Understanding Tsarist and Communist Russia, 1855–1964

Studying an entire century of a country’s history is always going to be challenging, especially one as dramatic and complex as Russia. Include in this the different political movements and the dramas of revolution and war and it can seem overwhelming.

This article is a helpful guide to deal with the daunting nature of this period of study for the aqa history exam board and it’s based on one simple practice – breaking down each phase of the past to help you have a greater understanding of the period. We’re going to look at nine segments of Russian history and try to understand each one in its own right. So that we don’t have to consume an entire textbook in one blog post here, I’m going to give a brief overview to each section, not a detailed description. Some of these periods are longer than others, and in some short phases crucial events take place. In each period we will examine one core theme that defined the political, social and economic changes during that time. This article is based on specification content and will focus on the key events of the period. For full details of each section of the module click here.

1855-1881: Alexander II

Core theme: The tension between reform and autocracy. 

In a nutshell: Alexander II, not a natural reformer, realised that Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War was the product of its backwardness. Alexander also knew that unless serfdom was ended by the autocracy, it would end itself through peasant revolts that would consume Tsarist Russia. Alexander therefore wanted to modernise and strengthen the institutions of the Russian state (army, judiciary, education etc) and end serfdom. He wanted to do this without reforming the autocracy. Alexander’s reforms brought improvements to some areas of Russian life such as equality before the law but his halfway-house attempts to reform serfdom actually led to more unrest and anger in the countryside. Overall Alexander’s limited reforms led to greater revolutionary tensions in Russia, which in part led to his assassination in 1881. 

1881-1894 Alexander III

Core Theme: Re-establishing reaction

In a nutshell: Alexander III was a deeply reactionary Tsar and believed that his father’s reforms had been a mistake. Instead of binding the chaotic Russian empire together with reform of its institutions, Alexander sought to use Russian language, culture and Orthodox Christianity to unify the country through a policy of Russification. He also believed that the emancipation of the serfs had been a disaster and empowered the nobles to take back control of a restless countryside by creating the land captains, rural policemen (often nobles) who could harshly discipline the peasantry. Alexander’s attempts to restore what he believed had been lost under his father ended in failure, as the revolutionary tensions that were unleashed in the 1860s endured. 

1894-1917 Nicholas II

Core Theme: The incapable autocrat

In a nutshell: When Nicholas II came to the throne he inherited the problems of his father and grandfather. Unlike his forebears, however, Nicholas lacked the skills, abilities and temperament to rule. Nicholas was a weak autocrat who was dedicated to maintaining the autocracy but lacked the skill and judgement to do it effectively. In 1905 the Tsar came close to losing his throne in a revolution and was only saved by the skill of his Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Sergei Witte and the creation of the October Manifesto. In 1914 the Tsar was swept towards war and the resulting revolutionary pressures led to the collapse of the autocracy in February 1917. Note that in February the regime collapsed rather than was overthrown, the Russian Revolution happened because the state stopped functioning.

1917-1924 Lenin

Core Theme: The trapped revolution

In a nutshell: When Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, Lenin anticipated a civil war and even welcomed one, knowing that it would be ideal in order for him to institute the massive changes he wanted in Russia. A civil war would lead the introduction of mass terror and class warfare against the bourgeoisie and nobility. Lenin hoped that the revolution would spread to Europe, but by 1919 this had failed to occur. Without Germany, France and other countries falling to revolution, there was no chance that they would help Russia rapidly industrialise and escape its backward peasant society and economy. As a result, by 1921 the USSR had established itself as a powerful one party state, presiding over a mainly peasant economy, one which would need intense coercion in order to transform it into a socialist economy. By the time of Lenin’s death two policies had followed one another, War Communism, the brutal wartime control of the economy and the New Economic Policy, the limited introduction of markets into the USSR. The latter policy was introduced to stave off total economic collapse caused by the former. 

1924-1928 Power Struggle

Core Theme: Deciding the future of the USSR

In a nutshell: Lenin’s death in 1924 after three debilitating strokes had left the country directionless. Nobody was sure how long the NEP was meant to last for and the issue had divided the party. Two competing philosophies presented by different wings of the party also vied for dominance. Permanent revolution, favoured by Leon Trotsky, competed with Socialism in One Country, the approach of Joseph Stalin. Permanent revolution was the idea that spreading revolution beyond Russia’s borders was the key to achieving international socialism and subverting capitalist countries. Stalin believed that soon the USSR would face a counter revolutionary invasion (as had happened in the Russian civil war) and the building of socialism in one country through collectivisation, forced industrialisation and the creation of a huge defence industry would be the key to saving the revolution. The triumph of Stalin in the power struggle to succeed Lenin decided the outcome of this debate and the future direction of the USSR. 

1928-1941 High Stalinism

Core Theme: The brutal construction of socialism in one country

In a nutshell: Forced industrialisation could only happen in the USSR by establishing the complete control of the state over the production of food. Collectivisation was the means by which Stalin could export enough grain to buy foreign industrial machinery and also feed workers cheaply in the towns and cities. The immense violence and famines that followed also helped Stalin break what he saw as the ‘kulak’ class. Forced industrialisation and its failings were always blamed on saboteurs and class enemies; Stalin saw Russia existing in a state of siege from capitalist powers and this created conditions for revolutionary terror in the second half of the decade. Stalin saw himself in a race against time to eliminate class enemies before a future war with Germany could begin. He believed that if ‘traitors’ were not taken care of, they they would assist Germany or another foreign invader when the next war began.

1941-1953 Wartime Stalinism and Cold War

Core Theme: Changing enemies

In a nutshell: In August 1939 Stalin signed a non aggression pact with Nazi Germany and covertly assisted Hitler with his war on the west for the next two years. In June 1941, the surprise Nazi invasion of the USSR led to Stalin rapidly establishing alliances with Britain and then the USA. All three powers cooperated until 1945, defeating Nazi Germany and then Imperial Japan. From 1945 to his death in 1953, Stalin shaped the early years of the Cold War, as wartime alliances soured in 1945. Within the USSR, he reasserted control that had been disrupted by the chaos of the war, politically purging rivals and commencing a final anti Semitic purge which was curtailed by his death. The development of rivalries with Maoist China and Stalin’s involvement in the Korean War shaped the early Cold War in Asia

1953-1964 Khrushchev

Core Theme: Finding a path after Stalin

In a nutshell: Stalin had economically, politically and psychologically shaped the Soviet Union for three decades and Khrushchev needed to find a way of holding together the USSR whilst dismantling Stalinism itself. The abolition of the gulag system, the Secret Speech in 1956 and the ‘thaw’ all signalled that change was coming and some overly optimistic onlookers in Eastern Europe also hoped that it might mean the end of communism. However, Khrushchev demonstrated in his crushing of the Budapest uprising and his collaboration in building the Berlin Wall that he would defend Soviet communism. The country was still deeply scarred by collectivisation and Khrushchev’s attempts at boosting grain yields through the Virgin Lands campaign were a failed attempt at providing an alternative. 

Important Note: This blog doesn’t constitute an essay, an answer or anything that is remotely likely, on its own, to get you serious marks. It’s a framework for thinking about each phase of the course. Also, in each period studied a bunch of other social, cultural, political and economic change happened which you need to know about in depth (I’ve left most of that out here for obvious reasons).

If you found this brief guide to Tsarist and Communist Russia for AQA useful, check out the Explaining History store for modern history study guides and ebooks here

The Battle of the Atlantic

If you’re studying the Battle of the Atlantic, the most recent podcast on World War Two is a useful source of ideas and perspectives. You can access it via the link below.


The Battle of the Atlantic was a key conflict during World War II, lasting from 1939 to 1945. It was a struggle for control of the Atlantic Ocean between the Allied powers (primarily the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada) and the Axis powers (led by Germany).

The main goal of the Axis powers was to cut off the supply lines between the United States and the United Kingdom. To do this, they used submarine warfare, in which they sent U-boats (submarines) to attack and sink Allied ships using ’Wolf Packs’, to intercept convoys. The Allies, on the other hand, tried to protect their shipping with naval patrols, convoys, and new technologies such as radar and sonar.

The Battle of the Atlantic was significant for several reasons. Firstly, it was a crucial factor in the outcome of World War II. If the Axis powers had been able to cut off the supply lines between the United States and the United Kingdom, it would have had devastating consequences for the Allied war effort.

Secondly, the Battle of the Atlantic actually demonstrated Germany’s weaknesses. Germany had far too few U-boats and lacked the resources to replace crews and boats when allied anti submarine measures began to devastate the packs. In total, Germany sank just one percent of allied shipping.

Finally, the Battle of the Atlantic had a significant impact on the home front. The threat of U-boats sinking ships and the loss of lives had an effect on food supply to the United Kingdom. The battle also resulted in important technological advancements, such as the development of the sonar technology and the first computer.

Primary Sources

“The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.” – Winston Churchill

“The Battle of the Atlantic was the key to everything. It was the only campaign in which the Germans could achieve a major victory and if they had won, they would have strangled Britain. If we had lost the war at sea, we would have lost the war on land as well.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Europe

“We knew that we had to win the Battle of the Atlantic because, unless we did, there would be no operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy). The Germans would have been able to reinforce their troops in France much more quickly and in much greater numbers than we could have landed. The Germans would have been able to contain the invasion and defeat it.” – Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery

Podcast Episode: A revisionist approach to the U-Boat War

Get the book here

The Conservative Party’s War on International Law

Since the end of the Second World War, a series of overlapping institutions to which most wealthy industrialised nations were signatories to, have existed in order to ensure the continued prosperity of those in the wealthy club.

They have also existed in order to make sure some basic standards of international law were adhered to (normally ignored by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and their clients).

International agreements and United Nations conventions on genocide, human rights, the maintainance of a free press, the preservation of freedoms from arbitrary arrest were all created in the immediate aftermath of the war.

The horrors of Nazism were such that for a period of time, the victors had to allow a framework of rules that granted protections from persecution and allowed those fleeing violence and persecution a degree of safety.

It goes without saying that the major signatories to agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the USA, the UK, the Soviet Union, China, France, along with states as diverse as Afghanistan and Venezuela, have broken and ignored the document again and again.

However, since it was signed in 1949, the declaration has been the basis of human rights law and has been part of the international language of human rights. A decade later, human rights in Europe were given a far more robust legal standing with the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights, set up by the Council of Europe.

The ambitions of British Home Secretaries to become human rights abusers on an industrial scale are therefore at odds with an entire framework of international law that was built on the ashes of the Holocaust and the chaos of post war Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights, popularly seen as an EU institution (it isn’t and predates Britain’s entry into the EEC by thirteen years) has attracted the ire of the extreme right of the Conservative Party, who claim that it is a threat to Britain’s national sovereignty.

In the eyes of current Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the right of the party, sovereignty means the ability to act unilaterally in the world. It is the ability to act with impunity and the ability to ignore international law when convenient.

In the eyes of the Tory Party’s Brexiteers, the removal of Britain from the European Union should have achieved a level of absolute autonomy for Britain that it had not enjoyed since the mid 19th Century.

A new Britain, unconstrained by international treaties would be able to enjoy a renaissance, would be able to impose itself on international trade and diplomacy and act like a major player in the world of the 21st Century. 

This, so the theory went, would be the antidote to Britain’s relative decline, and would arrest the erosion in Britain’s world power. The ability to act with impunity would also mean that Britain would no longer be subject to laws seemingly drafted elsewhere, or to the inconvenient rules that prevented unilateral freedom of action.

Part of the Conservative Party’s vision for post Brexit Britain was a profound reorientation away from the rules based order of the past. It was assumed that the political and diplomatic anarchy unleashed by Donald Trump in America would last for at least two terms, and that Trumpism would prevail as the new model for countries like Britain to emulate. 

As Trump cosied up to dictators internationally in a more gratuitous and overt manner than most American presidents do, the British government under Johnson followed suit. 

Braverman’s predecessor, Priti Patel, who attempted her own parallel and illegal foreign policy whilst in Theresa May’s government (channelling international aid money to the Israeli Defence Force), came to an agreement to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The plan was to tear up the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and ignore the fact that asylum seekers have a recognised legal status in the UK.

Refugees would be sent to Rwanda, not to be processed as was suggested, but to be handed over to the Rwandan authorities where they might be offered citizenship if they were successful in applying. 

So far there have been no flights to Rwanda, the government’s first flight in October was blocked by a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, which led to Braverman’s insistence that Britain must leave its jurisdiction.

Leaving aside the fact that the entire framework for the rights of British people would be torn to shreds by this decision, the removal of this obstacle would hand some of the most desperate people in the world over to the tender mercies of one of Africa’s most brutal rulers, Paul Kagame.

Kagame has ruled Rwanda since 1994, when he came to power after the Rwandan genocide. He fought against the genocidal Hutu regime as one of Yoweri Museveni’s commanders and has been popular with western leaders, who sought to distance the culpability of the west in the genocide, ever since.

The relative silence around Kagame has been broken in recent years, with allegations that he has authorised the assassinations of political enemies within and outside Rwanda’s borders. 

It was alleged in a 2021 book, Do Not Disturb, by Michela Wrong, that Kagame authorised the massacre of Hutu people in revenge after he came to power. In the Economist magazine it was reported that: 

‘On september 20th a court in Rwanda found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of links to terrorist groups and sentenced him to 25 years in jail. His real crime, however, was to oppose President Paul Kagame. Mr Rusesabagina had been kidnapped in order to stand trial in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, in proceedings widely condemned as a travesty of justice. That has been the fate, and much worse, of many who have stood up to Mr Kagame. Mr Rusesabagina, however, is no ordinary Rwandan. A hotelier who courageously saved hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which about 500,000 people were killed, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005. A celebrated film, “Hotel Rwanda”, was based on his life. Yet his appalling treatment and the absurd sentence has scarcely caused a ripple of criticism or pushback.’

This is the country that Britain wishes to deport, permanently, asylum seekers to, and it is a hope that the extreme right of the Conservative Party keeps alive. The British government paid up from £200 million to Rwanda to take asylum seekers, a sum of taxpayer’s money that will never return from Central Africa; the main purpose of this vast expense for such dubious aims was to buy positive coverage in Britain’s most xenophobic newspapers.

It is small wonder that Braverman, who inherited the policy from Patel when Liz Truss appointed her Home Secretary, soon became the darling of that fringe of the Tories that has now openly embraced racist, fascist ideas. 

If the Conservative Party ever achieves its dream of the Rwanda policy, a British government will have handed the most desperate people in the world over to a brutal and murderous dictator. Once they are in Rwanda, the Home Office will be able to happily conclude that they have no further responsibility for their wellbeing. 

What happens next in a volatile and violent part of the world to terrified and desperate people will be something that might elicit a shrug from a British politician, but little more.

The Tsar Liberator and Russia’s Peasants

Hi folks, here’s a quick video I’ve put together for students on the long term causes of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary period that began in 1861 with the emancipation of the serfs.

Far Right Bankruptcy

It’s worth reflecting that in the past 2-3 months the following things have happened:

  • Liz Truss, Britain’s most disastrous Prime Minister has been expelled from power after a few car crash weeks at the helm.
  • Jair Bolsonaro has been removed from power in Brazil and Lula has staged an extraordinary political comeback
  • Donald Trump has been humiliated in the mid-term elections and is now seen as a pariah by swathes of his party that hoped he would be an electoral asset.
  • Elon Musk has been exposed as an incompetent charlatan, proving that billionaires are unlikely to save us from our problems and just as likely to add to them.
  • Vladimir Putin’s forces have been forced to withdraw from Kherson

It can be tempting to ascribe meaning to clusters of events, and it’s in the nature of human beings to do so. Our understanding of the world is shaped into narratives which by their very nature include some facts and exclude others. Are there some object lessons we can learn from the disparate events of the last few months without making generalisations that are to broad and too sweeping?

Perhaps. Let’s look at the failings of the global right by examining Britain, America and Brazil.

There are established links between right wing political and media forces in all three countries. One key feature of the 21st Century global right is its capacity for cross sharing techniques and ideas. The Conservative Party in Britain has a long and sordid history of supporting Latin American fascists and dictators, and it established itself as an ally of Bolsonaro from the outset, as this feature in the Tribune explains.

It is also no secret that Donald Trump was courted by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, with Truss parroting talking points from the most extreme right wing think tanks in the USA. Truss’s relationship with US think tanks has a long and inglorious history, just as her relationship with British ones does.

Bolsonaro’s dream of breaking open the Amazon for logging and cattle was one that both the Republican Party in America and the Conservative Party in the UK were comfortable with, and his wider importance as a bulwark against the left in South America made him a hugely important part of the global right.

The fact that right wing British politicians see the UK as part of some global coalition against Bolshevism suggests two things; firstly that there is a generation of ageing Tories who still think they are fighting the Cold War, and secondly that the very politicians who have engineered a collapse in Britain’s global relevance have little if any idea how diminished the UK actually is, post Brexit.

The recent defeat of Bolosonaro, the humiliation of Truss and the crushing of Trump’s ambitions in the mid-terms all suggest that appetites for the chaos and culture warring that the right in all three countries has specialised in has begun to wane

It also suggests that the right in all three countries has been incapable of anticipating this weariness and adapting to it; the current extreme right wing quasi fascist iteration of conservatism is, by design, incapable of compromise or deviation from its explicitly racist and reactionary agenda.

The right has created a cage for itself that its fully fascist forebears in the 20th Century were able to exit by establishing totalitarian control over society and eliminating the need to appeal to the centre ground. In all three countries, the right still needs moderate voters and swing voters who can be convinced by tax cuts, fear of immigration and other culture war topics.

The appeal of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, based in part on a cynicism and weariness towards politicians and the belief that if one was to be ruled by a villain, it was better for it to be an entertaining one who would fulfill the public’s hidden sadistic fantasies and enable the punishment of minority groups.

Covid, the economic crisis that came in its wake and to some extent the war in Ukraine, along with (in America) the galvanising of millions of women voters in defence of abortion rights has torn a significant chunk of swing voters away from the right wing coalitions of 2016.

The core right wing voting base has remained relatively consistent and it is very difficult to see this dwindling; the belief in conspiracy theories (great replacement etc) which fascism thrives and a sense of grievance and resentment ensure that this is a constant.

In America, whether or not Trump dwindles away into insignificance is irrelevant, as other right wing grifters like Ron DeSantis wait to take the crown. After four decades of de-industrialisation and a vociferously fascist media in the guise of Fox News, the MAGA movement was already there and Trump stumbled across it in 2016 when he ran for president in a bid to make himself a more bankable reality TV star.

There is an immense and understandable fear that the USA is one rogue president away from a dictatorship or a civil war. Another outcome is the civil cold war that is being suggested by some commentators, one where the MAGA base, irrespective of what racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic policies it is offered, exists in a permanent state of grievance and resentment.

The ability of the conservative right to whip up a sense of grievance, even when it has achieved political power is a vital part of the thought system of modern fascism; throughout his presidency, Trump frequently presented himself as a persecuted martyr, the victim of shadowy liberal forces. In this way, Trumpism felt like a constant insurrection, the last stand of ‘real Americans’ against forces threatening to sweep them away.

In Britain, it’s slightly different. The extreme right wing variant of conservatism has found its ultimate expression in Brexit, a fantasy policy led by the greatest political conman Britain has ever seen, one Alexander Boris de Pheffel Johnson.

Boris Johnson is no more, born down by his own lies and his arrogance, but his legacy lives on. The brief nightmare of the Truss weeks in government has now been replaced by the Sunak era, and we have hopped from a Tufton Street Government to a Banker’s Government (though I suspect Tufton Street still heavily features).

Now Britain will face the full fury of the economic storm it initiated in 2016. Britain is about to find out, during the second bout of austerity at the hands of the Tories, what it is like to be a poorer country.

There will be those older Brexit supporters who lent the project the last phase of their lives, either because they genuinely believed a shining economic future loomed for their grandchildren, or, more realistically, because they wanted to engage in some nationalistic cosplay and didn’t care.

For Brexit to endure, it has to be a continually popular idea forever. It is now significantly less popular than it was and it is becoming less so; despite the fact that the two main parties dare not criticise it, within the life of the next parliament the Labour Party will almost certainly break ranks and begin talks to rejoin the Single Market and the Customs Union.

The Far Right international (I suspect it is no way near as well organised and coordinated as we’re led to believe), has nothing to offer except resentment and nostalgia and, despite the prevailing cynicism in party politics, ruling parties have to offer coherent economic arguments and answers.

The right has become exhausted because it has simply operated on misdirection and lies for so long that in Britain, America and Brazil there is a slender majority still committed to the rule of law and meaningful political arguments.

Will this endure? Will democracies learn from the existential threat they have faced? Will right wing parties be able to reform themselves or will they simply collapse?

It seems unlikely that some comfortable re-establishment of the pre 2016 world will occur, and should the global right endure further losses, its full transformation to overt fascism may occur.

Ominously, Trumpist Republican Josh Hawley Tweeted on Saturday that the Republican Party was now dead, and should be replaced by a new political party. I think I can guess what he has in mind.

Talking about JB Priestley

Hi there everyone,

I had the great pleasure to be interviewed on the East Marshian Chronicles podcast recently about the writer JB Priestley and the historical context of his work. You can hear the show here:


When British corruption drops the ball

Traditionally, Britain has managed to avoid appearing to be a corrupt country, because so much of what any rational onlooker might call graft is actually legal.

The rewarding of party donors with the ear of cooperative ministers, peerages and other honours enables British politicians to be easily and cheaply bought.

This process acts as a short circuit on the democratic process, rendering votes meaningless and leaving the public with a deep and resentful belief that no matter who one votes for, nothing changes.

For five decades, Britain’s newspaper proprietors, now just four oligarchs (Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay, Lebedev) have exerted a choke hold over British politics, with politicians of both major parties desperate to prove their loyalty and worth.

When in 2015 Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn, it was Britain’s now alt-right newspapers that led the coup (along with the right of the Labour Party), to make sure he was deposed and the earth was down with salt. Among other things, Corbyn promised to carry out in full the recommendations of the Leveson Report into press standards and corruption.

During 2020, the Conservative Government and its donors acted with impunity. Contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds were issued for PPE equipment to businesses that had virtually no capital, had been set up in some cases weeks before the contracts were signed, and the normal processes of competitive tendering were ignored.

The justification for this was that during a crisis, the normal ways of doing things have to be suspended, the unwieldy state needs fleet footed capitalism to help out. The figure of the brilliant business maverick who can see what has to be done and can intervene decisively has been a popular myth in Britain in the past year.

The only problem is that nothing of the sort actually happened. Instead, the British government gave vast sums of money to Conservative Party donors and to friends of ministers who saw a public health catastrophe as a business opportunity. In many cases, substandard and faulty equipment was supplied, whilst poorly paid nurses risked their lives.

This week in Britain, the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson attempted a coup against the parliamentary standards procedures and in doing so has broken the prime directive of British corruption; never make it the story.

British people (perhaps temporarily) are talking about corruption and this is not how the system is meant to work.

Paterson was paid by £122,000 Randox Health to lobby the government for contracts for health and food safety services. This itself is not illegal, though the fact that it isn’t speaks volumes about the quality of British democracy.

The report into his breaches of lobbying rules said:

“No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.”

Paterson faced a 30 day suspension from the House of Commons; a paid holiday is hardly a deterrent against the corruption of British democracy. The fate that he sought to avoid, however, was the recall ballot that would be triggered if MPs voted in favour of his suspension.

Adamant that he would not suffer this indignity, Paterson and his patron Boris

Johnson attempted to tear up the weak parliamentary standards system itself. By Thursday of this week, corruption had become a national news story and had angered the wrong sorts of people; Tory voters.

On the front pages of Tory supporting national newspapers like the Daily Mail were the first angry editorials against the press oligarchs client prime minister ever. When Paterson went on TV on Thursday morning, believing that he had survived the scandal and spoke of his lack of regret, saying he would not have done anything differently, Downing Street decided to throw him to the wolves.

MPs, having previously been given a three line whip to back an amendment that would pause the process of disciplinary action and dismantle the standards system, were now to be allowed a free hand in deciding Paterson’s fate. He resigned before they could.

Corruption only works in Britain if most people think it doesn’t exist. The culture of British exceptionalism tells the British public that corruption happens in far away countries that are backward and uncivilised.

The temporary reaction against corruption is a reaction also to the puncturing of this myth. The government exists in large part to propagate and protect the myths that many British people prefer to hear about their country, its status, its place in the world and ultimately about the society they inhabit. The government will always be rewarded when these myths are repeated and punished if they are interrupted.

Brexit’s Leninists

Reading Everyday Stalinism by Sheila Fitzpatrick (one of my favourite social histories of the USSR, as regular listeners will know), one thing becomes abundantly clear about the Soviet view of time and history itself. The historical and social state that the party would describe as communism was always something to be eventually reached and never actually experienced. In the 1920s and 1930s, party members and leaders would make pronouncements about how far of, chronologically, communism was, and give reasons as to why it was not yet attained.

Often those explanations were that saboteurs, enemy spies and enemy classes were holding up progress, ensuring that housing, food and living conditions remained dire. The culture of a beseiged state was propagated by Stalin, because any other explanation ran at odds with the official version of history that shaped the Soviet Union. The reality was that a largely agrarian society, devastated by civil war now laboured under a new bureaucratic elite that was riven with corruption and nepotism, and these were not auspicious circumstances for rapid economic growth. The fact that significant growth was achieved was due to the ability of the party to use massive coercion when necessary, as it was the Russian peasants who would pay most of the price for Stalin’s first and second Five Year Plans.

In Britain, a utopia beckons. It is not quite as well defined as Lenin’s vision of a future proletarian society, and the economics it is based upon change, depending on who is asking. At times it is described as a Britain that has many of the advantages it currently enjoys (and several that it has recently lost) with few of the downsides. Sometimes it is a Britain that has weaned itself off cheap European labour and has undergone decades of extreme economic shock therapy, which has resulted in its businesses and its workers being elite amongst their peers across the world. Recently, since Britain lost access to European labour markets and has begun to make noises about a trade war with Europe, the utopia has been a protectionist one, a happy little island of well paid workers and well funded public services (neither of these are traditional Tory articles of faith).

The point isn’t to have a credible destination, or a plan to get there, and for many Brexiteers, the act of voting to leave the EU was a revolt against credible plans of all sorts. Obviously, for many it was a poorly judged protest vote that gave the party they loathe vastly more power than it would otherwise have enjoyed. Brexit itself was always a sentiment, a wish by a section of the British elite to revolt against historical inevitabilities, namely Britain’s relative economic decline and our transition from world hegemon to a middle ranking European power (albeit with high living standards).

Tory leader of the house, Jacob Rees Mogg said that it might be fifty years before Britain saw the benefits of Brexit, implying that we were involved in a project of generational significance. In his view (and we have to assume some sincerity here from a man whose investment firm has already seen significant benefits from the country leaving the EU), EU membership was an historic mistake and Britain’s natural world position was lost as a result. A frequent and remarkably lazy argument is that ‘we were in for 47 years, we’ve only been out for two, let’s give it time’, which presumes that we cannot crtitique this new direction for our island for at least four and a half decades.

These views are shared currently with a significant minority of Brexit voters, those who default world view is that of a British, and more often English nationalism, and who reject the idea that Britain in a world of competing trading blocks cannot compete. This in itself is a form of faith, a belief in English exceptionalism, that has its prophets (Churchill, inevitably), and a national secular religion in the form the Second World War built around it to remind them that ‘we came through much worse than this.’

Interestingly, this world view abandons and pretense at utopia, and is more focused on the purity of hardship and the desire to recapture a long lost Britain. This imagined past of blue passports, conquering cricket teams, classic sitcoms, Bond films and a sense that Britain mattered and could call the shots is long gone, if it ever really existed. The future utopia will never be realised because, unlike the utopias of the Leninists, it was never really intended to be realised, and for the referendum’s leading man, Boris Johnson, it was meant to be a noble quest defeated at the last hour.

The Brexiteers won the referendum and initiated the next and most catastrophic phase of British national decline, knowing full well that they had a disaster on their hands. The question was only ever how they could politically profit from the disaster, not whether the fantasies they had spun could ever come true.

Correction to this week’s podcast on Harold Wilson and MI6

In this week’s podcast I referred to the author Stephen Dorril as former MP. This is not the case, and in fact the Stephen Dorril in question is an author and academic who specialises in intelligence work.

So there you go, bad me, I am not infallible and get it wrong from time to time. I will repeat this clarification on next week’s podcast. Mr Dorril, if you happen to listen to the podcast, I do apologise.

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