This comment piece originally appeared in Eastern Eye.
Faced with a bombed-out House of Commons after the Second World War, Winston Churchill could have had the heavily damaged, long-outgrown Victorian-era chamber rebuilt to accommodate the correct number of MPs.
Instead, it remained the same size – seating just 420 out of 650 to retain the cosy atmosphere.
I was reminded of both him and space constraints this past week when I found myself crouched in a gangway to listen to another wartime leader. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky made an unprecedented address to MPs in a Commons fit to burst for the first time since Covid distancing was first introduced.
Five hundred sets of headphones were temporarily issued on a first-come, first-served basis for the simultaneous translation. As I landed up with a non-functioning one, I was sharing an ear with Tulip Siddiq’s headset at the feet of other MPs to hear his inspiring and defiant words.
Alas, we cannot bat away Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, ever-escalating in seriousness, as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, in the way that then UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain dismissed Adolf Hitler’s burgeoning tentacles in 1939.
In an interconnected world, there’s a sense that, even though Ukraine is not an EU or Nato member, as a democratic ally, an attack on one European nation is an attack on us all.
I thought in my lifetime that the Cold War, Northern Ireland friction, fear of imminent nuclear war and apartheid had all been sorted. But in different ways and mutated forms, all appear to be concepts making a comeback.
Russian tanks rolling into streets that had been peaceful and prosperous under democratic governance for 30 years have filled us all with horror. The mounting civilian deal toll as entire towns are reduced to rubble and such obviously non-military targets stuck such as the destruction of the Mariupol maternity hospital are nothing short of war crimes committed by a psychopath.
It is easy to be wise in retrospect. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was flexing for this moment for years. Clues included the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, then the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning and fate of the Skripals in Salisbury. His nuclear capabilities and chemical weapons boasts are deeply concerning.
The average Briton has been hit by a cost of living crisis exacerbated by this war. Years of over-reliance on Russian oil and gas – which the UK is now abruptly withdrawing from – also means the price we pay at the pumps and heating our homes, already on an upward trajectory, has hit record highs.
With Ukraine known as Europe’s bread basket, the cost of grain in our supply chains will also rise. The Ukrainian refugee crisis replays British Asian trajectories of arriving to the UK penniless: for example, home secretary Priti Patel’s own parents’ journey to seek sanctuary from Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda in 1972 – except our government has been slow to act this time.
About 2.5 million Ukrainians so far have fled the war, and smaller nations like Ireland have far outstripped British efforts in housing them. A sum of £350 a month for Britons willing to take in refugee families looked to be an afterthought.
The world has marvelled at the resilience of the Ukrainians. The stiff, formal Putin appearing at his lengthy tables is the opposite of Zelensky, at home in a khaki t-shirt visiting his besieged people. The comedian turned president could have been shunted to safety – instead, he chose to remain in the capital Kyiv and face the music.
My own local Ukranian Orthodox church in Acton has always impressed me, but now, with the country under attack, many of the congregation have suffered losses. I was honoured to pay the church a visit with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, where a moving service took place. Yuri of the parish council memorably spoke of Ukraine’s place in the European family of nations. Ironically, we have just left, while others clamour to join – a process that took the EU 12 years to start with.
Let’s hope the Russian-Ukrainian bloodshed is halted soon, but, sadly, the consensus seems to be that things will get worse before they get better.