I seem to be the only person alive with no clue as to who has poisoned four people in Wiltshire. I am told that only Russians have access to the poison, known as Novichok — though the British research station of Porton Down, located ominously nearby, clearly knows a lot about it. Otherwise, I repeat, I have no clue. I suppose I can see why the Kremlin might want to kill an ex-spy such as Sergei Skripal and his daughter, so as to deter others from defecting. But why wait so long after he has fled, and why during the build-up to so highly politicised an event as a World Cup in Russia?
Four months on from the crime, the Skripals have been incommunicado in a “secure location”. Barely a word has been heard from them. British Prime Minister Theresa May has persistently blamed Russia. She has called the incident “brazen and despicable”, and MI5 condemned “flagrant breaches of international rules”. But I cannot see the diplomatic or other purchase in prejudging the case, when no one can offer a clue.
As to why the same person or persons should want to kill a couple, unconnected to the Skripals, the questions are even more baffling. It seems a funny sort of carelessness. Did the couple pick up the infecting agent nearer the original site, eight miles away? Might the new poisoning be an attempt to divert attention from the earlier one? Could it be a devious plot, to make it seem that Novichok is available on every street corner, from your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer? Or perhaps one of the victims, Charlie Rowley, has mates in Porton Down? Perhaps someone is showing off, or panicking, or behaving like a complete idiot. Who knows?
Since I have not a smidgen of an answer to any of these questions, I feel no need to capitulate to the politics of terror and fear. I can open my front door without cleaning my hand. I can visit Wiltshire in peace and safety and marvel at the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Where knowledge is nonexistent, ignorance is bliss.
That clearly does not apply to government ministers, for whom ignorance is not a sufficient condition for silence. The British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said it was time “the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on”. His Security Minister, Ben Wallace, had earlier reached the same conclusion, given that the Russians “had developed Novichok, they had explored assassination programmes in the past, they had motive, form and stated policy”.
Like Javid, he asserted “to a very high assurance” that Russia was to blame, and spoke of “the anger I feel at the Russian state. They chose to use a very, very toxic, highly dangerous weapon”, and should “come and tell us what happened”. Since Moscow vigorously denies any involvement, it is hard to see how the Russians would now “explain”.
Surely, three months after the poison attack on the Skripals, ministers could have produced some evidence for all these accusations? I am at a loss to see what motive the Kremlin might have to commit murders on foreign soil during the build-up, let alone the enactment, of a sporting event that is of mammoth chauvinist significance to Russia.
As it is, all we can see are the devious tools of the new international politics. We see the rush to judgement at the bidding of the news agenda. We see murders and terrorist incidents hijacked for political gain or military advantage. Ministers plunge into Cobra bunkers. Social media and false news are weaponised. So too are sporting events.
Sport is the most flagrant. The plea that “politics should be kept out of sport” is as hopeless as demanding the exclusion of corruption and fraud. The very phrase, “international” sport, drips with politics. Why else do politicians shower sports festivals with taxpayers’ cash? As the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz would say, such events are the continuation of war by other means. Witness the obscene glee with which the British tabloids greeted Germany’s ejection from the World Cup last week.
To all this there is an easy way out. As we flounder through the Novichok morass without a jot of evidence, these crimes should be treated as they remain, local cases of attempted murder. They should be detached from global power plays, political grandstanding and penalty shoot-outs. They belong to the Wiltshire police and their advisers.
If nothing eventually emerges to implicate Moscow in the poisonings, more fool the politicians. If they were indeed a Russian plot, then the time to get justifiably angry is when this has been proved. Until then, I recommend the tennis.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Simon Jenkins is a noted political columnist.