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The death of an oligarch reminds us how much we and the Russians have changed

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The death of Boris Berezovsky is a timely reminder that Cyprus isn’t alone in providing a convenient haven for Russian oligarchs. We may tut disapprovingly over how the Cypriots allowed Russian funds of dubious provenance to distort their economy and particularly their banking system. However, the story is not so different here, where an indulgent tax system has made it seem the most natural thing in the world for rich Russians to buy up large parts of London, take over football clubs and newspapers, use the courts to sue each other (and anybody anywhere who says something disobliging about them), distort the housing market and employ armed bodyguards.

Unlike Berezovsky, many (probably most) of them are on good terms with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and don’t mind a little espionage on its behalf. They just find the UK a pleasant and convenient place to live.

We always welcomed Russians, whether they were fleeing from tsars or Bolsheviks. Those we welcome today are not always refugees and they are hardly ever poor. That says something about how we, as well as the Russians, have changed.

Lay down your burden

One of the sillier arguments against press regulation is that it will encourage foreign governments to clamp down on their journalists. You could argue as well that the nastiness of our tabloid papers will encourage imitators. While it is true that some repressive press laws were left intact from colonial rule, I don’t recall dictators quoting their British authorship to justify retaining and extending them. The belief that rulers in the developing world take their lead from London – a belief strangely shared by some African journalists – is extraordinarily patronising and at least 50 years out of date.

Objections to regulation should be considered on their own merits. Arguing that we should stoically bear the worst excesses of the Daily Mail, Express, Star, Mirror and the Sun lest lesser breeds be led astray carries the white man’s burden to ridiculous extremes.

Lady’s nuts for turning

The late-night negotiations that led to agreement on press regulation were discredited by reports that takeaway pizzas had been served. Brian Cathcart, Hacked Off’s executive director, insists that the negotiators ate Kit Kats, not pizzas. Yet the damage is done. Certain kinds of food are thought too proletarian to consume while great matters of state are considered, so that any agreement that emerges is doomed from the start. It is as though we (or the journalists who report these things) believe that unhealthy, mass-market food turns political leaders into more fallible mortals.

The beer and sandwiches allegedly served when Harold Wilson invited union leaders to No 10 ended prime ministerial involvement in industrial disputes. When Brownites drafted a letter in 2006 demanding an early end to Tony Blair’s leadership, it was known as “the curry house plot”, after the West Midlands restaurant where they apparently met. Thereafter, Gordon Brown’s premiership had no chance of success. If negotiators want their deliberations to be treated respectfully, they should eat lettuce leaves and raw carrots garnished with a few nuts.

Flounce offensive

Boris Johnson may ride high in opinion polls but it is impossible to believe that he will ever become prime minister or even Tory leader.

That is not only because interviewers can raise disreputable episodes from his past, as Eddie Mair did on The Andrew Marr Show. It is also because the British distrust flamboyance.

David Lloyd George (known as “the Welsh wizard”) and Winston Churchill were the only truly flamboyant characters to reach No 10 in the past century. Both first took power during a war we were losing. I doubt that either would have reached the top if their parties had been choosing leaders to win elections. Labour preferred Clement Attlee to the available alternatives (who, admittedly, didn’t include anybody much more exciting than him) and Hugh Gaitskell (known as a “desiccated calculating machine”) to Aneurin Bevan. In 1976 it chose James Callaghan, by far the least flamboyant figure in a field of six. (One defeated rival, Michael Foot, later became leader but Labour wasn’t really interested in winning elections at that stage.) The Tories preferred Alec Douglas- Home to Quintin Hogg, Edward Heath to Reginald Maudling and John Major to Michael Heseltine.

It is, I suppose, one benefit of our being a (sort of) nuclear power that the words “finger on the button” are usually sufficient to see off Johnson and similar figures.

Broken records

At a book launch, I run into my old friend Donald Naismith who, though almost unknown to the wider public, invented school league tables and a centralised curriculum long before the government. He did it as director of education in the 1970s and early 1980s, first in Richmond, then in Croydon, both south London boroughs. Before him, schools were free to teach more or less what they liked. He tells me that, while researching an autobiographical sketch of those years (published last year as Very Near the Line), he discovered that neither Richmond nor Croydon still holds council and committee documents from that period. Is it routine for local government to destroy such records? If so, an important part of our political history is threatened. Somebody should rescue and preserve it.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue