If Dominic Cummings were still running No 10, would we have given up on Ukraine?

Play the “what if” history game and it is easy to see the west betraying the people of Ukraine. What if Donald Trump had won the 2020 US presidential election? You do not need to go back and read of his envious admiration of Vladimir Putin and every other quasi and actual dictator, when he is currently condemning the Biden administration for sending $40bn to Ukraine instead of putting America First.

What if Jeremy Corbyn had won the 2019 UK general election? We do not need to remember his appeasement of Putin after Russia’s nerve agent attack in Salisbury now that the great anti-imperialist has decided that a war of colonial aggrandisement by Europe’s last empire is exactly the right moment to say that he wishes to see Nato “ultimately disbanded”.

And what if Dominic Cummings still controlled Downing Street?

The answer takes us to the heart of a misreading of the past 30 years. The conventional wisdom holds that right and left were committed to liberal democracy and free markets. Their principled/complacent/ corrupt (delete according to taste) worldview was shattered by the arrival of strongman nationalist leaders in the 2010s, as if from nowhere.

Nothing comes from nowhere. The belief that democracy needs to be defended only when the system allows the right to win was there long before 2016. As was the contempt of reactionaries for liberal rights, and their conviction that the progressive elite was destroying the ethnic essence of the nation by cynically importing migrants who would vote for centre-left politicians. Resentment and paranoia stewed not only on the far right but in the supposedly elevated minds of Tory intellectuals, and pushed them ineluctably to authoritarian conclusions. As Cummings has been busy showing us.

The man who campaigned for Britain to take back control from the EU is arguing against Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state. He says the US and UK have “deliberately discouraged peace talks” – as if Putin has shown the smallest interest in withdrawing his forces. “Much of Ukraine is wrecked, thousands dead and hundreds of billions in damage,” he continues. Agreed, but who did the wrecking and killing? Cummings is too tongue-tied to say. He airbrushes away Russia’s responsibility for its crimes and then sinks lower by asserting that Russian propaganda contains more than a grain of truth. “Some” of the aid we send to Ukraine is “going to actual Nazis, as Putin claims”, Cummings opines. While actual mass murderers are indulged, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is denounced as a self-obsessed warmonger. He is “happy to escalate”. He has a “PT Barnum-feel for manipulating the media, and is loving it”.

If Cummings’s advice had been followed, no British anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles would have been sent to Kyiv, and the Ukrainian resistance would have felt their absence.

As it is, Cummings is reduced to showing us the smoulderings from the fag end of the British imperial mindset. Great powers can do as they please. We should not mention their unprovoked crimes against humanity, but acknowledge that they are right to say that, among the mounds of corpses they leave behind, are “actual Nazis”. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians and their ridiculous leader must stop escalating a conflict Russia imposed on them and accept that their fate is to submit.

Long before Trump, Conservatives were following the path that ends at the grim terminus of dictator worship. Leftwing critics of the last Labour government found it an insipid, Tory-lite affair. We would have understood it better if we had registered how fervently rightwing opinion hated Blairism. They no longer understood their country. The multiculturalism, the sexual tolerance and the very fact Labour was in power for 13 years induced disgust and a despairing willingness to embrace any white, Christian regime that proclaimed itself the enemy of liberalism. Cummings’s mentor at Oxford, Norman Stone, a decent historian until the drink did for him, ended his days penning apologias for Hungarian authoritarianism. Viktor Orbán was so impressed by the flattery that he attended Stone’s funeral. Roger Scruton, who is still regarded as a thoughtful philosopher among unthinking Conservatives, and Margaret Thatcher’s speech writer John O’Sullivan also bent the knee to Orbán in their old age. It is not only the Fox News wing of the American right that cannot decide whether it prefers Hungarian or Russian autocracy.

When they were friends, Cummings and Johnson had a fair crack at turning authoritarian theory into practice. They purged the Conservative party of critics, unlawfully suspended parliament and assaulted every independent institution that might check them. A serious government, If Dominic Cummings were still running No 10, would we have given up on Ukraine?

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