Salisbury: Jeremy Corbyn got it right

By Mike Phipps

One more bit of history was re-written this weekend as another Labour politician validated the Tory tabloid media’s misrepresentation of Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Russia. This time it was Labour frontbencher Lisa Nandy, appearing on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

“We got it wrong on Russia when the Salisbury attack happened,” she said. “We should not have equivocated or prevaricated.” She added: “We weren’t just failing to be tough on the Russian authoritarian regime… we also let the Tories off the hook for being too complacent.”

Let’s just remind ourselves of the statement Jeremy Corbyn issued at the time of the poisoning by nerve agent of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in March 2018. He said: “The attack in Salisbury was an appalling act of violence, which we condemn in the strongest terms. The Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence and our response must be both decisive and proportionate.”

It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn – although he might have felt entitled to do so – who drew a parallel with the UK’s own extra-judicial killings, in the Middle East. It was Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins who asked the question “Nerve gas in Salisbury, drones in Syria: is there a moral difference?” In an article under this heading, Jenkins highlighted how a British citizen – and two years later, his wife and twelve year old son – were killed by an RAF drone for “orchestrating and inciting” terrorism, although none of them were ever tried.

What Jeremy Corbyn did do was to express his support for a rules-based approach to such activities. To jeers from the Tory benches, he explained the government’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government and ensure that High Resolution Trace Analysis be conducted on the nerve agent so as to establish where it was produced.

Tory media outlets at the time fulminated against Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lack of patriotism. How it contrasted with the supposed wisdom of the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who said, “Russia should go away and shut up.”

Unsurprisingly, the media at the time passed over in silence the fact that the Conservatives had rejected calls from the widow of the assassinated Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko to pay back more than £820,000 donated to the Tories by Russian-linked businesses since the summer of 2016.

At the time of the Salisbury poisoning, John McDonnell proposed imposing sanctions on Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations and denying their access to the UK. Again, the Tories have rejected financial sanctions in the past – a fact which may have emboldened Putin’s regime – but McDonnell’s proposal remains an effective way of tackling terrorism and organised crime. The UK is the centre of the world’s largest network of tax havens and a magnet for dark money – unsurprisingly, given how few people have been prosecuted for tax evasion since supposedly tougher measures were introduced in 2017.

As Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy could have been tearing lumps outs of the government over its ineffectiveness in dealing with UK companies – including arms manufacturers – which seek to help Russia get round existing sanctions.  Instead, and rather shamefully, she chose to add her voice to the chorus of misrepresentation of Jeremy Corbyn’s principled stand in defence of international law.