‘EVENTS, my dear boy, events’ is a phrase attributed to Harold Macmillan describing the challenge of being the British Prime Minister.
Whether he actually said it or not, it does perfectly describe why politicians are much less effective than they would wish, spending more time reacting to things going on around them rather than actually delivering action on their policy programmes.
Crises, particularly foreign ones, can be good for politicians. They can unite communities behind their leaders. They can provide excuses.
We might find, with everything else going on, now is not quite the right time for a wholesale debate on our tax system. They can distract from domestic politics. While Vladimir Putin is raising the preparedness of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, there will understandably be less coverage and concern if the British Prime Minister is handed a fixed penalty notice or two for partying in Downing Street in breach of his own lockdown rules.
Few leaders expected to have to deal with the global financial crisis, Brexit or Covid on their watch – or, now, Ukraine. In an age of 24-hour rolling news and social media, responding is perhaps more challenging than in Macmillan’s era in the 1960s. There is little time or private space for positions to be developed. Someone famous dies or a bomb goes off and political leaders are expected to have commented. Probably with not much more information than everyone else, the safest reactions can sound cliched or anodyne rather than robust. Once a hashtag has been found – currently #StandWithUkraine – everyone quickly adopts it. As one country or city decides to fly a flag or flood civic buildings in national colours in ‘solidarity’, others rapidly follow.
Having said that, finding the right words and expressing them with the right tone is important. In the present situation, they will bring comfort and strength to many, particularly those Ukrainians in our own community.
The deputy chief minister, Heidi Soulsby, in the absence of her boss, has been faultless in this regard.
As we move into the second, third and fourth weeks of this crisis and beyond, the real question for our leaders, for our governments and for us all is ‘what does #StandWithUkraine really mean?’ In other words, beyond thoughts and prayers, what are we actually prepared to do? How much are we willing to pay or contribute to show solidarity with Ukraine? How much disruption will we tolerate in our own community?
The immediate actions taken by government are commendable, in particular the decision to divest Russian assets from the States’ portfolios and to write a substantial cheque in response to Ukraine’s needs. (In Guernsey’s case, the £500,000 committed so far is approximately double that of the UK per head.) The speed of response is to be congratulated too. On the outside, the speed of government is rarely fast enough to satisfy everyone pushing for action. On the inside of government, for decision makers, it is frustrating that issues which you know are being looked at cannot result in decisions being made and announced faster because, rightly, there does need to be the exercise of proper process. While islanders as taxpayers have an obvious indirect financial interest in these actions, they are not decisions which will have any meaningful direct impact on any one of us.
But this crisis and its aftermath is going to run for a long time.
President Putin’s expressed ambition to rebuild some version of his historical view of ‘Greater Russia’ is not just an immediate threat to Ukraine but an existential one for both the whole of Europe and world peace. Historically, the borders of the Russian empire extend beyond those of the former Soviet Union, so there can be no safe assumption that he will stop at Ukraine’s present day western borders. And especially with the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia now being both members of the EU and Nato, the threat of direct, ‘hot’ conflict between the US and Russia is real. Such a third world war, with nuclear arms on both sides, ought to be too awful to contemplate, but to dismiss it as merely a hypothetical risk would be foolish.
Faced with this threat, how willing are we to combat it? We might be willing to make personal donations of money or goods to the charities helping on the ground. We might be willing to stop buying Russian goods and drinking Russian vodka. How would we feel if the States decided to double, triple, quadruple or more the size of its financial commitment from our taxes? What about if taxes had to go up to pay for more support? Given the real Achilles’ heel of the Russian economy is the dependence on their export of oil and gas, how would we feel if the sanctions were extended to those sectors? When already facing rising inflation, what if that meant a doubling of our own transport and energy costs? If Europe had to ration its energy supplies to replace the lost supply from Russia, how would we feel about rationing?
And the most challenging questions of all arise around refugees. With a population of 40 million and hundreds of thousands already displaced and fleeing conflict zones, how do we feel about having Ukrainian refugees come to live in our community? Not just those who already have relatives living and working here but those with no ties to the island. Maybe a few? If so, how many? 10? 100? 1,000? Some may be very well educated. Some may speak English. They may be able to contribute to our economy and help fill some of our labour shortages. But what about the pressure on housing and schools and the health system?
In previous conflicts – most recently Syria and Afghanistan – we’ve said we’d like to do more for refugees but our hands are tied by our relationship with the UK. Given both the Common Travel Area and the UK’s responsibility for our international relations we can’t chose to do our own thing. In short, we’ve wrung our hands satisfying ourselves that we have bigger battles to fight with the UK on other issues and we should keep our powder dry. But what we have never done is develop and clearly articulate our own position. One example is the call by Rory Stewart, the former UK Cabinet Minister and contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party when Theresa May resigned, for a coalition of countries in the international community to accept 0.05% of their own populations as refugees each year, which is about what Sweden, Canada and the US currently do each year.
That would be about 30 people a year in our case.
The EU has said it will accept any Ukrainian for three years without pre-condition. The UK has said it will only accept those who have a family connection with the UK. Are we happy with that? What is our position? What do we want? The UK might not like us saying we are willing to take some refugees without a connection to the island, because it would show leadership that goes beyond their own position which they might find embarrassing, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t allow it. If we don’t ask, we won’t get. If we do ask and don’t get, at least we tried.
These are now the questions we all face and these are the issues our elected representatives will need to decide on our behalf. Because there will not be unanimity of views on all these questions, it will require real political leadership and skill to prepare and carry the community through the challenges faced by the fallout from this conflict – all while delivering on the domestic policy agenda and, of course, responding to the next set of events, dear boy, events.