward supporters, win their votes, and so manipulate elections.
Which is a good thing—right?
If your present thinking is that Thiemo’s paper shows that austerity was a bad policy, ask yourself what you thought of austerity before you knew his findings. If you already had reasons to believe that austerity was a bad policy, then stick to them, whatever they were. Thiemo’s findings have not added to them.
If, perhaps, Thiemo has changed your mind—previously, you thought austerity was necessary, and now you have turned against it—then be careful. The risk you face is that you may soon get what you now wish for: a government that systematically manipulates its electoral base with fiscal generosity that must be paid for later.
March 15, 2018
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702
This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.
Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?
We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.
The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.
Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.
Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.
If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.
Don’t we murder people abroad too?
Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)
I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)
Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.
Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”
It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.
We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.
One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.
Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.
What will the Russians do next?
Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?
Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.
Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.