It is rare for a free society to descend into autocracy in one single step. Usually it takes time for rights to be gradually eroded and for power to become ossified in the hands of a single leader who can use all the tools of the state to intimidate opponents and make effective opposition difficult.
In Russia, for example, no one in authority has ever stood up and said that free and fair elections are cancelled along with a free press and independent judiciary. Instead, Vladimir Putin has moved slowly to tighten his grip on power day by day with a relentless determination.
Putin’s playbook: exploiting nationalism to stay in power
He has set himself up as the strong man who speaks for the ordinary Russian. Whilst around him a group of very rich and very privileged people have busily extracted every penny of wealth that they can from the country. Much of it laundered through London, with the full knowledge of the British government.
Exploiting extreme nationalist rhetoric has enabled him to remain in power for over 20 years, despite a massive gulf between the neglected drug-ridden high-rise estates that many Russian people live in, and the palaces of Putin’s friends.
That’s why he was so angry when Alexei Navalny exposed the corruption at the heart of his government, and revealed the gold bath taps in the monuments to bad taste that he and his associates have built for their own indulgence.
There’s a gulf between the behaviour of the two men, which ought to send a message to anyone about who can be trusted. Putin can lightly move between one palace and the next, negotiating profitable oil and gas deals whilst casually ordering murder squads to poison anyone who dares to voice opposition. Navalny staggers off a plane in Germany full of Novichock and yet decides to return to Russia as soon as he recovers.
Navalny has been jailed on trumped up charges and yet has the courage to go on hunger strike. Anyone who speaks up for him or demonstrates in his support, risks losing their job, their home, their own freedom or their life.
Putin’s tactics to weaken the opposition
There are rules in place in Russia that make it incredibly difficult for anyone who dares to stand as a genuinely independent candidate for public office against one of Putin’s chosen henchmen.
Opponents are attacked by tightly controlled media, but denied the opportunity to set up even the weakest of their own outlets without constant cyber attacks or false accusations of tax avoidance or corruption. Any source of information that suggests there might be a better way of running Russia than cynical extraction economics is closed down.
The bullying has reached such a pitch that it’s clear that state sponsored murder is being used as a deliberate tactic to intimidate citizens. Putin and his regime are at ease about Russian citizens knowing that those who oppose him end up dead. It helps keep people in their place.
Provoking international conflict is also something he’s entirely comfortable with. It helps him to remain in power if there’s a flare up of the situation in the Eastern Ukraine, and he’s quite prepared to provoke a crisis if it conveniently distracts attention from his own failures.
Just as it helps him to stay in power if Britain acquires more nuclear weapons and can be portrayed as a threat to the safety of Russian people that he can then claim to protect them from.
Nationalism, authoritarianism and extraction economics
Nationalism, authoritarianism and extraction economics is a dangerous combination. It is after all what gave us the Second World War. Russia has a proud record of military resistance to aggressive nationalist regimes. Putin shames that record.
All of which might appear to be a somewhat remote concern to the people of Yorkshire. Were it not for the fact that the lesson of Putin’s success has not been lost on the far right in the West.
Trump learned his politics from Putin and was always comfortable in his company. He may even have been comfortably on his pay roll, as Putin almost certainly manipulated the 2016 presidential election in his favour.
Putin also almost certainly channelled cash to the far right in Britain to help with the campaign to get Britain out of the EU. Because from his point of view, a strong European Union was a huge problem, whereas an isolated Britain squabbling with its neighbours is much easier to deal with.
Yet the biggest problem of all is how corrosive the lesson of Putin has been for Western leaders. If you dump democracy, get rid of the free press and indulge in nationalist rhetoric, you get 20 years in power and your friends get very rich.
What does this mean for the UK under Boris Johnson?
Boris Johnson and his team of cronies often criticise Putin and claim to be opposed to everything he stands for. But the similarities in their methods are chilling.
Protest in the UK is becoming increasingly illegal. It took a court order to prevent Johnson from suspending parliament. The courts were then threatened with new laws to prevent that from happening again.
Voters are to be required to bring ID to the polls with the clear intent to reduce the number of opposition votes. The BBC has been financially disciplined into cowardice and last week the Conservatives informed Channel Four that it would not be reappointing two female directors.
All of this has been accompanied by an atmosphere of cheap nationalism, open deliberate lies, and sleazy use of public office to advantage one party.
It isn’t remotely as bad as what’s happening in Russia right now. But it bears an unpleasant similarity to some of the things that happened when Putin started out. It’s therefore vitally important that we resist every step on the dangerous journey away from an open society. Before it’s too late.