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Alex Salmond: Why should Scotland let itself be ruled by the Tories?

People in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives, says the SNP leader.

When the inconclusive result of the last UK general election became clear, there was considerable anger among some commentators – particularly from the right – that Gordon Brown was seeking to form a new administration. For our part, although we were not prepared to enter a formal coalition, I made it clear that I was open to exploring the possible involvement of the SNP in an attempt to construct an alternative scenario to what we believed would be the disaster of a Conservative-led government.

But the sense, from many both within and outside the Labour Party, was that although there had been no obvious winner, Mr Brown and Labour had been the clear losers – in England, at any rate. Although Labour had won 258 seats, many people believed that it would have been wrong to seek to form a government on that basis.

Imagine then how laughable and absurd it would have been if a party had won just a single seat in England but had not only sought to lead a government but succeeded in doing so. Such a democratic outrage is so far-fetched that it would not cross anyone’s mind as a reasonable outcome for even a second.

I assume readers in England would, rightly, refuse even to contemplate such a ludicrous possibility. And yet in Scotland today we are subject to a Westminster coalition government led by the Tories, who do indeed have the grand total of one MP north of the border. This affront to democracy gets to the heart of the independence debate. It cannot be right for a party that is overwhelmingly rejected in election after election (in the four most recent UK elections the Tories have returned zero, one, one and one MP from Scotland) to form a government pursuing policies that very few people support. In fact, for half the time since the end of the Second World War, Scotland has been governed from Westminster by parties with no majority here.

So when the Prime Minister agreed with his No campaign ally Ian Davidson, a Labour MP, that he shouldn’t come to Scotland to campaign against independence because he was “a Tory toff from the Home Counties, even one with a fine haircut”, both of them spectacularly missed the point.

I suspect both Mr Davidson and Mr Cameron know fine well that the Prime Minister’s choice of barber, background and nationality are utterly irrelevant. What is important is that people in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives.

Scottish MPs have voted decisively against the bedroom tax, the welfare benefits uprating bill, means-testing for child benefit, cuts in capital spending, Royal Mail privatisation and many more coalition policies but all of them are being imposed on Scotland anyway.

Within the constraints of the Scottish Parliament, on many of these issues, there is nothing we can do. On others the Scottish government is working hard to soften the blow and to seek ways of mitigating the impact. But it makes a mockery of devolution for the Scottish Parliament to be told to divert money from other services to mitigate the impact of policies that had virtually no support in Scotland in the first place.

Because of the way public services are funded in the “devolved nations”, even policies under the control of the Scottish Parliament are under pressure from the marketising fixation at Westminster.

In 2011 I appeared on the BBC’s Question Time in Liverpool where I sympathised with people in England because of the destruction of their National Health Service that appeared to be taking place. I remarked that in Scotland we had gone down a very different route and had decided to keep the NHS in public hands. Now the shadow health secretary at Westminster is warning that the NHS is under attack and that the Tories are taking the first steps towards an American-style system. It was, of course, Labour that enthusiastically embraced the idea of competition and markets in the NHS and ripped off taxpayers by hugely expanding the ruinous Private Finance Initiative.

Labour supporters must now be watching in horror, as the journey started by their leaders could soon be completed by the Tories, with the result that universal public health provision free at the point of use could become a thing of the past in England.

It saddens me greatly to see what is being done to this great institution, but it is no longer just a case of expressing sympathy. Within the Westminster funding system, the privatisation of the NHS in England could be deeply damaging for the funding of public services in Scotland.

That is because, under the (frequently misunderstood) Barnett formula, if privatisation leads to cuts in public funding for the NHS in England this will lead to cuts to funding in Scotland. So decisions taken in Westminster by governments we didn’t elect have damaging long-term consequences for people in Scotland.

In this respect, it is important to recognise the myth that an independent Scotland will make it impossible for Labour to form a government in the rest of the UK. In fact, in only two of the 18 general elections since 1945 (October 1964 and February 1974) would the largest party at Westminster have been different if Scotland had been independent, and even then, those two governments lasted for less than 26 months in total. So Scotland’s votes within the Union have little or no influence on the make-up of the Westminster government.

But Scotland’s values as an independent country could have a much more profound impact. We could be a progressive beacon for those across these islands who yearn for a fairer society. Even before the Tories entered office in 2010, Danny Dorling, then a professor at the University of Sheffield, calculated that the UK was the fourth most unequal country in the developed world.

In Scotland we do not have such extremes of wealth but the gap between rich and poor is still far too wide. The anti-poverty campaigner Bob Holman, one who was famously sought out by Iain Duncan-Smith, recently announced that he was supporting independence. He wrote: “I was born in England, though I have lived in Glasgow for 30 years. I am a member of the Labour Party, which is against Scottish independence, but I will be voting Yes in September. My decision is not because I have strong nationalistic feelings, but because I believe in democracy and equality.”

And he went on: “An SNP government in an independent Scotland would be committed to abolishing the punishment that is right-wing welfare.”

On this he was right. But I don’t believe such a commitment is confined to the SNP. I don’t believe any government in an independent Scotland would engage in the dismantling of the welfare state we see under way in Westminster today. I would never pretend that governments of an independent Scotland – of whatever colour – will never make mistakes. I don’t believe we have higher values than anyone else. As in all democracies, there will be differences of opinion and a lively policy debate.

But since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has shown above all that taking decisions in Scotland works for the people who live here. When free personal care for the elderly was brought in, the policy was supported by every party in the parliament.

Since 2007 the SNP has resisted the marketisation of the NHS, abolished university tuition fees and removed the means test from prescriptions. We have championed the universal ideal and recently we have worked with Labour to find a way to help the disabled and other people suffering from the cruel and inhumane bedroom tax.

In an independent Scotland with control of social security, I firmly believe there would be no place for the divisive language of “scrounger v striver” which is designed to undermine the welfare state.

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to give the Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture. In that lecture, I recalled Jimmy’s celebrated Glasgow University rectorial address in 1972, in which he spoke of alienation as “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

When I recited those words I could not have imagined even then the scale of the rise in food bank use and the despair of those forced to turn to them because of the coalition government’s destructive attitude towards social security.

When David Cameron came into office, his big idea was the so-called big society. But what we see today is a shrinking society – one in which the third sector and private companies are being asked to become the public sector’s replacement, not its partner.

So Scotland could indeed be a champion of a progressive society – demonstrating a different and, I believe, a better way.

This does not mean an unreformed state. We have focused on prevention and early intervention. We have made some major reforms, such as the reduction in the number of police forces, and we have cut public bodies from 199 to 113. But we believe in a collaborative model of public services – not one based on competition.

The UK, then, is an unbalanced and unequal society in many ways. It concentrates an extraordinary amount of economic activity in London and the south-east of England. Shortly after he came to office the Prime Minister warned of the consequences. “This really matters,” he said. “An economy with such a narrow foundation for growth is fundamentally unstable and wasteful – because we are not making use of the talent out there in all parts of our United Kingdom.”

However, since then the imbalances have got worse. A recent report said 80 per cent of private-sector job creation was taking place in London. Before Christmas, Vince Cable spoke of London as “a giant suction machine”, draining life from the rest of the country. In Scotland, we have seen an improvement in economic performance since devolution. In fact, even without any revenue from North Sea oil, GDP per head is almost the same as for the UK. With oil and gas revenues our economy, per head, is substantially larger.

Far from being the oil-dependent economy depicted by those opposed to independence, Scotland has diverse strengths and our public finances are healthier than the UK’s.

We have more top universities, per head, than any other country and a food and drink industry aiming to turn over more than £16bn a year. We are major players in the life sciences, financial services, creative industries and other growth sectors. Despite the UK’s neglect of manufacturing, we still have significant manufacturers of international standing and we have enormous potential in renewable technology.

So, the issue for people in Scotland is not if we can afford to be an independent country – after all, we are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. The issue is how best we can build economic security and create opportunities in the future. The choice is whether to continue as an economic region of the unbalanced, unequal Westminster model, or take on the powers of a national economy in an independent Scotland.

 

As with all countries, we will have challenges to overcome. The proximity of a world city such as London can be a great advantage but we need the powers to give Scottish business a competitive tax edge to counter the suction effect identified by Mr Cable. Expanding the working population is an important goal. But we are suffering from an immigration policy driven by a Westminster establishment in fear of the UK Independence Party.

Both the rhetoric and the policy are deeply damaging. The decision to abolish the post-study work visa is already having an effect. In the Scottish government’s white paper on independence – Scotland’s Future – we set out how an immigration policy can be designed for Scotland’s needs within the Common Travel Area.

In Scotland’s Future we also set out phased transformational plans for childcare, which will open up much greater opportunities for women in particular and boost the workforce. This, in turn, will boost tax revenues. Crucially, with independence, that tax revenue will stay in Scotland, rather than being sent to the London Treasury, which will allow us to reinvest to fund the policy. If the SNP was to form the first government of an independent Scotland, it will be this expansion of childcare that will be our priority, so we will not go ahead with the married couple’s allowance planned for next year.

We also propose a collaborative social partnership model to boost productivity. Our Fair Work Commission will have a remit to increase the minimum wage at least in line with inflation, and we will bring together employers and employees in a convention on employment and labour relations to look at a range of issues such as a living wage. By taking these and other measures, Scotland will become a more resilient economy. Other, comparable European countries have achieved higher growth rates and more equal societies, so we know what is possible.

And for the rest of the UK, a strong Scotland will act as a counterweight to rebalance the activity so concentrated at present in the south-east of England. These, of course, are SNP proposals. But the first government of an independent Scotland will be the government that wins the first election in an independent Scotland in May 2016.

Before that government takes office, a Yes vote this September will trigger the start of negotiations with the UK government to ensure the transition to independence. Both the Scottish and the UK governments have signed the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, which commits us to respecting the outcome of the referendum and to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK.

On the issue of currency, the Scottish government has accepted the advice of the Fiscal Commission Working Group that a sterling-zone currency union is in the best interests of an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. The pound is not the property of George Osborne or Ed Balls, nor even Danny Alexander. It is as much Scotland’s pound as the rest of the UK’s.

When Mr Osborne flew in to Scotland to pronounce that he would not accept such an arrangement and would refuse even to discuss the matter with us, the Chancellor chose to misrepresent the fiscal commission’s proposals. He chose also to misrep­resent the size of the Scottish financial sector and the impact of oil-price fluctuations, and offered misleading comparisons with the eurozone.

The Treasury further argued that the UK is the continuing state in international law, and so Scotland is not entitled to a share of the Bank of England, among other things. As a campaign tactic, it seems as if the UK government is insisting on the sole right
to determine what the assets are and which are the liabilities.

Despite the UK Treasury’s position, the Scottish government is continuing to be constructive. Even though the Treasury has accepted that it has the legal obligation to pay back the UK debt in the event of a Yes vote, we are willing to finance a fair share. This is dependent, of course, on receiving a fair share of the assets. It is the UK government that curiously seems to be insisting, through its line of argument, that the rest of the UK must shoulder the whole debt burden.

As Christine Bell, professor of constitutional law at Edinburgh, has pointed out, “Legally under international law the position is clear: if the remainder of the UK keeps the name and status of the UK under international law, it keeps its liabilities for the debt. The UK took out the debt, and legally it owes the money. Scotland cannot therefore ‘default’.”

This is just one reason why I believe that, despite the destructive rhetoric of the No campaign, common sense will prevail and a fair share of assets and liabilities will indeed be agreed. Besides Mr Osborne’s announcement, the No campaign has seized on comments by the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, about Scotland’s EU membership, including a preposterous comparison between Scotland and Kosovo. We have always accepted that it is for the member states to decide the route for Scotland to continue its membership of the EU as an independent country. We have also always accepted that negotiations will have to take place.

But there is nothing in any European treaty that allows for the removal of five million EU citizens against their will because they have taken part in a legal, democratic vote about how they should be governed. Mr Barroso’s comments were followed by a range of experts setting out why he was wrong.

Sir David Edward, a former British judge at the European Court of Justice who describes himself as a moderate unionist, has said there is an obligation to negotiate Scotland’s membership between the event of a Yes vote and Scotland becoming independent.

Yet even more than the legal position, we need to be clear about the EU’s very purpose. It is founded on the principles of democracy, freedom and solidarity. It is in the business of enlargement. To remove Scotland would involve turning its back on these founding values and it is entirely unclear why any EU state would contemplate such a step.

Our vision of an independent Scotland is one of a country engaging fully with the EU and the broader international community, co-operating closely with our friends and neighbours in the UK.

The close cultural and social ties across these islands will continue and, I believe, will be strengthened. We can learn from each other in a partnership of equals based on mutual respect. I passionately believe that an independent Scotland will be a more democratic, fairer and more prosperous country and that is why I believe the momentum is so strongly with the Yes campaign and why on 18 September the people of Scotland will vote Yes. 

Alex Salmond is the leader of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit