Friday, 21 January 2022

Securing the right to self-determination


Not long after Thatcher won the 1979 election, the Tories’ support in the opinion polls took something of a dive, and Labour were ahead, sometimes well ahead, for most of 1980, 1981, and early 1982. In April 1982, the UK went to war against Argentina to restore the UK’s control over a colonial possession, and the Tories took a clear lead in the opinion polls which took them through the 1984 election and beyond. War was good for the Tories’ fortunes.

Whether sabre-rattling over Ukraine will assist the current Tory PM out of his difficulties remains to be seen; we can only hope that even Johnson is neither mad enough nor desperate enough to start a war with Russia. Whilst it’s true that a corrupt kleptocratic regime partly funded by crooked Russian billionaires poses a direct threat to the UK’s citizens, it is far from clear that Russia poses the same degree of threat. The biggest danger to the wellbeing of the people of these islands is a great deal closer to home.

Throughout the Cold War, the line which we were sold in the West was that it was a conflict between two ideologies. The idea that it was about freedom vs communism was always over-simplistic (Marxist purists might argue that it was more a case of market capitalism vs state capitalism, which is more a difference of method than ideology), but there is no question that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a capitalist country. Repressive, certainly. Corrupt, unquestionably – although the UK isn’t currently exactly a paragon of virtue on that score. Yet despite the increasing alignment of economic systems, the hostility remains. It tells us that, for all the talk about ideology and freedom, the stand-off between Russia and the Western powers is just a continuation of centuries of rivalry between the big powers – as it was, in fact, throughout the cold war. And the dispute over Ukraine is reminiscent of disputes of the past about different spheres of influence. Ukraine is little more than a pawn in the game.

One element of the dispute, as pointed out by Simon Jenkins – although the extent to which it is really the cause of the dispute rather than a pretext for grievance is another question – is the situation in the east of Ukraine where there are a majority of Russian speakers. They are seeking a greater degree of autonomy, but the muscular unionists (to coin a phrase) in Kyiv have refused to implement the Minsk II settlement which would have granted a degree of autonomy, as well as the outcome of a referendum in 1994 which would have made Russian the language of administration in Donbas, insisting instead on Ukraine remaining a unitary state using a single language. Some independentistas will have difficulty knowing which side to support as a result: should we support the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine when threatened by a large and aggressive neighbour, or should we support the right of the people of Donbas to govern themselves? For those of us who believe that the people living in any area have the right to determine their own future, the answer is clear. What is a good deal less clear is how those people can be given a meaningful opportunity to express their wishes in a free and fair vote. One of the few certainties is that war will not resolve that question. And I doubt that an unwinnable war with Russia will do much for Johnson, either.


Anonymous said...

'For those of us who believe that the people living in any area have the right to determine their own future, ...'

But how big or small must that area be? Or what size of population must it encompass. And then what happens to that area/all the people who disagreed? Do they just have to lump it?

This is the problem with Scottish independence and is precisely why it will never happen.

John Dixon said...

"But how big or small must that area be? Or what size of population must it encompass." That's a silly and meaningless question. There are no rules nor could there ever be. Independent states can be whatever size they like.

"...what happens to that area/all the people who disagreed? Do they just have to lump it?
This is the problem with Scottish independence and is precisely why it will never happen."
That's actually a good question, but do you really not understand that it's a double-edged sword? It applies to what currently exists in the same way that it applies to what might exist; you are, effectively, bestowing a primacy on current structures regardless of how they were arrived at and whether or not they enjoy continued consent. It's true that, in the event of a vote for Scottish independence, there will be a significant minority who reject the idea - let's say the vote is 55%:45%, for example. But the last vote went the other way by precisely that margin, meaning that there is a significant minority who rejected the continuation of the union. You seem to be arguing that if the vote goes in favour of the status quo, people must 'lump it', but if it goes the other way, it should be invalidated. That's a very one-eyed approach to determining the will of the people.

I don't seek to detract from the scale of the problem; and I suspect that many independentistas have not really thought through the difficulties for a state whose existence is opposed by some 45% of the population. But neither, it seems have many unionists; they are facing the same situation in Scotland today and are zig-zagging between trying to ignore it and trying to impose their view. Ultimately, the answer to your question is that it depends on more than obtaining a simple majority for one option or the other on a specific day - it depends on the consent of the minority - or most of them at least. That consent has to be worked for; it cannot be simply imposed. Part of it depends, obviously, on an acceptance that the process followed is democratic and fair, but it would be a mistake for either side to believe that a simple vote is the beginning and the end of the matter.

Jonathan said...

Interesting problem which does bear on Wales. Point 1 is borders. The problem which you get in Ukraine and Central Europe is the lack of clear geographic borders. So people like the Huns, Napoleon, Hitler etc can and do invade though they then have to travel enormous distances. Ukraine has no clear border. Wales does. Its even legally recognised and respected in practice. It is an important advantage. Wales can say to an anti-Indy cohort in Wales "Wales is a defined area with 3m people, you anti-Indys seem to be x% of our 3m. We will hold some votes and may the best man win, by a majority." What we need is a coherent case for Indy, persuade a majority and then actually organise, and win, the vote. Our set border and settled legal system give us this course. Not that Wales has done that well in arguing for Indy.
Ukraine doesn't seem to have a clear border or a settled legal system. The old C.Europe habits of using force and dodgy referenda and fighting dirty seem to be dominant. Applying my own logic, I suppose the Ukraine could write off Donbas and declare that the Ukraine will consist of the west of the country, and join NATO and the EU with clear support, and no right for Russia to intervene. Don't like this though. I would not like Wales to lose Powys or Gwent or NE Wales (say) in this way. And I suspect that Russia would not allow W.Ukraine to join NATO or the EU. Because what happens in Central Europe is dictated by how Russia projects influence beyond its very porous borders. Simply shifting the official border west a bit won't help.

John Dixon said...

I agree with almost all of that - large countries whose borders pass through sparsely populated areas will always have a certain lack of clarity about the precise line, whatever the official maps might say. And 'controlling those borders', to coin a phrase, is far from easy. I'm not entirely sure that the old habits of "using force and dodgy referenda and fighting dirty" are restricted to Central Europe ; surely most current European borders (including those of, and within, the UK) simply mark the line where the fighting stopped at some point or another. The states created by those lines have long tried - with varying degrees of success - to impose a single national identity on those who end up living within them.

"I would not like Wales to lose Powys or Gwent or NE Wales" And nor would I. But if the people within any of those areas declared themselves (by whatever internationally-recognised means) to be a separate nation, or even a part of England, I struggle to see what the principle is which allows the rest of those living within currently-recognised borders to deny them that right. I hope it would never come to that, but it is surely incumbent on those who wish to see Wales as a single entity to convince them rather than impose the answer upon them? The parallel with Donbas is simply that - faced with a majority in an area who seem to consider themselves Russian, demanding that they change that perception and use Ukrainian as their everyday language clearly hasn't worked terribly well.

Anonymous said...

The Budapest Memorandum resulted in the Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal. The USA, UK and Russia guaranteed to ensure the borders of the new country were not compromised. This seems to have been conveniently forgotten and does not bode well for nuclear disarmament.
As to giving up the Donbas, this does sound very much like six of the nine counties of Ulster (including at least one Catholic majority county) being removed from the new Republic and incorporated into the British province of Northern Ireland.

Spirit of BME said...

I yearn for the days of black and white films when the good cowboys wore white hats, and the bad ones wore black.
I fear this incident fails this test in its entirety, the only good thing I can think of was that when the USSR collapsed the Ukraine (with a Russia friendly government) got rid its nuclear weapons that fell into its lap in exchange for all sides giving assurances of friendship and promises of security of their boarders.
Timing is everything in life, but has Putin ‘bech ’lost one card in that the West /global population reaction to events, as they are ‘covid-hardened’ to supply disruptions and restriction on human rights, which will embolden The Boy Johnson, the EU and Jr in the White House.

John Dixon said...


"The USA, UK and Russia guaranteed to ensure the borders of the new country were not compromised." I agree. But there was also the Minsk II agreement which promised a great deal of autonomy to the Donbas, and which has not been implemented. Picking and choosing which international agreements to abide by is rarely a good idea.

I take your point about the superficial parallel with the six counties. There are two big issues. Firstly, the matter of consent. Whatever the sins of the past (and there are many) the key question for the Six Counties under the Belfast Agreement is that the status of that territory into the future depends on the consent of the majority. It's an agreement which was made possible by the weakening of borders as a result of EU entry, the reversal of which is the direct cause of a renewed focus on the issue. Secondly, it's a question of perspective - those who start with a fixed definition of borders regardless of the views of those inside them see their own choice of lines on a map as inevitable and right; but few of those borders were ever drawn up by consent.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple points I would like to make. Firstly, contrary to what seems implied in some of the comments already made 'The Donbas' consists of rather more than the just the area currently in rebel hands - much if it remains in the control of the Ukrainian authorities. Secondly, Russian is a first language of many who live outside of the Donbas, including many in Kyev. Thirdly, just because you are a Russian speaker doesn't mean you consider yourself Russian and not Ukrainian. That's the sort of lazy assumption that right wing ethno-nationalist's like Putin routinely make. Fourthly, while Ukrainuan may be the sole official state language, the regions of Ukraine have been able to choose their own co-official languages (although that is admittedly a legally disputed point). To my knowledge, Russian speakers in the Donbas and elsewhere have never had Ukrainian 'forced down their throats' (to quote the complaint so often voiced by Britnats whenever any modicum of state support is provided to the Welsh language). I suspect that much of the 'oppression' of Russian speakers in the Ukraine is a figment of the Kremlin's imperialist imagination.

John Dixon said...


"'The Donbas' consists of rather more than the just the area currently in rebel hands" Yes, that's true. But part of the point that I'm making here is that getting constrained by existing or historical borders is part of the problem. The issue, ultimately, is about the consent of the people to be bound by borders simply because they exist, when what they reflect is mostly the line along which the last bout of fighting in the area ended.

"... just because you are a Russian speaker doesn't mean you consider yourself Russian and not Ukrainian"" Of course that's correct. Just as being an English speaker in Wales doesn't equate to being English. Language is just one of the many factors which people use to arrive at their own self-identity.

"I suspect that much of the 'oppression' of Russian speakers in the Ukraine is a figment of the Kremlin's imperialist imagination." And I'd like to be able to agree with that although I don't have enough knowledge of he situation on the ground. We'll only really know if the people involved are given a free and fair chance to express their opinion, something which neither side seems terribly keen on, even if it were practical in a war zone. Indeed, the original post did suggest that it may be more pretext than valid reason. What I would say, though, is that faced with a difficult negotiation with a powerful neighbour, implementing international agreements to which you've already signed up is not a bad starting point if you want to eliminate the pretext.

Jonathan said...

The pity is that in Central Europe, since time immemorial, war and politics have been conducted with such notable ferocity and cruelty. Curious (and grim) how the Wehrmacht followed the pattern and behaved so badly on the Eastern Front, but seemed to follow some sort of code eg in N.Africa, Rommel v Monty. They drew racial distinctions I suppose. I agree with Borthlas and would like to think that we in Wales could deal with our majority/minority issues in a civilised way. Though nationalists will have to work a lot harder and more convincingly than in past, if they want to win hearts and minds and votes.
Interesting discussion - Diolch i bawb