“The Ukrainians are not just defending themselves, they’re defending the whole of European democracy,” I told a packed meeting in Frankfurt, at the regional headquarters of the German trade union federation, the DGB. “Don’t be worried about Germany supplying them with heavy weapons: be proud of it.”
After the few seconds it took to translate my words, the applause felt like an emotional dam bursting in the hall. It dawned on me that although many German politicians had made the case for arming Ukraine to this audience of lifelong pacifists, nobody had given them permission to be positive about it.
It was the final night of a ten-day trip through Austria and Germany, officially to promote my book on the extreme right, How to Stop Fascism. But at every meeting, from laid-back Linz to buzzing Berlin, there was only one fascist people wanted to talk about: Vladimir Putin.
In Germany there is instinctive solidarity with Ukraine among progressives. But there is still cognitive dissonance. As in WH Auden’s poem on the outbreak of war in 1939, people “cling to their average day” – above all the politicians, in whose experience nothing has prepared them for the return of existential conflict. And it’s the same in the UK.
Waking up from war fatigue
Labour’s front bench and many of its backbenchers have risen enthusiastically to the practical challenge of the Ukraine crisis: backing the government on the supply of arms and getting ahead of the Tories on sanctions. But few politicians of any party are prepared to explain to their voters that we are living through the worst days of history since the Second World War, requiring everything – from energy to fiscal policy – to be reframed around the survival of the West.
We may never find the graves, or identify the bodies, of all 50,000 civilians now estimated to have been killed in the Russian siege of Mariupol. Yet nobody is really talking about them. This mass murder event defies comprehension – while vital evidence will be suppressed and destroyed by the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the scale of the horror seems to have defeated Western politicians’ capacity for language.
I know there are no votes to be gained from scaring people witless. There’ll be no votes lost, either, from letting Ukraine drift into the background, as one columnist after another succumbs to war fatigue, and attention turns to airport delays and Tory turmoil.
But a period of acute danger lies ahead – involving the threat of a European genocide, a nuclear war and mass starvation in Africa. We’re going to need politicians prepared to speak bravely, break with political routine and eschew tribalism.
Who bears responsibility?
Since fleeing Kyiv 36 hours before the war started, I’ve been reflecting hard on what journalists, including myself, could have done to prevent this catastrophe. We could have shouted louder that Putin is a totalitarian ethno-nationalist fantasising about mass death. We could have deployed more reporters to Donbas to film explosions. We could have exposed Russian and Chinese influence networks in British public life more thoroughly.
But ultimately it was down to the politicians. Not just to react to the pre-war signals, but to explain to voters that they are going to have to fight, and probably suffer economic pain, for the basic privilege of living in a democracy, with political freedom and the rule of law.
I’ve become convinced that we need – for want of a better word – a belligerent left: one prepared to rally the progressive half of society to a militant defence of democracy at home and the rules-based global order abroad, while mobilising support for radical redistribution and net zero.
When I got back from Frankfurt I did something I’ve spent my life avoiding. I sat through a Zoom interview for prospective Labour MPs, in the selection process for Stretford and Urmston – a Manchester constituency not far from where I grew up.
What happens next – contrary to popular supposition – is an exhaustive and highly democratic process, half job interview, half plebiscite. By the time you read this I may already be a footnote, not a contender.
But you can change a lot of things even by failing. The news of my being longlisted caused my Twitter timeline to be flooded with vitriol from people who think the left should be calling on Ukraine to surrender. At least they’ll hear another side of the argument.
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man