Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1854-55) shows the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Image: Bridgeman Art Library)
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Defend the west: is it time to re-arm?

Europe should not underestimate the Russian threat, argues historian and professor of international relations Brendan Simms. We must show how seriously we take Putin’s assault on Ukraine by working towards unification and moral and military rearmament.

“When a man sticks in a bayonet and strikes mush, he keeps pushing,” Lenin once remarked approvingly, “but if he hits cold steel, he pulls back.” His successor Nikita Khruschchev was fond of repeating this remark as he tested the west in Berlin, Cuba and elsewhere during the cold war. For some years now, the Russian leader and former communist counterintelligence agent Vladimir Putin has also been sticking in the bayonet and, so far, he has encountered only mush. In 2007 he was almost certainly behind a “cyber attack” on the Baltic republic of Estonia. A year later his placeman Dmitry Medvedev invaded the sovereign state of Georgia and in effect annexed the territories of Abkhazia and Georgia, after the Georgians responded to years of provocation. Most recently, he has invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine, sending troops not only all over the Crimean Peninsula, but also into some parts of the southern coast. His agents are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. At every stage, Putin has proceeded carefully, using hooded “deniable” units in the Crimea, throwing off the mask and proceeding to full annexation only when he thought it was safe to do so.

In the first phase of the Crimean crisis, western mushiness has been palpable. Initially, the European Union and the United States confined themselves to a largely symbolic rap across Russian knuckles, with sanctions targeted against a small number of Kremlin and former Ukrainian officials. Many European countries and their governments, such as those in Italy, Spain and Croatia, regard Ukraine as a far-off and irrelevant place. Of those states capable of thinking more broadly, France has been very muted. Britain, swayed as leaked briefing notes suggest by the financial interests of the City of London, which handles so much Russian money, has soft-pedalled on action if not rhetoric. President Obama, whose interest in Europe was never particularly pronounced, has been concentrating on his “pivot” against China in Asia. The worst offender, however, has been Germany, whose trade with and energy dependency on Russia make the country highly averse to any confrontation. The chancellor, Frau Merkel, pleaded with Putin at length over the phone but came away empty-handed, remarking that the man in the Kremlin seemed “to live in another world”. The sad truth, however, is that it is Putin who lives in the real world of hard power, whereas Merkel inhabits an alternative EU reality of norms and values that have no standing beyond our ability to defend them.

Moscow could have been stopped by early action. If Russia had been deterred from attacking Georgia, or put under such intense political, economic and military pressure as to force it to withdraw, Putin would never have dared invade Ukraine. If the Americans, who must have seen the build-up on their satellites, had deployed their Mediterranean fleet to the Black Sea just before or immediately after the Russian incursion into Crimea, while it was still being conducted at arm’s length by Moscow, Putin’s men could have been overpowered, probably without the use of firearms, and he would probably have disavowed them. The sham “referendum” would never have happened. In a similar confrontation at Pristina Airport in 1999 at the end of the Kosovo crisis, Nato intervened to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Russian advance guard, which prompted a compromise solution. Failure to respond robustly in the early stages of this crisis, by contrast, has emboldened Putin and made the situation far more intractable than it needed to be.

The west was temporarily disorientated by Russian propaganda that the Ukrainian revolution was dominated by “fascists” and that intervention was necessary to rescue the Russian population from them. Putin spoke of “reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on the rampage in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kyiv”. It is true that there are some very unpleasant right-wing extremists in western Ukraine – I saw a few of them on a visit there last September – but they made up a minority of the protesters against the regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Anti-Semitism exists in Ukraine, as elsewhere, but it has been maliciously blown out of all proportion. Far from welcoming Russian intervention, one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine, Yaakov Dov Bleich, compared Putin’s behaviour to that of Hitler over the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. There was never any grave threat against Ukrainian Jews, the Russian population, or any other minority group.

Europe’s far-right parties have aligned themselves not with Kyiv but with Moscow. Marine Le Pen, the president of the French extremist Front National, rushed to endorse the outcome of the Crimean plebiscite and denounce the EU’s “hypocrisy” in the matter. She also expressed concern about the “neo-Nazis” in the Ukrainian government, a startling remark from the leader of a party with very senior members who have a long record of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. The far-right and openly anti-Semitic Hungarian party Jobbik has praised the vote as “the triumph of a community’s self-determination”, and a precedent for similar moves in Hungarian areas of settlement in Slovakia and Romania. None of this is in the least surprising, because the far right sees in Putin’s action a valuable precedent for its own irredentist projects, and generally applauds the Russian leader for standing up to the decadent and plutocratic west. Indeed, Moscow specifically invited representatives of European far-right parties, including the Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party, to observe the 16 March referendum in Crimea, hardly the action of a government concerned about fascist “extremism”.

So let us be clear about what is happening. Putin, the authoritarian leader of a great power, has just invaded another European country and annexed a sizeable chunk of it. He is being cheered on by the continent’s revanchist extreme right. Thus far, the muted response of the west has merely invited further aggression. There is no sign of it showing the steel that would cause Russia to desist. One way or the other, what we are witnessing is the biggest crisis of the European order since the cold war, with the potential to shred the reputations of the governments and national security establishments of Europe and the US.

The US and Britain have failed to honour a commitment made in Budapest in 1994, when they (and Russia!) promised to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for the removal of all nuclear weapons on its soil, then the third-largest arsenal in the world after the US and Russia. This agreement is registered at the United Nations as the “Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”. Globally, the implications for the non-proliferation regime are enormous, because who now will surrender their nuclear weapons programmes in return for security “assurances”?

Much more serious, however, is the message sent about western credibility in Europe. No doubt Foreign Office and US state department lawyers will find ways of wriggling out of their contract with the Ukrainians, arguing that we are dealing with a mere memorandum and not a fully fledged and ratified international treaty, and that the signatories pledged to do no more than “consult”, which they have done. Welshing on a public security guarantee is not the same, however, as repudiating a warranty on a washing machine; you cannot just refer the plaintiff to the small print. The world may now conclude that the Anglo-Americans’ word is not their bond. It is a junk bond.

This matters because the European security order is akin to a sophisticated financial system. It is built on trust and the existence of a credible lender of last resort. During the cold war and after, Nato provided the necessary backstop, deterring aggression and even, as in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, eventually intervening “out of area”. So long as it is credible, this kind of system is relatively cheap to run and provides huge benefits. The buyers are released from the need to maintain expensive national armouries, including, in the case of Ukraine, nuclear weapons. The providers – the Nato powers and, to a lesser degree, the EU – don’t actually have to expend any military capital, though they need to hold it. These securities can be bought at different levels, the best cover being provided by Nato membership and the coveted “Article 5” collective security guarantee, with less firm bilateral guarantees such as the Budapest Memorandum. Nobody in central, northern and eastern Europe expected Britain and the US to go to war solely over Crimea on the strength of the 1994 agreement. What they were quite unprepared for was that the “security assurances” were entirely worthless. This realisation changes the entire strategic political economy of the continent. Now that London and Washington have defaulted on a subordinate strategic debt, other parties, including principal security bondholders, are reconsidering their own position.

The alarm is being sounded across the eastern flank of Europe. In their “far north”, the Norwegians worry about what Russian resurgence means for resource distribution in Arctic waters. The Swedes are bucking the European trend by increasing defence spending. Finland, in a state of permanent readiness during the cold war, is once again examining its options, with supporters of entry into Nato contradicted by those who believe that the country should rely on itself only. The Baltic states are the most anxious of all, their small size and large Russian minorities rendering them especially vulnerable, and sceptical about whether the vaunted Article 5 guarantee of the North Atlantic Treaty will be honoured. The Poles, with their long record of partition and occupation by Russia, regard the Ukrainian cause as their own. It is no accident that their foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, has been the most eloquent voice for a common front against Russia.

Further south, Moldova is terrified by the implications for its own breakaway territory of Transnistria. Here local authorities have just called for a similar referendum in advance of union with Russia. This would not only amputate another European sovereign state but also threaten Ukraine from the south-west. Romania is deeply concerned about Russian encroachments as well. She is also wondering what remains of the 2009 judgment of the International Court of Justice, which defined her maritime boundary with Ukraine – a boundary part of which faces the waters of Crimea now controlled by Russia. Turkey, too, has been following the crisis closely, conscious that an armed conflict on her northern border would put the threats posed by Syria and Iraq in the shade. It would also force the labile Erdogan government, which has trumpeted support for oppressed Muslims abroad for some time now, to take up the cause of the Crimean Tartars currently threatened by Russian nationalism. The ripples of Putin’s actions, and the west’s appeasement of them, are felt as far away as Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serb separatists have been emboldened by the prospect of Russian backing to step up their demands.

In order to explain how we got here we need to go back to the immediate post-cold war settlement. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Putin described about a decade ago as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, led to the independence of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic states and the Caucasian and central Asian republics. In effect, it reduced Russia to its territorial limits at the start of the reign of Peter the Great in the late 17th century. It was he who seized the Baltic provinces and broke through to the Black Sea. His successors expanded further in all directions, including Crimea, which was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783. The loss of these territories, and particularly Ukraine, was a severe blow to the Russian psyche. The trauma was aggravated by western mistakes in recommending neoliberal shock therapy for Russia and generally not doing enough to support the democratic transition there. So, once the brief honeymoon with the west ended, Russia’s leaders set about trying to recover their influence in the post-Soviet space, frequently referred to as the “near abroad”.

Various economic and political association agreements were signed with Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other neighbouring states throughout the 1990s. Moscow’s project soon ran up against the eastward “double enlargement” of the EU and Nato. Unlike the Kremlin’s schemes, this was – as the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad once put it – very much “empire by invitation”. The newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe were desperate to join “the west”, for cultural, economic and especially for security reasons. Moscow was at first relatively relaxed about the expansion of the EU, much less so about Nato, which it still regarded as a hostile alliance. There was initially considerable scepticism in London and Paris about the wisdom of provoking Moscow by extending Nato to the former German Democratic Republic, let alone Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The strongest advocate of the move was Germany, which wished to have a Nato partner on her eastern border as a buffer. Berlin was then willing to ride roughshod over Russian sensitivities in order to secure her own borders. She was absolutely right to do so, because the space “between” would otherwise have been filled with uncertainty and instability, as the terrible example of Bosnia further south showed. In the 15 years or so after the collapse of communism, the EU and Nato expanded eastwards to include not only Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, but Slovakia, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Romania as well.

The west’s mistake lay not in advancing so far so quickly, but in not advancing far enough. Rather than thinking in terms of neutral buffers, a permanent invitation to instability, it should have sought a clearly defined border with Russia. The US was sympathetic to such an enlargement into Ukraine, but then the Germans and the French intervened. In advance of Nato’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, Chancellor Merkel insisted that no state with pre-existing disputes should be admitted to the collective security cover of the alliance. This was directed primarily against Georgia, which had lost control of large parts of its territory to Russian-backed separatists, but also at Ukraine, which was deeply divided between a “European”-oriented west and a Russian-leaning east of the country, or so it seemed.

It was an odd requirement from the leader of a state, the Federal Republic of Germany, which had once benefited intensely from Nato protection even as it maintained a (justified) claim against a neighbouring state, the “German Democratic Republic”. The chancellor’s move signalled to Moscow that Europeans were sceptical about bringing Ukraine into the fold. Germany, having used the Nato ladder in the cold war and immediately afterwards, now pulled it up behind her.

Over the past few years, Vladimir Putin has moved steadily into the vacuum the west refused to fill. In October 2011 he announced the launch of a new, “many-tiered, multi-speed integration process in the post-Soviet space”, primarily designed to bring Ukraine more closely into his orbit. Putin’s language explicitly mimicked that of the rival EU. He spoke of “adapting the experience of the Schengen Agreement” to secure freedom of travel, noting that “it took Europe 40 years to move from the European Coal and Steel Community to the full European Union”. The instruments here are economic, but the aims geopolitical. Putin’s objective is nothing less than to create what he calls “a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union”, a “powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world” alongside the EU, China and the United States. What he is driving at, in short, is not the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, still less world
hegemony, but a Russian-dominated Eurasian commonwealth, which would give him some kind of global parity with the other world “poles”.

The problem is that Putin’s ambition can only be achieved through the subjugation of neighbouring countries, in flagrant disregard of western values and interests. Late last year it led Moscow to coerce or bribe Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovych into abandoning plans for closer association with the EU, a move that provoked the protests leading to his downfall. Even if we were to be brutal “realists” and throw the Baltic and eastern European states to the wolves, they would not all submit meekly. The western and central Ukrainians may fight, even unaided, if Putin tries to invade them, too. The Poles will resist under all circumstances, and may not wait for the threat to come to them. Indeed, failure to resolve the Ukrainian crisis might well lead to a unilateral Polish intervention further down the line and another huge crisis that would ultimately drag in Nato whether it liked it or not. We saw the bankruptcy of a narrow “national interest” realism over Bosnia in the 1990s, when the west was eventually compelled to use force though it had said for years that it would do no such thing. This sort of “realism” is not very realistic.

Besides, Europe needs to recognise Putin’s gamble not merely as a challenge but as an opportunity. History shows that successful unions have usually come about in the face of powerful external threats. In 1707, for instance, the English and the Scots came together to form the United Kingdom in order to repel the absolutist expansionism of Louis XIV. In 1787-88, the Americans did the same to prevent their young republic from being swallowed up by a hostile world. In both cases, the establishment of a strong executive, common representative institutions responsible for the common debt, and a robust military created states that have proved extraordinarily resilient on the world stage.

The eurozone should therefore move to the establishment of a cognate polity with an elected presidency, Union-level representation, a consolidated debt and a single army. This is the only way of mobilising all the energies of the common currency area for wider European projects, such as saving the euro and containing Putin.

It may be objected that the differing European interests make such a state impossible, witness Poland’s objections to the intervention in Libya in 2011, Mediterranean indifference to what is happening in Ukraine and Germany’s reluctance to do anything much, anywhere. Let us recall, however, that the Americans sought full political union precisely because they feared that the varying strategic and economic concerns of the individual states would set them at odds with each other and deliver them back into the hands of Britain or some other European empire.

Why, the founding fathers asked, should New Yorkers worry with Georgians about the Spanish threat to the South, or the Southerners with New Englanders about the British in Canada, or the inhabitants of the interior about the depredations of the Barbary pirates, unless they had truly national institutions to articulate a national interest? Likewise, only a single national security establishment will enable, say, the Spaniards to think about Putin and the Poles about North Africa. Above all, a single state would enable, or compel, the Germans – now nestling snugly within a buffer of friendly Nato democracies – to act strategically in defence of Europe as a whole.

In the meantime, the eurozone must join with Great Britain and the United States to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the entire national territory, or at least to exact such a high price from Moscow that it desists from further expansion. The first step must be “target-hardening” along the entire eastern rim of the EU, and its friendly borderlands. Substantial trip-wire armoured forces from robust Nato countries such as the US, UK and France should be stationed in Poland, the Baltic states and Romania. Europe’s energy will have to be sourced elsewhere, perhaps from shale gas in the US or Europe. The entire Russian elite should be subjected to a comprehensive transatlantic “super-Magnitsky Act”, based on the legislation passed by the US Congress to punish those involved in the death of a Russian tax lawyer investigating corruption, which will restrict their travel and access to bank accounts. All investment and trade with Russia, especially in arms and technology, should cease until it withdraws from occupied territories in Ukraine. In order to sustain this effort, Europe must embark on a comprehensive campaign of moral and military rearmament.

All this will require sacrifices, including much higher defence expenditure, econo­mic dislocation for thousands of large and medium-size enterprises that trade with Russia, and perhaps also higher energy bills. In the UK it will entail tackling the “Russian lobby” – a nexus of oilmen, estate agents, fund managers, bankers and independent schools, as well as the lawyers, advisers and politicians who service them. Britain can be trusted to do this under its own steam. In the early 19th century it cast off the powerful “slave interest”, which reached much more deeply into society, economy and politics, and banned the international slave trade. As the author of a fine biography of the leading abolitionist William Wilberforce, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, knows this better than anyone else. Whether Germany, the other major dependant on Russia, can rouse itself from its torpor, or move beyond its economic self-interest, is more doubtful. This is another reason to see it safely bound into a single eurozone state.

In Ukraine itself, we should deploy a substantial Nato force into western and central regions of the country to deter further aggression. We should look favourably on requests for huge economic support, which should not be subject to the usual IMF conditionalities, and military aid. Nato and EU membership should be fast-tracked for the parts of Ukraine under the control of the legitimate government in Kyiv. The intermediary end-state here may be partition, with a dividing line running through the country, and perhaps even through cities such as Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. If so, we must ensure that, as in the cold war, western and central Ukraine become a showcase for western prosperity and stability, while the annexed territories remain mired in the poverty, repression and backwardness that will characterise Putin’s Eurasian Union.

It is often said that we should not humiliate the Russian leader or “back him into a corner”. In truth, our weakness, not our strength, has encouraged him to put himself in that corner of his own free will. We need to ensure that the Russian people know he will lose, that he is in fact humiliated. The Crimean war against tsarist Russia is controversial for the incompetent way in which it was fought. What is often forgotten, however, is that Russia was roundly defeated, an outcome that led directly to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This is a precedent that Mr Putin, and those who resist resisting him, would do well to ponder.

The looming confrontation with Russia is best understood, however, not as a repeat of the past but as the beginning of something new: a European (cold) war of unification. Waging it successfully will consolidate the eurozone, just as the contest with France made Great Britain, and the American project in the world made the United States. Conversely, failing to take up the challenge, or doing so incompetently, may damage the European project beyond repair. History is littered with defunct polities that failed to cohere in the face of a powerful external threat, such as the Holy Roman empire and, most relevantly here, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Europe will not prevail simply by virtue of what it is. It will also finally have to do something.

So what is it to be? Will the challenge from Putin’s Russia unite Europeans today, or will it drive them further apart, perhaps irreconcilably? Will the Union meet the threat by expanding east until it hits natural geographical or impermeable political borders? Will Ukraine be admitted to the European Union and Nato to end instability and forestall its absorption by Moscow? Above all, will the EU become a more cohesive international actor, particularly in the military sphere? Will its army and navy serve as the “school of the Union”? Will the Ukrainian revolution and our defence of it become the first “lieu de mémoire” of a new continental narrative? Will we recognise, as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told a crowd in Kyiv, that the Ukrainians were the first to “die clutching the blue flag of Europe” in their hands?

Or will Europeans duck these challenges, retreat into themselves and even split apart? Will the Ukrainian crisis then join that long list of points at which the integration project failed to turn towards the creation of a single state capable of defending its values and interests? If that happens, history will judge the European Union an expensive youthful prank that the continent played in its dotage, marking the completion rather than the starting point of a great power project. 

Brendan Simms’s “Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy (1453 to the Present)” is newly published in paperback by Penguin (£10.99)

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?