Lessons from Ukraine: what if WE lost patience with politicians?

Disenchanted Britons have rioted in the past. What would it take to tip the balance today?

Crispin Black

UKRAINE is currently experiencing violent anti-government rioting. Barricades disfigure the centre of the capital, Kiev. Five protesters have been shot dead by the security forces so far. Its first post-independence president has warned that the country could be sliding towards civil war. Why? Because large numbers of people in the country want closer ties to the European Union. They thought they were on a promise to get them and now it turns out they were wrong. Viktor Yanukovych, the current president, was properly elected in 2010 and initially seemed to be heading for closer ties with the EU, until he scuppered a planned trade deal a few days before it was due to be signed last November. His decision to go instead for a £9bn bailout from Russia to prop up wobbly public finances caused consternation among westward-looking Ukrainians. Many Ukrainians have lost faith in a political process they see as dominated by vested interests and self-serving political elites, including an ineffective opposition. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the current crisis is that Yanukovych seemed to be one thing and then turned out to be another. So large numbers of them have taken to the streets - not the troublemakers you find in British riots intent on looting white goods and expensive trainers, but normal people in despair and prepared to take direct action. It's difficult to see how the tensions in the country are going to be resolved. Probably the best course of action would be to put the whole question to a national referendum but it seems unlikely to happen. The similarities to our own situation are obvious. Two major issues aside from the economy dominate UK voters' minds - immigration and Europe. My gut feeling is that in reality they are the same thing. Anti-EU feeling is being most strongly driven by a sense that we have lost control over our borders. Nature in her bounteous wisdom conferred upon us the gift of a natural barrier and checkpoint, the Channel, and most of us want to re-activate it, now. But no major political party currently represented in parliament seriously proposes re-imposing traditional border controls. Theresa May's immigration bill currently being debated in the Commons merely promises to begin to tinker at the edges. Net immigration to the UK is currently running according to the dubious official statistics at 180,000 every year. You cannot vote to stop it. For much of recorded history the inhabitants of these islands have been a famously disorderly people. Remembrances of violence are all around us. For instance, if you stroll down Threadneedle Street past the Bank of England you might ask yourself why it is that an imposing, windowless wall surrounds the bank. It looks like a fortress for a reason. In July 1780 the previous building on the site came within a few minutes of being looted and torched in the Gordon Riots, a violent reaction to the first steps towards Roman Catholic emancipation - a deeply unpopular cause then. It was made worse by the inability of Lord North's government to defeat a rebellion in the American colonies. As a result, from 1780 until 1973, Christopher Robin didn't have to go to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. He could have gone to the Bank of England where the Bank Picquet stood guard every day of the year. There were two sentry posts manned by guardsmen in scarlet tunics and bearskins, carrying weapons and live ammunition - one outside the Counting House Parlour and another outside the bullion vaults. One of the really frightening things about the Gordon Riots was that many in authority were so disenchanted with the government that individuals and institutions that could normally be relied on to preserve the King's Peace were slow to react. The Lord Mayor of London refused to mobilise the City militias as the mob attacked Catholics and their property around Moorfields. In the end, Lord North sent the army in to restore order across London. More than 250 rioters were shot dead and a similar number wounded. About 30 were tried and sentenced to death - many according to time-honoured custom being publicly hanged close to the scene of their crimes. But in the 19th Century we became, internally at least, peaceful. Perhaps the empire absorbed our national violent impulses. Generally, we have remained so with the odd hiccup. Even during the horrors of the Second World War national discipline held up. It wasn't all cheery cups of tea served up to a Vera Lynn soundtrack, however. Both Churchill and the Queen Mother were booed in the East End during the Blitz, though looting and violent disorder were rare. But what if a sense of frustration takes hold as it has in Ukraine? What if a large number of people decide that the political process can have no effect on their deepest concerns and aspirations - indeed, deliberately ignores them? History teaches us that the journey from widespread disdain for a political system to serious violence can be a short one.

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is a former Welsh Guards lieutenant colonel and intelligence analyst for the British government's Joint Intelligence Committee. His book, 7-7: What Went Wrong, was one of the first to be published after the London bombings in July 2005.