What Do Ukrainians In The UK Think Of British Politics?
Boris Johnson visited Kyiv and met President Zelensky in August to mark Ukraine's Independence Day (Alamy)
The UK government has been at the forefront of the global effort to support Ukraine as it suffers the horrific consequences of the war with Russia, and through its refugee scheme, leading former prime minister Boris Johnson to become something of a hero in the region.
So when more than 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine decided to make the UK their home, they may have been surprised by the chaotic political landscape they found themselves in as Johnson’s scandal-ridden premiership unravelled dramatically over the summer, only to be followed by the immediate combustion of Liz Truss’s government.
Twenty four-year-old Svitlana Morenets was travelling in western Europe when the war broke out. Unable to return to her small hometown in western Ukraine, she came to the UK where she landed a job as a journalist at the Spectator, and had a somewhat unusual introduction to British politics.
Attending the prestigious Spectator party in the summer, she rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in Westminster; but being so new to the world of SW1, she had no idea who they were, speaking frankly to anyone who would listen about the urgent need for the UK to provide Ukraine with weapons.
While the war with Russia continues, Morenets told PoliticsHome that most Ukrainians primarily view British politics through the lens of whether the UK government is doing enough to support Ukraine.
Boris Johnson is seen by many as having led the way among Western leaders in offering support to Ukraine, including providing weapons and technology and imposing sanctions against Russia. Despite his political demise, Ukrainians still see the UK as an important ally – with Johnson as a particularly strong symbol for the alliance.
“Everybody loves Boris Johnson,” Morenets said. “There are streets named in his honour and he received a lot of awards in Ukraine. He’s a hero.”
One town even named a pastry dessert after Johnson, topped with a cascading meringue to replicate his famous blonde hair.
Morenets thinks Ukrainians are yet to form an opinion on Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and she is interested to see whether he will follow through on many of Johnson’s promises. She believes the outcome of the war depends on the support of countries like the UK.
“We don’t have time for diplomacy because every minute our soldiers are dying and people are getting killed,” she said.
When the full scale war broke out in February, Maria Romanenko, a 30-year-old journalist from Kyiv, and her British boyfriend made a traumatic journey from their home in the Ukrainian capital to Stockport, Greater Manchester.
Since arriving in the UK, Romanenko has made a name for herself as a freelance journalist with work appearing across many broadcasters and publications including ITV News, The Guardian and Business Insider.
She agrees that Johnson is popular among Ukrainians, but acknowledges that many Brits do not share the same positive view.
“I know many people didn't like him in the UK and that there were lots of domestic policy issues,” she said.
“It got to the point where it was difficult for me to talk on Twitter about anything good about Boris Johnson, because I felt a lot of British people would frown upon it.
“For me, he supports Ukraine, and that's great – he was made like a national hero in Ukraine.”
While both Romanenko and Morenets admire the Conservative government’s assistance to their country, their thoughts on Labour, who have been united with their government counterparts’ position on Ukraine, are more nuanced.
In Greater Manchester, where Romanenko lives, Labour is the prominent party across local councils and parliamentary constituencies, and Labour’s Andy Burnham is mayor of the region.
But former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s resistance to explicitly supporting Ukraine in the years leading to the war have left her wary of the party.
“I was not ready to jump into support for Labour because they had a very unclear policy in Ukraine, especially with Jeremy Corbyn as the leader,” she explained.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the year before Corbyn became party leader, he wrote on the Stop the War Coalition website that the UK should oppose any foreign military intervention in Ukraine. “That would only succeed in that country reliving its traumatic past as a battleground where Russia and Western Europe vie for supremacy,” he said.
While Corbyn was replaced as leader by Keir Starmer as leader in 2020, and subsequently suspended from the party over anti-semitism allegations, he remains a prominent voice in left wing politics and stands as an independent MP. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, he urged the UK to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine and has appeared on far-left panels to call for peace negotiations.
“I think he's got absolutely no idea what he's talking about,” Romanenko said. “It's very hurtful to me as a Ukrainian that people like him carry out these discussion forums on ending the war without inviting any Ukrainians on the panel.
“To me, he just looks like a useful idiot for the Russian government to use.”
But she is cautiously optimistic that Starmer, who has consistently expressed support for Ukraine in their fight against Russia, has a “very similar view to that of Conservatives on Ukraine”.
While living in the UK, it is impossible for Ukrainians to ignore the harsh reality of high energy prices and inflation facing many households this winter, exacerbated by Russia cutting off gas supplies to Western Europe as a result of the war.
A significant majority of people in the UK support backing Ukraine despite the cost of living crisis, according to recent polling by Public First on behalf of think-tank More In Common.
But the worst of the recession could be yet to come, and for Morenets and Romanenko, this is a cause for concern.
“That’s why it’s so important for us for people to keep pushing their politicians,” Morenets said. “I understand that British people are paying in the cost of living, but Ukrainians are paying with their lives.”
Having attended university in the UK, Romanenko followed UK politics closely throughout Brexit. “I found it very interesting and very crazy, almost like a circus,” she said.
Now, after years of instability following Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, turbulence has not abated, with the government going through three prime ministers and four chancellors this year.
But for many Ukrainians, this sort of political uncertainty is nothing new. Morenets told PoliticsHome that when President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian, came to power, “he was changing ministers every month, every week”.
Ukraine has a long-held reputation for tempestuous politics: on multiple occasions before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian politicians had literal fistfights in Parliament.
“British politics is calm in comparison,” Morenets joked.
British politics may not yet have descended into physical brawls, but its reputation has taken a beating in recent months, with fresh allegations of sexual assault, corrupt lobbying, and bullying directed at several MPs on both sides of the chamber.
Recent polling by the UCL Constitution Unit showed that public confidence in the moral integrity of UK politicians is low, with 52 per cent believing politicians tend to follow lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens.
But from a Ukrainian perspective, Brits treat politicians with a certain degree of reverence – not least indicated by former health secretary Matt Hancock reaching the final of reality TV show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!.
“Your politicians are elite, they’re celebrities, they’re stars,” Morenets said. “But in Ukraine, politicians are servants to the people.”
She also finds it deeply strange – but enjoyable – that our politicians make jokes in Parliament.
After attending this year’s Spectator Awards, where Keir Starmer won ‘Politician of the Year’, and Zelensky won ‘Parliamentarian of the Year’, she said it is bizarre that in the UK politicians receive awards for their work, while in Ukraine they receive very few accolades for public service.
“I don't see it as a bad thing,” Romanenko said. “I think it's important to keep talking about Ukraine and for politicians to use all platforms for that.”
Just as there are differences in how Britons and Ukrainians view their politicians, there are also contrasts in how the public interacts with MPs on a day-to-day basis.
On holiday in Naples this year, Romanenko struggled with entering Italy due to her visa status, despite other tourists being allowed entry. Angry at what she viewed as discrimination, she was advised to write to her local Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, Andrew Gwynne.
“I was surprised that that's a thing, that you can talk to your MP for personal reasons. In Ukraine, we have MPs that represent our areas, but you wouldn't contact them yourself.”
Romanenko soon got to know Gwynne personally, and he even made a visit to her house.
She said he helped secure her visa after she arrived in the UK, “doing everything from his side, calling the Home Office and trying to find out what to do. He's still very, very kind to us”.
Using Twitter and Youtube as platforms to share her work, Romanenko has been noticed by various British political players.
Labour MP Jess Phillips invited Romanenko onto her podcast to talk about the people who have had the biggest impact on her life, and the freelance journalist has also met Burnham.
Despite being new to the UK, Romanenko feels it is her duty to speak out for her country in the media.
“The way I can make an impact is by carrying on writing about Ukraine and appearing on TV or radio,” she said.
“I am doing all I can to ensure that Ukraine doesn't disappear from the headlines.”
At The Spectator, Morenets is working alongside well-known lobby journalists and has unique access to some of the country’s top decision-makers – even if she is still somewhat confused as to how the British political system works.
“I am making an impact by communicating with my readers through my Ukraine in Focus newsletter, so I can convince them why Ukraine needs that support,” she said. “If I can change at least one mind, that is already a victory for me.”
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