2018 04 – Editorial – Nerve Gas Attack

Rush To Judgement

In her statement of 12 March on the nerve agent attack in Salisbury on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, Theresa May pointed the finger of guilt directly at Russia. Before all the evidence had been gathered and examined by scientists at Porton Down, (the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory), and the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical weapons, May stated it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. Even though earlier in her statement she had said “it is essential that we proceed in the right way, led not by speculation but by the evidence.”

Such a degree of certainty by the British Prime minister put pressure on the experts at Porton Down to come to the same conclusion. But according to Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Porton Down scientists were not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture and were resentful of the pressure placed on them to do so. This critical information was ignored by the British media. Furthermore, British intelligence services are puzzled about the murder attempt, unable to see any logic in it being state sponsored.

May’s rush to judgement overturned the basic principle of British law, that one is innocent until proven guilty. Her accusation of guilt was based on her understanding that the military-grade nerve agent Novichok was “of a type developed in Russia”, and that Russia had a record of assassinations on British soil, including that of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. (Although Russia’s guilt was never proved). Therefore, Russia had to be the guilty party. Such circumstantial evidence would be insufficient proof of guilt if applied to an individual in a British court. But in the new Cold War, initiated through NATO by Britain and its western allies, the “balance of probability” is all that is necessary for a guilty verdict.

The attack on two individuals was described as an attack on the British nation, as if the perpetrators had declared war on Britain. May referred to it as “an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom” which put “the lives of innocent civilians at risk” Yet on other occasions when questioned about the sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia used to kill innocent civilians in Yemen, May blusters about the special relationship between Britain and the Gulf state.

Members on all sides of the House of Commons rose to offer unqualified support for the Prime Minister’s statement, as if they had just heard the ghost of Churchill speak. Some also described the attack as an act of terrorism against Britain. Jingoistic Cold War warriors determined to push retribution to the limit; with many, shamefully, on the Labour benches.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was accused of gross insensitivity when he said that Putin would use this years’ football World Cup in Russia as a political showpiece, just as Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games. But Johnson, who was appearing before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was simply agreeing with Labour’s Ian Austin, a member of the committee, who first made the comparison. And Austin repeated his remarks on the BBC’s Daily Politics on 23 March.

Within hours of Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury incident, a handful of Labour MPs, all critics of Corbyn, drew up a motion unequivocally supporting Theresa May. This was clearly an attempt to embarrass and undermine Corbyn who had expressed caution over attributing blame on Russia before the evidence had been fully examined. This was viewed as an act of cowardice by one of the signatories to the motion who implied that Britain’s security would be at risk with Corbyn as Prime Minister. It was also said he was willing to “exonerate a hostile power”.

Corbyn was accused of playing party politics when he raised the issue of Russian money finding its way into the coffers of the Conservative party and proposing that money laundering by British banks should be addressed urgently. As if the House of Commons wasn’t the place to play at politics. (Separately, Marina Litvinenko, widow of Alexander Litvinenko, has urged the Conservative party to return £826,000 it had received from Russian oligarchs). Labour have moved a number of amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs. British bankers and lawyers are allegedly acting on their behalf hiding their wealth in secret accounts. It’s also believed that £4.4bn worth of property has been bought in Britain with suspicious Russian wealth.

In the weeks following his 12 March statement in which he urged caution, Corbyn was subject to severe criticism and intense media and political pressure. Boxed into a corner he was forced to admit in a further statement on 26 March that Russia was directly or indirectly responsible for the attack on the Skripals. This was a mistake. He should have stuck to his original line not to jump to hasty conclusions before the experts had gathered their evidence and offered their considered opinion.

For Theresa May the Skripal tragedy has come at a fortuitous time. Using it as a bridge to unite a bitterly divided party over Brexit and conscious that the Tories are facing a heavy defeat at next month’s local elections. The tragedy will also help to alter the widely held opinion that she is a weak leader. There is now a general view that she has shown a steely side to her public persona and led the chorus of anti-Russian sentiment with conviction.

We may never know who was responsible for the attack, but such enmity directed at Russia simply ensures a continuation of the cold war mentality of many in the British political establishment. Perhaps that is their intention. It helps to have a bogey man in Putin and Russia if Britain is to fantasise about itself as a global power. Britain and the west fail to acknowledge the deep feelings of the Russian people about NATO’s military encirclement of their country. They appear to have forgotten, or conveniently ignore, that 20 million Russians died during the second world war with Nazi Germany. Given all the belligerent rhetoric about Russia’s dirty deeds from May and her senior ministers, it’s clear that the government now considers Russia to be a strategic enemy.

It’s somewhat ironic that just as Britain is leaving the EU Theresa May ran to Brussels to seek support for her stance against Russia. It seems, after all, that Britain can’t stand alone in the world against perceived enemies. And any future incident of the kind that occurred in Salisbury will no doubt see Britain pleading for the support of its European neighbours. A stand alone global Britain is simply a slogan with no basis in reality.

[Sergei Skripal was a Colonel in Russian military intelligence, jailed in 2004 for 13 years on charges of spying against Russia, when working for the British MI6. In comparison, British double agent George Blake was jailed by a British court for 42 years in 1961, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. (It seems that ‘democratic’ Britain hands out more severe sentences to spies than does ‘autocratic’ Russia.) Skripal was granted a pardon and released after serving 5½ years, as part of a spy prisoner swap. He left Russia in 2010 to live in Salisbury, a military town in south west England, close to Porton Down.]