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PETER YOUNG: A courageous man of principle

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Peter Young

AT the two-day annual Munich Security Conference held at this time of year politicians and diplomats discuss the world’s security challenges. It is billed as the world’s leading forum for debating the most pressing challenges to international security. This year’s conference ended on Sunday. Prime issues for discussion were transatlantic security policy and European defence; and, inevitably, the Ukraine and Israeli-Gaza wars were high on the broad agenda.

While researching this Munich conference for coverage in today’s column, the shocking news came through of the sudden death in a Russian high security prison of the prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – and it has been dominating the world’s headlines ever since, with some in the international media calling this ‘freedom’s darkest day’.

The 47-year-old anti-corruption political activist had been behind bars since January, 2021 when he returned to Moscow to face almost certain arrest after being treated successfully in Germany for nerve agent poisoning – Novichok -- the year before while he was in Russia. He blamed this on the Kremlin. On return, he was tried and convicted on a variety of charges, including extremism for which he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Alexei Navalny had for long been a thorn in the side of the Russian president and was one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest and most vociferous critics. In 2017, he told the BBC in a hard-hitting interview that he intended to run in Russia’s presidential election the following year as a genuine alternative to Putin. But he was ultimately banned from doing so.

Navalny was a popular figure and seen to be the only Russian opposition leader capable of getting political protesters out on to the streets. Reportedly, his unexpected passing in questionable and suspicious circumstances has sparked a wave of vigils and protests across Russia that the police are already cracking down on. Muscovites who have been laying flowers and carrying banners as personal tributes to him have been harassed by the police and there have been several hundred arrests. Some foreign observers are now saying that his sudden death in custody and the official suppression of the public reaction to it show that Russia is even more of a police state now than it was under communism. The UK and US ambassadors have laid flowers to honour Navalny at a memorial in Moscow.

Predictably, Navalny’s death has provoked widespread international condemnation as world leaders have expressed their shock, horror and outrage that this should have happened while he was in the custody of the Russian state so that it was clear – or, in the words of President Zelensky, even “obvious” - that Putin was behind his death and should be held responsible and accountable for this evil act. An address by Navalny’s wife at the Munich conference received a standing ovation in sympathy.

As examples of the strength of feeling among world leaders, the German Chancellor said that Alexei Navalny had paid for his courage with his life while Italy’s prime minister, in her capacity as current chair of the G7, stated that this was a new warning to the rest of the world about the nature of the Russian regime - in the words of a G7 statement: “We express our outrage at the death in detention of Alexei Navalny, unjustly sentenced for legitimate political activities and his fight against corruption.”

Canada’s prime minister said that Russia’s action against Navalny was a reminder of what a “monster” Putin was, and the Australian foreign minister said that the opposition leader’s “heroic opposition to Putin’s repressive and unjust regime inspired the world”. Over the weekend, President Biden also spoke out publicly on the issue in the strongest terms, calling Navalny’s death outrageous and stating, baldly and categorically direct to the TV cameras, that Putin was responsible for it. He also stressed US support for Navalny’s powerful voice for the future. Meanwhile, British foreign secretary, Lord Cameron, praised Navalny for his bravery and warned that nobody should be in any doubt about the “dreadful” nature of the Putin regime and its “appalling human rights outrages”. He signalled that there will be “consequences”, without speculating about what those might be.

Western leaders have called for Putin to be held accountable. But it is hard to see how that might be achieved, given that, in addition to the many heavy sanctions already applied against Russia following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Criminal Court has already issued a warrant for his arrest. The British government has called for a “full and transparent investigation into Navalny’s death”, adding that, in summoning a representative of the Russian embassy, “we made it clear that we hold the Russian authorities fully responsible for Alexei’s death”.

In analysing what might happen next, some suggest that until recently the Russian authorities wanted to avoid turning Navalny into a political martyr. But perhaps that changed after the failed poisoning attempt in 2020. The country’s main opposition leaders are either in exile or in prison, but his supporters, who are said to be in a state of disbelief, have vowed to continue his fight for political change.

Whatever the future might bring, nobody can question Alexei Navalny’s immense courage in returning to Russia after medical treatment in Germany where, presumably, he could have stayed in exile while continuing his work to oppose the Putin regime. He went back to face almost immediate prison. The BBC’s Russia Editor in Moscow has speculated that he felt compelled to be in his own country in order to try to bring about real change there – and that leaves people all the more impressed by his bravery and commitment.

CONTINUING WOES OF RULING CONSERVATVE GOVERNMENT IN BRITAIN

Since drama helps to sell newspapers, the UK tabloid press often indulges in colourful language that can distort the truth. One such example last week was The Sun’s headline that the Tory ship of state appears to have been holed beneath the waterline and is sinking rapidly. This might be an exaggeration despite a serious drop of support as shown in a series of by-election results and because the Labour Party is well ahead in the opinion polls. But there is little doubt that the popularity of the ruling Conservative government is rapidly diminishing.

It might therefore be worth examining the situation because Britain’s prominent role in the world ensures that people are interested in the nation’s domestic politics. Arguably, such interest has increased since the country’s formal withdrawal from the European Union on January 31, 2020, and as it makes progress towards the "global Britain" promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time of the 2019 general election.

The UK is generally considered to be synonymous with stable, dependable and sound governance. The domestic political uncertainty in the autumn of 2022 - at which point the country had five different prime ministers in six years - was unprecedented. But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took office in October, 2022, and succeeded in steadying the ship while promising stability, competence and good governance.

A general election must be held by January, 2025. But Sunak said last month that he expected to call one in the second half of 2024, though a poll might be held as early as May. The odds, however, are on the autumn in order to give the Tories more time to repair that ship of state and make it run more effectively.

Last week, the Conservatives lost two traditionally safe seats, in one of which there was a swing of nearly 30 per cent – the highest swing from the Conservatives to Labour in any election since the end of the Second World War. If this were replicated in a general election, the Conservatives would lose hundreds of seats. Tory leaders are making the usual arguments about by-election defeats; namely, that in a low turnout with many voters not bothering to participate they are rarely a true reflection of voters’ opinions but rather an expression of dissatisfaction with current government policy without wishing to change that government.

Nonetheless, with another by-election due next week, it is now widely argued that, unless the Conservatives change course without delay, they could indeed even face extinction at the next election. Thus, for traditional Tory voters, the question is how can Rishi Sunak and his colleagues make alterations during the coming months in order to save Britain from what they regard as the grip of socialism.

In the view of many, after Boris Johnson’s thumping victory of an 80-seat majority at the last election in 2019, the decline of the Conservatives since then is attributable to their leaders’ deviation from the party’s traditional values and principles, including the need to put the individual and freedom above the state. But there is also pressure for change after the Tories have been in power for 14 years and have become stale while there is a perception that too many things in government are not working properly. This includes management of the economy, with the country already into a mild recession.

Many Tories are now saying that they do not want former prime minister David Cameron’s vision of "nanny state" Conservatism - the sort of government which supposedly knows best and pursues a globalist agenda. Rather, they say, what is needed in the future are things like more investment in the armed forces, a reduction of both legal and illegal immigration from a flood to a trickle and action against ‘wokeism’. But, above all, they want sound economic policies and a genuine effort to cut taxes with an emphasis on making people better off and for government to communicate better with the public in explaining what it is trying to do for the good of the country as a whole. Only then, they argue, will the Conservatives have a chance of convincing voters to cast a ballot for them – not least, because the anti-EU and immigration Reform Party is enjoying significant success at by-elections and is splitting the Tory right-wing vote.

With so much at stake, it will be fascinating to see how the Conservatives will be forced to change tack in order to avoid a heavy defeat to Labour later this year. These are undoubtedly torrid times for the Tories. Could The Sun be right about their sinking ship?

FLAMES OF ANTISEMITISM BURNING LABOUR’S INTEGRITY

The above is another dramatic recent headline in the UK press. How accurate it is remains to be seen. But, given what is happening currently in the Middle East and, in particular, the Israel-Gaza war, it is no surprise that antisemitism should rear its ugly head again.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza to include destruction of civilian infrastructure and the deaths of thousands of innocent people has caused revulsion around the world and has been widely condemned. This is despite the Israelis’ insistence that Hamas is heavily embedded in the civilian population and the heavy-handed actions of the Israeli Defence Force are essential to achieve total annihilation of this terrorist group.

But antisemitism in Britain is not only linked to recent events in the Middle East. It has been a major issue for years, not least within the Labour Party, even though it is claimed that its level in the country as a whole is amongst the lowest in the world. Lack of space today prevents any proper analysis of this, but I hope to be able to air the issue in a future column.

Comments

themessenger 3 months ago

The long, unforgiving and lethal arm of Putin's state assassins has just reached out again as the Russian helicopter pilot Maksim Kuzminov who had recently defected to the Ukraine and had been relocated to "safety" in Spain, was found shot to death two day ago outside his apartment. Gives even more credence to the saying "When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon."

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LastManStanding 3 months ago

You're conveniently omitting the fact that he killed two of his comrades during his defection. What he did wasn't just going to be forgotten about.

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LastManStanding 3 months ago

The Tories are completely doomed as a political party simply because they are nothing but Labour with a blue tie; they are catering to no one, and are like a drifting ship about to sink in a storm. The Tories abandoned any semblance of even being center-right years ago, and neither the Blairite left or labour left will ever support them. Quite frankly, there isn't a single reason for any demographic to support them.

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