Chernobyl shows how blind conviction causes a meltdown in politics

Stephen King
Catastrophe: hit TV series Chernobyl portrayed the devastation of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which was heightened by the Soviet Union's bid to cover up its failure: HBO

A key moment in Chernobyl, the miserable-but-marvellous TV miniseries , tells you all you need to know about the dangers of obfuscation in situations where the truth is seen as embarrassing (even if the show takes occasional liberties itself). The Soviet Union’s 1986 nuclear disaster is, thus, relevant to the forth-coming general election.

The graphite deposited on the roof of Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor building is horribly radioactive and should only be removed by a robot rover. Through gritted teeth, the Communist apparatchiks ask the West for help. They won’t contact the Americans — that would be a humiliation too far — so they turn to the West Germans. A new machine turns up, but promptly stops working.

At first, we’re encouraged to believe that West German engineering isn’t fit for purpose. It turns out, however, that the Soviets had deliberately provided the Germans with a massive underestimate of the level of ambient radioactivity. Had the Germans known the true figure, they would have immediately been able to tell the Soviets that the robot could never function.

But the Soviets were addicted to lying as they could not admit to the failures — of design, training, cost-cutting, bureaucracy and leadership — that had led to the disaster. Revealing the truth would be tantamount to admitting that the Marxist-Leninist experiment had been a crippling catastrophe.

Writing 20 years after the disaster, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev claimed “there was no deliberate deception”, suggesting instead that “the Politburo did not have an accurate and complete picture of the situation”.

Still, he admitted that “the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl… even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later”. And he noted that “the world first learned of the Chernobyl disaster from Swedish scientists, creating the impression that we were hiding something”.

Stephen King (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Soviets were doubtless hiding rather a lot. Yet, as Abraham Lincoln (allegedly) remarked: “You cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Fooling people is the defensive position of many an organisation. During the global financial crisis, banks tried to fool other banks into believing that their financial positions were healthy. Trust eventually evaporated, and the western world had an economic version of the Chernobyl meltdown.

For many years, the Catholic Church pretended that there were no bad apples among its priests. Evidence to the contrary was dismissed out of hand. How could there be child abuse if priests were doing God’s work?

In the past couple of years, Labour’s leadership has tried to fool us into believing that the party does not have a serious problem with anti-Semitism. This is, apparently, a scourge only to be found on the hard Right; the Left, by definition, cannot be racist. Labour’s supporters, so its leadership stresses, include Jewish Voice for Labour, implying that the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in The Times last week was merely one side of the story (even though his views reflect the fears of the vast majority of British Jewry).

Jeremy Corbyn’s claim in his BBC interview with Andrew Neil that “anti-Semitism is not acceptable in any form in my party” sounded fine until Neil presented him with compelling evidence to the contrary, contradicting Corbyn’s earlier assertion that Labour had investigated “every single case”.

In a more recent mauling by Phillip Schofield (he’s come a long way since the days of Gordon the Gopher), Corbyn eventually apologised “for everything that has happened” but — contrary to the Chief Rabbi’s views — still claimed he had “dealt” with the problem.

The Tories, meanwhile, have tried to fool us into believing that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is “oven-ready”. But Johnson’s deal may still lead to a no-deal Brexit if there is no trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020.

As Johnson admitted during what was effectively a Vote Leave reunion last week, “many [no-deal] preparations will be valuable as we come out of EU arrangements anyway, so I think they were the right thing to have done to keep in a state of readiness”. Readiness for what? Far from being oven-ready, there’s a risk that a key requirement of Johnson’s deal may not defrost in time.

To be fair, general election campaigns are designed to let us prod and probe our politicians in order to tease out their weaknesses and untruths. It doesn’t always make for an edifying spectacle, but hopefully it will help us make up our minds on 12 December. It’s a reminder that free speech and a free press are valuable beyond measure.

And that brings me back to the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Sometimes, people are so convinced that a system is “good” or “effective” that they simply will not see the evidence to the contrary. Many in the Politburo doubtless chose not to listen to the apocalyptic messages from the nuclear scientists because they simply couldn’t believe that a Chernobyl-scale meltdown could actually happen in the Soviet Union.

But they’re not the only ones to bury their heads in the sand. Three years after Mikhail Gorbachev’s Chernobyl-inspired mea culpa, one observer argued that “the German Democratic Republic [the Soviet satellite] was home to the Stasi, shortages and the Wall, but it was also a country of full employment, social equality, cheap housing, transport and culture, one of the best childcare systems in the world, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany”.

That observer was Seumas Milne. At the time, he was a Guardian columnist, and seemingly unaware that, in the year before the Berlin Wall fell, East German living standards were half those in its western neighbour (they’re now much closer). Today, Milne is Corbyn’s right-hand man. You have been warned.

Stephen King (@KingEconomist) is HSBC’s Senior Economic Adviser and author of Grave New World (Yale)