Often, when we look back at major conflicts, it is easy to view a simplified landscape in which one’s own country was clear-headed and unambiguous in the position it took.

Thus, it comes as a mild embarrassment to people to remember that less than seven weeks before Britain declared it was at war with Germany in 1939, 30,000 people gathered in central London under an enormous Union flag to cheer on the British fascist vision of Europe. They were egged on by Oswald Mosley brandishing his charismatic fiery oration. Even Britain had some enthusiastic and patriotic fascists. Had Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, succeeded, he would have found a coterie of willingly obedient lapdogs.

We ignore this history because it is inconvenient, but that is nothing especially surprising or shameful. The fundamental tenet of a nation that truly believes in liberty is that it is willing to go to war to defend the right of someone to express views that are strangely out of alignment with the national mood, however wrong one might think they are and however irksome it may feel.

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On the eve of the UK’s July 4 General election, Nigel Farage, leader of the center-right Reform party has suggested that somehow Russia was provoked into invading Ukraine, never mind that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. It is not surprising that many people find this turn of events, coming from Britain of all countries, dispiriting and unexpected.

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The crucial point to grasp is that, although Britain contains a farrago of political characters, the balance of national sentiment and thought is decidedly with Ukraine.

Why Britain supports Ukraine

A long and tortuous psychoanalytical essay could be written to explain why Ukraine can count on British support, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to express an opinion on three of them. One political, one historical, and one about international vision.

On the political side of things, Britain has a long and complicated history, but largely it has followed an arc of liberty through which, though at times meandering, it has sought to settle into a national arrangement in which a great deal of importance is attached to individual freedom, set within a framework of a collective identity and responsibility.

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For millennia, our islands, rough-hewn, cold, and home to many competing dialects and tribes, have nourished a fierce individualism. Combined with the lack of self-sufficiency caused by limited island resources, a global trading mentality has created a people largely suspicious of overwhelming power and jealous of their lands and their ability to trade whenever and with whomever they wished.

Over the centuries, monarchs have found themselves hobbled under the influence of this mentality, but nevertheless eventually part of a constitutional milieu which has effective balance. Today, we have a system of executive control that reflects this shifting authority over the ages.

Our elected leader goes to explain themselves to the monarch once a week – a form of ritual humiliation since the monarch is not only an unelected head of state, but no longer has any real executive authority anyway. It is a system of power dissipation and a means to remind our leaders that no matter how much popular support they may command, we are not impressed. In its historically convoluted and undesigned way, it is subtle. Contrary to the appearance of being outdated, it remains a strangely ingenious way to subdue the worst excesses of democracy and demagoguery noticed long ago in ancient Greece. If I was building a society on another planet, I wouldn’t take the risk of trying to assemble such a mechanism from scratch, but as the product of long political evolution, it works admirably.

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Crucially, this system reflects a national character that is not particularly inspired by any type of power, whether that be elected, hereditary, or especially autocratically imposed.

When we look to autocracies, particularly at the crass and brutal application of force against the Ukrainian people, we are repelled to our core. It offends centuries of our own hard-won efforts to secure freedoms and to reject the multiple forms of autocracy on offer.

In the 18th century, the Jacobin promise of democratic equality in France which descended into authoritarian bloodshed of the worst kind irritated us. Although we have had our fair share of socialists, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Marxism and its insistence on unyielding social laws always grated against the British sense of individualism. Its seeds fell on rough soil. Today in the 21st century, we don’t know what to make of the small mélange of nations that have supported the invasion ofUkraine, but whatever their various colors, they are all authoritarian, so no thank you.

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The historical experience

A second source of our support for Ukraine is an historical one. In the last century, we too were the underdog, facing a Nazi threat which intended to destroyour entire way of life, which demolished our cities and through it all, failed to use terror, blackmail and blind violence to subdue our instinct for freedom. Today, we witness the same in the Ukrainian people, fighting for the simple request to be left alone to nurture and build their own ideas of freedom, their own history and culture against the brazen, crude and ruthless insecurities of dictatorship.

The circumstances that give rise to these experiences are different, but our sense of horror at what has happened in Ukraine draws upon a deep empathy. One might ask why this didn’t happen earlier, for example in 2014. I suspect the answer to that, unfortunately, is that the British population were less aware of the circumstances. The full-scale invasion and its methods have awoken a spirit.

Democratic development

Then there is the third reason. Britain, like other European nations, has chosen the path of democratic development. It is true that we left the EU, and within that (in my view, sad) decision, there are tangled explanations, but broadly speaking our vision of the human future is democratic and collaborative. We want to belong to a world in which governments are accountable, law is impartial, and in which nations repudiate military wars of imperial conquest.

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This outlook on the world emerges from the history that I have mentioned, including our own experiences of empire, but it is also founded on rational political and economic principles born from our interactions with many nations, especially in Europe. A vision of a better way to manage humanity than the flexing of imperial might that characterized our past appeals to us. We find common ground with other nations that seek to secure a similar sphere of security and peace.

It is noticeable that these reasons are separated from the comings and goings of political parties. This explains why, for the British, a nation seeking to defend its freedom and its right to exist is not a partisan issue. The roots of this view penetrate far deeper into the soil than the febrile, nervous energies of present-day politics.

I think it is disappointing that our defense strategy and our relationship with Ukraine has not been a more dominant factor in this election campaign. Failure on this front will render all our political and economic visions irrelevant if a European war on a wider canvas should erupt. In that scenario, living costs, inflation and immigration will become the least of our worries. We should have clear priorities.

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Whatever the shifting sands of electoral battles and policy priorities of the political combatants, the British support for Ukraine is solid.

 

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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