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Head boy adrift: Cameron, Farage and the crisis of conservatism

The Conservative Party is in a state of deep uncertainty. Since the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip it has been accused of being on the verge of a split, but that, in fact, has already happened.

Out on a limb: Cameron has cut himself off from core Conservative voters and is increasingly isolated. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It always used to be the case that the party conference before a general election was a time of uplift, real or imagined, for the Conservative Party. Even in the depths of misery – in 2000, say, or in 2004 – the party has shown an alarming capacity for self-delusion, deploying all that outdated tripe from the age of deference about the secret weapon of loyalty. There is little reason to suspect that this year’s events will be any different, given the level of delusion that appears to be afflicting the Conservative leader himself, and despite his embarrassments about Scotland, in failing to understand the realities of the issue, panicking when he did and almost certainly offering more than his backbenchers will allow him to deliver.

“Birmingham will partly be about celeb­rating what we have achieved with the economy,” a Tory MP tells me. “Our strongest suit is that Miliband and Balls don’t have a policy on it that makes sense.

“We inherited an economy in ruins and it’s no longer like that. Our unemployment is two-thirds of France’s, where they run a Miliband policy. But we have trouble on other fronts.”

Those fronts are, after the Scottish episode, what to do about England; what to do about Europe, especially its open-borders immigration policy; and what to do about the internal health of the party. “Some colleagues have lost a quarter of their members since the last election,” another MP tells me. “They mostly left over gay marriage and they aren’t coming back.

“Cameron said the issue would be forgotten by the election, but it bloody well isn’t. He had no mandate to do it and people won’t forgive him.”

The Conservative Party is in a state of deep uncertainty. Since the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip it has been accused of being on the verge of a split, but that, in fact, has already happened. Even if Tory MPs more conventional than Cameron have not formally turned against him, many have turned in their hearts. They have watched the haemorrhage, over the past four years, of activists from their constituency associations, people who have abandoned the party over disillusion with its policies and its failure to be more robustly and unapologetically conservative. They have become annoyed by what a former activist calls the “cringe” the party now routinely makes every time it is accused of being out of step with the centre-left consensus. Nowhere was this better seen than in the last-minute panic over Scottish independence, which culminated in Cameron’s much-derided “vow”, but that was not the only example. They have become frustrated by their leader’s fundamental disengagement from the real issues that affect their constituents – immigration, the lack of social mobility and the torturously slow economic recovery. When even tribal Tories become fed up with their leader – and many of them are even more disillusioned with him than their parents were with Ted Heath – the party ought to be getting worried.

Ministers still talk of how their party can win the election next May. There is the odd pessimist, but they mostly keep their own counsel. An older MP, no admirer of Cameron but tribally loyal to the party, regards many members of the 2010 intake as “flaky”. Outside the payroll vote, both in the Commons and in the Lords, gloom is more widespread. “We all underestimated Ukip,” a former minister and Cameron loyalist tells me. “It’s not just his fault.” Those fed up with Cameron – and there is quite a contingent now in the parliamentary party – point out that he didn’t help matters by piling insults on Ukip voters, many of whom often still voted Tory when it mattered. Some would like him to get on and conclude a pact with Ukip, but one of his friends asks: “How can you do deals with people you have called fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists?” Some people would begin by saying sorry, but Cameron doesn’t do sorry.

Part of the unhappiness is prompted by a doubt about how far he understands the mood of the party and the difficulty of its prospects, and how far he is thinking of the lecture circuit, or the merchant bank, or wherever he will consolidate his fortune when politics is over for him. His friends insist that, even if he manages to remain Prime Minister after next May, he’ll be out at midterm in the next parliament. Cynics regard this as his insurance policy against having to explain to Angela Merkel that Britain has voted to leave the European Union in a referendum that took place solely because his party forced him into it.

The criticism of his team in Downing Street, strident a year ago, has been muted a little by the effect of Lynton Crosby. The Australian pollster was welcomed by many backbenchers who knew about his grasp of populism. It is felt he has succeeded a little in getting Cameron and ministers to concentrate more on the issues that they believe voters really care about; but many MPs were shocked at the extent to which this unelected import influenced the July reshuffle, and particularly his role in Michael Gove’s defenestration. “Gove’s sacking was crass,” a backbencher tells me. “To be the enemy of the National Union of Teachers is a badge of honour. What we did to Gove was just appeasement.” However, a former minister says: “I don’t care what Crosby does so long as he wins us the next election.” MPs still feel that Cameron’s communications director, Craig Oliver, is second-rate and that the effective chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, tells the Prime Minister too much of what he wants to hear. The party chairman, Grant Shapps, is felt to be more invisible than any chairman in living memory has been this close to an election. “He’s a complete lightweight,” a senior MP tells me. “He’s out of the loop and the big decisions are taken without him.”

Two factors are operating in Tory hearts and minds to prevent complete meltdown, but both are precarious. The first is the conviction that Ed Miliband is held in such contempt by the British people that, come what may, they will not vote for him to be their prime minister next year. His performance in the Scottish referendum campaign, in Labour’s heartland, reinforced that. Some Tories make a comparison with Neil Kinnock, and it is not intended to flatter. The second is the notion that all those former Tories who voted for Ukip in last year’s local government elections and this year’s European elections have “made their point”, and will be back en masse to do what is expected of them next May.

Miliband is certainly getting bad read-outs on his economic ideas, and if the pound in your pocket is to be the main factor at the election – which it could be – then he may struggle with that large, middle-class contingent that Tony Blair persuaded to come over to the Labour Party, and that is needed again. Whether, after recent events, he is a more comical, less credible figure than Cameron is a matter that will be keenly debated. Like her or loathe her, Mrs Thatcher was a politician on another planet compared to Neil Kinnock; Messrs Miliband and Cameron are altogether better matched, and neither is beyond being identified with disaster and failure.

The Ukip question is the thornier one. I know too many lifelong Tory voters (and even Tory activists) who say they will vote for the party come what may next year, to buy the line that they have all “made their point”. The point they wish to make – that the Conservative Party is insufficiently conservative – will for many of them not be made until Cameron has been punished for his apostasy, much as the Powellites punished Heath in February 1974, even to the point of bringing in a Labour government. One particular line of Tory delusion is that Ukip wants an in/out referendum on Europe, and yet it seeks to remove from office the only person who has promised to provide one and who stands a reasonable chance of being in a position to do so. As far as many Ukippers are concerned, the remedy for that is in Cameron’s hands: he can offer an electoral pact to them and everybody will be happy. But as lead delusionist, Cameron does not believe that such a pact is necessary, because he is sure the Ukip vote will shortly evaporate.

Much has been made, since he became leader nearly nine years ago, of David Cameron’s privileged background. Perhaps too little has been made of the extent to which he shares the characteristics of the last public-school-educated generation to run the party – the Edens, Homes and Macmillans. Then, the watchword (popularised by Macmillan) was “unflappability”: a good Tory leader, or even a bad one, never let it be thought he had made the slightest mistake, never apologised, never explained. A man who was never leader of the party – Rear Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles MP – famously said, at a sticky moment for the party: “Pro bono publico, no bloody panico.”

Until the flap over the Scottish referendum, it seemed Cameron was cut from exactly that cloth; but then the panico in the last days of the campaign was precisely because of the suave, insouciant reluctance to be bothered by the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom until it seemed about to happen. If the Tory party were a band, it would have been playing “Nearer, my God, to thee” at that precise moment.

Douglas Carswell (left) unsettled the Tories by jumping ship on 29 August. Now he intends to becomes Ukip's first MP. Photo: Olli Scarff/Getty

The iceberg has been averted – just. Had it been hit, the party conference would have become a desperate showcase for a leader urgently having to prove to his party, and to those in the country who could be bothered to take notice, that he was still fit to hold his job. Instead, there will doubtless be an attempt to pretend that nothing is amiss, that it is business as usual, and that the party will sail ahead united and untroubled into an election campaign for which this conference season has been the first launch.

The problem for Cameron and his party is that it is already too late for that. The old toff unflappability cons no one any more, because the deference required to be taken in has long gone. The political sixth form at Westminster, former research assistants and apparatchiks to a man, is widely despised by the voters. It is all the worse for Cameron than for the others because of his abundant lack of humility, and the Bullingdon Boy picture that lurks in the back of too many people’s consciousnesses.

Ed Miliband may seem weird and Nick Clegg thick and duplicitous, but David Cameron has something far worse than that against him, namely his innate born-to-rule arrogance.

Now the Scottish diversion is over, the Tories must concentrate on fighting an election in just over seven months’ time. That a split in the party has already happened was evident not just in Douglas Carswell’s departing his safe Tory seat in Clacton for Ukip, possibly turning it into a safe Ukip seat in the process. It has been evident, too, in the scores of Tory MPs who have hinted they will be happy to state in their election addresses that they will campaign for a No to Europe vote in an in/out referendum, in the hope that they will not face a Ukip challenge. As things stand, they may just have to grin and bear it, because there is no sign of any sort of pact – yet. That may, of course, change after the Clacton by-election result on 9 October, especially if any other MPs are tempted to do a Carswell. However, had David Cameron read any history – and given that he thinks America fought with us in the Battle of Britain, he probably hasn’t – he would remember the outcome of the pact between Ramsay MacDonald, then secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, and Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal chief whip, in 1903 to allow some Labour candidates a clear run at the 1906 election, in return for Labour not fighting seats where the Liberals could beat the Tories. Within 20 years the Liberal Party was all but dead, and MacDonald was sitting in Downing Street.

The most serious allegation Carswell had to level against his former party leader when he defected in late August was that Cameron was “not serious” about change in Europe. He could have gone much further, without hyperbole, and said it was hard to detect any subject at all about which Cameron is particularly serious, except continuing to fulfil his student politician fantasy of being prime minister. The state of permanent chillax – as Harold Macmillan would not have called his distant successor’s pose of unflappability – also betrays a detachment from the serious issues that Cameron ought to be confronting on behalf of the country. Macmillan, too, had that detachment, which led to him having rings run round him in the Profumo affair, driving him out of office a few months later. Some Tory MPs – especially those who have worked in the private sector – comment on what short hours Cameron puts in. His recent bout of holidays, just as the Middle East went critical and Russia seemed about to invade eastern Europe, was Cameron to a tee, and his Scotland humiliation was but the first and most obvious consequence of it. If we didn’t know he loves power so much for its own sake, we’d think he’d given up.

Because of his arrogance, Cameron believes what he wants to believe and not what it is rational for him to believe. When he was leader of the opposition he thought he could repudiate the Treaty of Lisbon once he became prime minister, and repeatedly said so. Then, one day, enough senior diplomats told him that he couldn’t, because it was locked in to all the other European treaties Britain had signed since it concluded the Treaty of Brussels in 1972; that he had no choice but to believe them. In his bizarre reshuffle in July he dispensed with the services of Dominic Grieve, a serious and accomplished lawyer, as attorney general – apparently because Grieve persisted in telling him that he could not dispense with EU human rights laws without leaving the EU. Now that Cameron is Prime Minister he doesn’t have to change his mind, he just sacks the person who disagrees with him.

What used to be the Conservative-voting public – millions of them now appear to be the Ukip-voting public – is obsessed with Europe for one reason alone, and that is not (as is often represented) whether human rights laws allow Britain to deport people to countries where they might be tortured or face execution. It is because the EU allows the unlimited immigration of people from economically deprived countries in Europe. The voters believe these people take jobs that the indigenous working class would be happy to do (though the evidence for that is scarce), that they make an immediate claim on public services for which they have not made a contribution through their taxes (easier to prove) and that, in some cases, they behave in a way the indigenous population finds culturally offensive. “There has to be a firm policy on immigration before the election or we haven’t got a prayer,” says a senior Tory MP. “You should come on to the doorsteps and hear what people say about it. It can’t be fudged any longer.”

This is the key issue upon which Cameron has failed to make common cause with his party, which now widely finds his occasional bursts of rhetoric on the subject downright dishonest. But there are others. For reasons rooted in cynicism, Cameron pushed through same-sex marriage. The grass roots of his party overwhelmingly opposed it. For doing so, they were accused of homophobia. Doubtless in some cases that was true. In many others it wasn’t. Anyone who knows the Conservative Party knows that for decades it has included a proportion of homosexual members that probably exceeds the proportion of homosexuals in the population. They are not just in parliament, but in the salaried organisation and the constituency parties, and they have been for as long as most can remember. For most Tories their sexuality is an irrelevance. The opposition was grounded in four things: first, many thought the term simply shouldn’t be applied to same-sex couples for logical reasons, as it had only ever been applied to heterosexual couples; second, it was viewed as cynical pandering to the agenda of the militant left; third, there were many worse things wrong with the country that required not just the time, but the goodwill of Tory MPs, to get through; and fourth, Cameron had no mandate to do it. That goodwill is in short supply in the Commons now, and even shorter in the emaciated constituency associations. As usual, Cameron didn’t consider the consequences.

Yet, for all that, it is far from a delusion to suppose the Tories could, if not win the election next year, end up as the largest party in a hung parliament. Some of the uncertainties that afflict the Tories also afflict Labour. In areas heavily populated by the white working class, notably along the Thames Estuary and in other parts of the south-east, Ukip is making more inroads into the Labour vote than into the Tories’. Ed Miliband is not popular with the general public, nor is he viewed as especially effective. He has no entrée with the middle classes of the sort Tony Blair had. He has no compelling narrative about the economy – the Tories can at least point to a record of growth, lower unemployment and some attempt to get the deficit under control compared to the mess they inherited in 2010.

“I’ve got white working-class constituents who’ve always voted Labour, but they won’t be voting for Miliband but for Ukip, because they feel he couldn’t care less about them,” a backbencher said. “So the results could be pretty random.”

“If we engage in fratricide at Birmingham we’re writing our own death warrant,” another MP told me. “But when it’s over we’re going to have to deal with a constitutional crisis. There’s going to be a lot of trouble over Scotland, and it will go back to Cameron’s poor judgement in allowing such a long campaign and then panicking at the end of it.” With numerous MPs now intimating they will never vote for the fulfilment of Cameron’s “vow”, more will follow, and the battle over that must not be underestimated. If there is a sense of calm at Birmingham it will be entirely artificial, and it will come before the storm. 

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail. His latest book is “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (Random House, £30)

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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