A no vote in Scotland will be no endorsement of Britain

The campaign against independence has been so relentlessly negative it risks depriving the UK of a moral mandate

What works best, a negative message or a positive one? What is it that truly motivates voters, their hopes or their fears?

These questions are currently the subject of a grand experiment. The subjects are the people of Scotland, with the experiment due to come to a head on 18 September. That's when they will deliver their verdict on Scottish independence, thereby passing judgment on the campaign to halt it a campaign that has, even its defenders admit, been relentlessly negative.

Budget 2014: fluffy little delights unleashed to soften up older voters

The chancellor had his eyes firmly fixed on the 2015 poll – and one section of the electorate in particular

George Osborne is political down to his cuticles. He makes no move without first considering the electoral calculus; for him, economics is simply politics by other means. So he will have long had etched into his cerebral cortex this cold, hard fact: in 2010, turnout among the over-65s was 76% – while it was a meagre 44% among the under-25s. Put simply, the old vote. Whoever can win over that crucial group takes a large stride towards winning the general election of 2015.

Which explains the central thrust of the chancellor's fifth and most confident budget. Despite the advance speculation that the chancellor would end his speech by revealing a large rabbit, he instead made do with a litter of bunnies – not quite showstopping in themselves, but striking when viewed together. And most of these fluffy little delights were aimed at older people.

He unveiled a new, high-yield bond available only to those over 65: the pensioner bond. With a flourish he lifted the restrictions that prevent people accessing their pension pot: from now on, they will be able to draw on those funds right away. The traditional Conservative pieties of patience and prudence were put aside in favour of instant gratification.

This may spell trouble for the country in the long term. Those who have long warned of a "generational jihad" will lament yet more comfort extended to the elderly, especially when older Britons have already been insulated from the worst of the spending cuts and are no longer any likelier to be in poverty than any other age group. Osborne knows about the struggles of today's young to find decently paid work or own their home. But they vote less – and so matter to him less.

Not that this was a blanket giveaway to pensioners. Only some of the elderly will feel the benefit of his changes; not everyone over 65 has a private pension pot (just as not every saver can afford to set aside £15,000 every year in an ISA, while 8m households have no savings at all). No, his target was the fairly comfortable older voter, the person who has built up a nest egg but seen little gain while interest rates have hovered close to the floor. The voter Osborne had in mind is older, relatively comfortable, perhaps Ukip-curious – and in need of a good reason to come home to the Tories.

So the chancellor won't lose too much sleep over warnings of a clash of generations, as policy becomes ever more skewed towards older people.

Nor will he worry that he may, at a stroke, have undermined the entire basis of the pension idea – as Britain's sixtysomethings cash out their pensions now, leaving nothing for the decades ahead. He will relish instead the prospect of a sudden injection of cash into the economy – and, above all, a big boost in the grey vote that his party needs so badly.

For Osborne never takes time off from his other job, as mastermind of Conservative election strategy. He has seen the polls that say this has been a voteless recovery, each wave of heartening economic data apparently incapable of shifting the numbers from where they were last autumn – with the Tories a stubborn five points behind Labour. He needed a budget to break that pattern.

The bid for grey power was his most obvious move, but there were others that will have helped his cause. He can celebrate one silent victory – his success in gliding over this government's failures. Recall that the reason this coalition was formed, its founding purpose, was eradication of the deficit by 2015: in the Commons he confirmed that milestone would not now be reached until 2018-19. Until then, the borrowing will continue – more of it in five years than Labour racked up in 13 – and so will the cuts.

It can be hard to see that larger failure when the indicators speak of recovery and when employment is rising, as the latest figures released just before Osborne spoke showed once again. Just as it was easy to forget that David Cameron once promised his would be "the greenest government ever" on a day when Osborne announced a freeze in the minimum price of carbon, which will surely discourage investment in renewable energy. Somehow the failure to live up to those early promises is either unnoticed or forgiven. Either way, it helps Osborne.

Thanks to the sunnier economic outlook, Osborne could deliver a speech of some swagger. His voice may have petered out, but the contrast with the omnishambles effort of 2012 was marked. Then he was vilified for cutting the 50p top rate and for missteps on everything from caravans to pasties. But his big problem was a recession that refused to end.

With the official forecasts now projecting surging growth, he could use a budget speech the way Gordon Brown always did – to score political points. He did that – meddling in Scotland's referendum by protecting Scottish whisky and warning of declining profits from North Sea oil and gas. He sought to win tabloid approval by being generous towards beer and bingo, and to earn a halo by giving money to scouts, guides, cathedrals, air ambulances and lifeboats.

And as he enjoyed the sight of Ed Miliband looking floored, forced to deliver what felt like a response to the budget of two years ago, Osborne could savour what had been a very useful morning's work – and not only for his party.

As he namechecked individual Tory MPs who had lobbied for this or that item of largesse, which he had duly granted, you saw an ambitious man buying the loyalty of his colleagues, one at a time. Team Osborne was expanding before our eyes. It was a reminder that the general election is not the only contest for power Osborne aims to win.

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Its not Ed Miliband’s fault, it’s ours

Ed Miliband looked out on the 1,000 guests gathered for a sit-down, kosher-catered meal and said: “This is the barmitzvah I never had.”

Actually he didn’t say that, but perhaps he should have. When the Labour leader addressed the annual dinner of the Community Security Trust last week, he didn’t bother with an opening gag. He said a few thank-yous, then went straight into substance.

He told his audience he had never felt more a part of the Jewish community than he did now. He said the experience of his family, as refugees from Nazism, had taught him that the only correct approach to antisemitism was “zero tolerance. Because antisemitism is never innocent.” In that spirit, he promised a Labour government would continue funding for security at Jewish schools.

What’s more, his family experience had convinced him that “it’s incredibly important to support the state of Israel.” There were no caveats, no qualifications. Indeed, he urged “zero tolerance of people who question the right of Israel to exist.” He stood against the anti-Israel boycott campaign because “boycotts are always part of the problem, they’re never part of the solution.”

Given the views of some in his party, it’s not trivial for a Labour leader to say all that. That much was clear in the online response to Miliband’s remarks once they became public: he was sharply criticised by those who deemed him far too supportive of Israel. So you might assume Miliband was regularly interrupted by loud applause at the CST, that his speech was greeted with a warm ovation of approval. But you’d be wrong.

The audience listened closely but clapped spontaneously only once — at the promise on school security. As for the response once the speech was over, it was tepid: the applause had died by the time the guest speaker was back in his seat.

How to explain such a muted reaction to a national political leader — who the polls suggest may well be prime minister in 14 months — saying everything the Jewish community could possibly want to hear?

His delivery was too low-key, said some. It’s quite true that Miliband’s style was conversational, eschewing the usual politician cadences which all but demand applause at the end of a sentence. He didn’t talk long enough, said others, insisting that previous speakers — George Osborne, David Cameron or Gordon Brown — had come to the CST with a detailed, substance-heavy text, while Miliband spoke without notes. The problem was simpler than that, said a third group: the room was packed full of Tories who were never going to embrace a Labour politician.

There might be elements of truth in all those explanations, but here’s what I couldn’t help thinking. It wasn’t him that was at fault, it was us. Here was the Leader of the Opposition and possible next prime minister of the UK, seeking to soothe every source of Jewish anxiety, to address every neuralgic spot — and still it wasn’t good enough. His answers on Israel and boycotts will give him grief with the Labour left – but still his Jewish audience could barely stir itself to say thank you.

The truth is, we’ve become spoiled. We don’t realise how unusual it is for a community of just 250,000 in a country of 65m to be treated this way, with leaders of both government and opposition regularly attending our communal occasions, saying everything we need to hear.

We’re blasé. They shower us with compliments and still we shrug. I only hope the day never comes when we look back on this era – and regret that we had no idea how lucky we were.

As the Ukraine debate rages, both sides are getting it wrong | Jonathan Freedland

It's possible to condemn Vladimir Putin's invasion – and to believe that Kiev's new government is no place for fascists

In debates about affairs far away, "both" seems to be the hardest word. Ukraine has been a case in point, the discussion reduced to a slanging match of binaries, each side hurling false dichotomies at the other – insisting that every aspect of this unfolding crisis can be reduced to an either/or choice, when in fact the truth very often comes down to both.

So one side loudly condemns Russia for its armed incursion into Crimea, thereby violating Ukrainian sovereignty. What hypocrisy, cry their opponents. How dare the west criticise Russia when the US, Britain and its allies invaded Iraq 11 years ago. That's the choice. Either Russia is in the wrong or the west is in the wrong. You can't have it both ways.

Except you can. It's perfectly possible for a westerner to oppose both Russia's action in Crimea and the invasion of Iraq – indeed, to oppose both for the same reason: as unmerited violations of sovereignty. Admittedly, that might be tricky for John Kerry, given his Senate vote in 2002 giving George W Bush the authority to use military force against Saddam Hussein – a record that should have given him pause before denouncing Vladimir Putin for acting "in a 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext".

But it's silly to throw the Iraq precedent back at Barack Obama. He is president of the United States, in part, because he opposed the 2003 invasion. It was his stance on Iraq that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. You can condemn Obama if you like over Libya or the continuing US drone warfare, but the specific example of Iraq does not make his position on Crimea hypocritical. It makes it consistent. To ignore that fact, to hold the current administration responsible for the sins of its predecessor – as if Obama and Bush are simply the interchangeable faces of permanent US power – is to ignore the cardinal principle that in democratic societies governments change. Perhaps not in Russia, where Putin has been in charge since Bill Clinton was in the White House – but in the democratic world, that's how it works.

That's far from the only empty choice offered up in the Ukraine debate. One camp slams the crudity of Putin's lies and deceits – his press conference this week recasting him as a Kremlin version of "Comical Ali", hilariously defying the facts as he insisted that the Russian troops everyone could see with their own eyes in Crimea were in fact Ukrainian civilians who had popped to the local fancy dress shop to stock up on Russian military uniforms. His charmingly retro claim that Russian forces had been invited into Ukraine by the latter's ousted president – just as Soviet troops were invited into Hungary in 1956 and invited again into Czechoslovakia in 1968 – had one commentator suggesting Putin had lost his mind.

Standing against them is the opposing camp, which urges you to look instead at the new forces ruling Ukraine. This camp notes the influence of far rightist groups Svoboda (which traded originally under the historically resonant name of the Social-National party of Ukraine) and the Right Sector, now rewarded with seats in Ukraine's government, and of the fascistic paramilitaries patrolling the streets of Kiev wearing swastika armbands and parroting anti-Jewish slogans. They alert you to the torch-lit parade of ultra-nationalists commemorating Stepan Bandera, hailed a hero of Ukrainian independence despite his wartime collaboration with the Nazis.

Yet it should be possible to face the truth of both these situations, to condemn Putin's de facto dictatorship in Moscow and to be appalled by the presence of fascists in a 21st-century European government in Kiev. Yet too often the warring camps close their eyes to one even as they denounce the other. This goes not only for commentators and pundits, slugging it out online and on air; John Kerry and European Union foreign ministers should realise that it would not undermine their stance against Russian interference in Ukraine if they were to condemn the racist thugs who played a role in the Maidan uprising and have won a slice of power. It is possible to hold both positions at once.

Indeed, to do otherwise is to deny that reality is always stubbornly, maddeningly complex. Take the question of antisemitism, which has become a battleground in the war of words over Ukraine – with Putin casting himself as the defender of the besieged Jews of that country. It is quite true that Svoboda's leaders once claimed Ukraine was ruled by a "Moscow-Jewish mafia" – quite something, given that Jews make up an estimated 0.15% of the country's population – or that they lambasted the Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis as a "dirty Jewess". True too that synagogues have been on the receiving end of Molotov cocktails and that one communal leader was frightened enough to suggest that Jews get out of Ukraine for their own safety.

Yet it's also true that young Jews were themselves active in the Maidan protests, even forming their own combat group against the now-ousted government. True too that when Jewish leaders asked Kiev's new authorities for protection for key community buildings, they got it instantly. Nor can one ignore the Jewish leaders who believe some of these antisemitic attacks were performed by pro-Russian provocateurs, bent on discrediting Kiev's new masters, just as one cannot dismiss Thursday's letter to Putin from the Ukrainian Jewish leadership, telling the Russian president to back off and accusing him of both exploiting the issue of antisemitism and hypocrisy, given his country's own record.

Nothing, in other words, is as clear as the antagonists and their cheerleaders abroad would like. It is true that Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, and that it is a quirk of history that it is part of Ukraine – and yet also true that to invade it still breaches international law. Just as it is true that the Russians have not fired a shot in anger, while the invasion of Iraq left hundreds of thousands dead – but that doesn't make Putin's action OK.

It used to be said of Tony Blair that he came to prefer foreign affairs to matters domestic because they afforded a moral certainty missing at home. I've written before of the way some outsiders follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it were a clash of two rival football teams, mine always right, yours always wrong.

But the world is not like that. It is rarely black v white. It usually requires us to hold two apparently contradictory thoughts in our head at once. Life is not either/or. It is both.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Otto Dov Kulka: ‘Every one of us had his or her own story of survival. But we never talked about it’

His work has been compared to Primo Levi and last week he was awarded the prestigious Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize. He tells Jonathan Freedland why, 70 years on, he finally decided to write a book about his experience in Auschwitz

Among the 48 pictures that illustrate Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the short, truly extraordinary book that won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize last week, is a photograph of the author visiting Auschwitz in 1978. In fact, he is hardly visible: he is off at the far left of the picture, with only half his face and body in shot. The photo was taken by a taxi driver unfamiliar with the camera his passenger had handed him and the effect is to depict Otto Dov Kulka as a man split in two.

For all the driver's amateurism, it is an apt image: as Kulka, who will soon turn 81, tells me within a minute of our meeting: "I lived a double life." He is referring to the fact that for decades he was known as a historian of the Holocaust, specialising in the close study of German documents, writing cool, scholarly analysis. What few of his colleagues knew, and what he did not volunteer, was that this was no abstract field of academic interest. Kulka had been a child of Auschwitz, arriving in the death camp as a 10-year-old in September 1943 and remaining imprisoned there until January 1945.

For many years this experience remained locked away. He gave lectures on the Holocaust without mentioning his own connection; he attended a conference in Poland where a fellow scholar gave him advice as to which part of the camp he should visit to be sure to see "the real Auschwitz". He nodded and said nothing.

Yet in his diaries, thousands of pages of them, scribbled in cafes or, since 1991, recorded on tape at night in his office at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he would give voice to his earlier self. He would recall and probe moments, images and fragments of childhood memory. Two decades passed before the British historian Ian Kershaw got a glimpse of those recollections and persuaded Kulka to turn them into a manuscript. The result is a book scarcely more than 100 pages long, yet which has already been compared to the work of Primo Levi, a book that one suspects will only grow in importance – that may indeed come to be seen as one of the great works of art created in the aftermath of the Shoah.

In person, Kulka is courteous, warm and gently amazed by the sudden interest in him and his work. He is also impeccably well dressed, complete with natty cravat – and short. Those last two attributes are relevant. So many of the world's remaining Holocaust survivors are small: the grim truth is that starvation stunted their growth as children or teenagers. As for the elegant look, that too might be no coincidence. Visit London's Holocaust Survivors Centre, for example, and you will notice how exceptionally well turned out the regulars are. In the camps, keeping up appearances was a matter of life and death: if you looked ill, you would be deemed unfit for work and selected for the gas chambers.

Not that Kulka's experience had much in common with most of those who somehow survived Auschwitz. Moved there from Theresienstadt, Kulka and his mother were kept in a place that defied all the usual Auschwitz rules. They were untouched by the initial selection that doomed most new arrivals; they were allowed to stay together, to wear their own clothes; their heads were not shaved. This camp within a camp was known as the Familienlager, the family camp. "What was the meaning of this 'miracle'?" Kulka writes. "What was the purpose of this camp? No one ever found out, not even after the camp was liquidated."

The answer to the riddle only came decades later, revealed in the early 1980s to Kulka the historian (who then wrote an academic paper on the topic, reproduced as an appendix in the book, a text pointedly written in the detached third person, with no hint that this was something the author had experienced first-hand). Working through documents of the Third Reich, Kulka saw that the Familienlager was a ploy. Like Theresienstadt itself, it had been designed as a showpiece, a macabre Potemkin village that could be displayed before the inspectors of the International Red Cross as proof that rumours of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews were untrue.

The plan was hatched in the office of Adolf Eichmann, but was to prove unnecessary. The men from the Red Cross were so impressed by what they had seen at Theresienstadt, they declared there was no need to probe further or see for themselves this place - Auschwitz – in the east to which the Jews were being deported. The model family camp now had no purpose – and so its 5,000 inhabitants were promptly gassed. Kulka survived that liquidation by a stroke of luck: he was ill in the infirmary at the time.

All this makes his memories singular indeed. While others endured Auschwitz as a place of either immediate murder or slave labour, Kulka remembers classes, drama rehearsals and music, activities organised by the Jewish inmates of the Familienlager. Looking back, the very existence of such activities intrigues and baffles the adult Kulka. All this education and preparation for the future going on in a place where, as he puts it to me in an English that is his fourth language and yet which is precise and eloquent: "The future is the only certain thing that does not exist."

The classes took place a matter of yards away from the crematoria, which burned day and night, their chimneys turning Jews into ash. Each day a pile of skeletons was deposited outside the barracks where he and his mother lived. Yet still young Otto listened and learned of the great events and achievements of European history and culture, of the battle of Thermopylae and of Dostoyevsky, and was taught literature by young, charismatic youth leaders who recited the books they didn't have by heart.

In an episode that haunts him still, Kulka recalls performing Schiller's "Ode to Joy", "a song of praise to joy and the brotherhood of man", directly opposite the crematoria, "a few hundred metres from the place of execution". He wonders now what Imre the choirmaster, "a large, awkward figure in the blue-grey prisoner's uniform and the big wooden shoes, with the big hands of a conductor", was thinking. Was it a declaration of idealism, of faith in humanity despite everything, or was it "an act of extreme sarcasm", having children sing of values whose hollowness was being exposed just yards away?

Kulka does not have a single answer. He tells me that as a university teacher he favoured the first, humanistic reading. "But when thinking and talking to myself, it's more and more this sarcasm and the situation of despair and no way out" that he believes was at work. Once again, there are two Kulkas, the public scholar and the inner man.

Is one version more reliable than the other? When writing history, Kulka would prefer documents over memory every time. "But there are matters of meaning that go beyond that." In trying to reach the deeper truth of the Shoah, his book suggests, somehow a single image, poem or dream can get closer.

A persistent theme is the uniqueness, the particularity, of memory, which Kulka seems to feel especially keenly. Perhaps it is because his own Auschwitz experience was so exceptional, but he resists any attempt to generalise what happened there. He does not read many Holocaust memoirs; he has not seen the epic documentary film Shoah. He says he feels "alienated" from accounts that were not his, that he fears corroding his own recollections, swamping them with images that are not his own. "I felt I had to defend genuine memories and pictures, for them not to be overshadowed."

It is in these that the book's power lies. Some of them are fleeting – the black stains on the snow as he leaves Auschwitz on what became known as the death march, stains that he only later realises are corpses. Some are enduring – what he describes as the immutable law of the great death, the permanent, non-negotiable certainty that death is coming soon and cannot be diverted. Together they form what he calls his own private mythology, a place known only to him: the metropolis of death, whose landscape this book explores and charts.

Some of those memories are surprising. Of course, there is hideous brutality, a prisoner whipped to death, a transport of orphans that ends in the gas chambers. But unexpected are the rare fond memories – chief among them a brief moment of pause, when Kulka gazed upward one day in 1944 and caught the blue of a summer sky, a sight that remains "imprinted on my memory as the colour of summer, the colour of tranquillity, the colour of forgetting."

And that, incredibly, is not the only happy memory. He loved the classes in ancient history and literature. And his eyes sparkle as he tells me of an experience not included in the book: "Something like first love. In the afternoon, after the work, women and men were walking on the main street, the only street [the path between the barracks], watching the crematoria burn quietly – and not taking in what was happening. I went with a girl of 12 and we were walking among the adults. I don't remember her face but I remember her existence. She didn't survive, of course. But that was a marvellous experience to which I can return."

That recollection captures the surreality of Kulka's past. A childhood romance, set against the backdrop of genocide. Yet this was the morbid reality of the family camp and, as the author explains, like it or not, this was where his childhood happened. As he writes: "This was the first world and the first order I had ever known."

Tellingly, his book does not use the word "Holocaust". Like other scholars, he rejects it because its original Greek root implies that the Jewish victims of the Nazis were some kind of religious sacrifice. Less commonly, Kulka also rejects the word "Shoah" for being "amorphous" and vague. He speaks instead of "the final solution to the Jewish question". But doesn't that accept a Nazi premise, as if the Jews were a problem to be solved? "Yes, but it was a Nazi deed. It was not a [natural] catastrophe like in the Bible."

Mostly, Kulka's preferred language is abstract: the metropolis of death is the place he is describing, the inner landscape of his memory. I ask what we should read into the fact that he took so long to make these recollections public. He moved to Israel in 1949, aged 15, taking the new name Dov (though keeping Otto too, to signify that he regards himself as both an Israeli and a diaspora Jew). Is he perhaps an example of the well-documented tendency of Holocaust survivors in Israel to keep quiet, partly because the new country was reluctant to hear from those who reminded them of past Jewish weakness? Was he one of those silently scolded by the new Israelis for going to their deaths – like sheep to the slaughter, in the phrase of the time – when the new Israel was all about resistance and strength?

Kulka has some time for that explanation but prefers another. He joined a kibbutz with some 40 other young people. "Each and every one of us had his or her own story of survival. Either in the camps or in hiding or in the mountains. But we never talked about it. It was immaterial. Because we were participating in this great historical event of a people returning after 2,000 years and building a new culture and new language and new society – it was so overwhelming that we regarded our past as something irrelevant. It's not completely true that people didn't want to hear. We were emerging from [a period of] the utmost inability to take fate in our hands and suddenly we were masters of our own [destiny] … People did not regard [the past] as essential. It was behind them. But in my dreams and diaries I lived a double life."

One of those recollections describes a conversation among inmates engaged in some gallows humour, fantasising about what revenge they would one day inflict on their tormentors: "The solution to the German question." Does he ever dream of revenge against those who killed his sister, mother and father?

No, he says. His interest is in understanding: "I wish to enter the mind of Eichmann so that I can understand." He believes that the key element at work among the Nazis was not rampant hatred but a totalitarian ideology that convinced its adherents that they were doing good. "They believed that they wished to save human society from this plague, this threat … When Eichmann said he believed that his deeds were good, I believed him. I think he thought he was doing good", ridding the world not only of Jews' physical existence – but of the Jewish idea, which Kulka defines as "the unity of the world and the equality of man".

Once the ideological tide went out, Germans and others "went back to being normal human beings, liberal citizens". Ideology was the key – and it still is. He sees no reason why such an ideological turn could not come again. "It is part of our history. It has its precedent … It's not only possible, it was possible."

That is Kulka the scholar talking, but Otto the child of Auschwitz is never far away, his voice no longer confined to private moments with a tape recorder. I ask him about the recurring dreams he sets down in the book, including one in which he is summoned to Prague town hall to face the punishment he somehow eluded seven decades ago.

He tells me he had the dream again just a few nights ago. "I was there once more. I have to go to the town hall, where it is my duty to go. I was wondering whether it's to the gas chamber or if I will be hanged. But that was my duty, that was my fate. I have to go and fulfil it."

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Politics Weekly podcast: Ukraine crisis

It has been called the worst crisis to hit Europe in the 21st century'. The overthrow of the government in Ukraine and the subsequent incursion by Russian forces in Crimea has left European politicians fumbling for an adequate response.

So far, no more than warning shots have been fired as the deadlock continues. Meanwhile, Crimean citizens will be allowed to give their view on their future in a referendum on 16 March asking whether they want to join the Russian Federation.

Joining Tom Clark in the studio to discuss all of this: Guardian columnists Seumas Milne and Jonathan Freedland; and Marie Mendras, a scholar on Russian affairs and author of Russian Politics:The Paradox of a Weak State

Leave your thoughts below.

No 10′s Ukraine gaffe shows City profits come before principled diplomacy | Jonathan Freedland

News that Britain will not enforce sanctions against Russia is no surprise: the government defaults to protecting the money men

So yet another UK government official didn't get the memo – the one that says when you're going to a high-level, top secret meeting in Downing Street, try not to arrive carrying papers that can be snapped by waiting photographers. As deputy national security adviser Hugh Powell is the latest to discover, in the age of the zoom lens, they can be read easily. (It turns out there's a freelance photographer who hangs around outside No 10, one Steve Back, who specialises in just such pictures.)

Still, we should be grateful to the unguarded Mr Powell. If he had popped his documents in a folder we would never know that, whatever other action the European Union has in mind on Ukraine, the British government is adamant that the City of London will be exempt. Or as the official text put it, Britain will "not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London's financial centre to Russians." In other words, even if Russia is in the process of invading a sovereign state, Britain will still do nothing that might dent the profits of the money men in the City.

I say we would never know – but we could have taken a guess. For there is a rather consistent pattern here. In January, George Osborne set out one of the key demands Britain will be making of the EU in the lead-up to the planned in-or-out referendum of 2017, one of those existential needs that must be met if Britain is to stay inside. What was it? "Cast-iron legal protections for the City of London." The chancellor warned that the UK would leave the EU unless the Lisbon Treaty was changed to prevent the imposition of financial services legislation that might rein in the City.

And who can forget the heroic sight of Osborne heading to Brussels exactly a year ago to fight the good fight – hoping to stop our European partners from capping bankers' bonuses? If there is so much as a hint of a challenge to the City, Osborne is ready to pull on his armour and ward off all enemies. No matter if that means promising business-as-usual to Russia, whether or not it has invaded one of its neighbours, it's the City that must come first.

It's quite clear that with 60% of the EU's financial services industry located in the UK, the bankers and fund managers are seen as more than just big business. The British government regards their prosperity as a matter of national security, their interests to be weighed against other geopolitical considerations such as our membership of the EU and the principle that the violation of the borders of sovereign states demands punishment.

Not that Britain is alone in this. Germany is reluctant to come down hard on Russia, its No 1 trading partner, on whom it relies for its domestic energy. France enjoys a lucrative relationship with Moscow, too, and is contracted to build two valuable Mistral-class warships for the Russian navy. They're looking out for their "strategic" industries, just like Osborne.

The result is that Vladimir Putin knows he can scarcely be touched. That would be true of any state that is a nuclear-armed, permanent member of the UN Security Council. But it's truer still of a state whose money and resources the west needs. It makes Russia doubly untouchable.

The lesson for any regime watching the Ukraine crisis unfold is clear. Sending troops into the territory of a sovereign state is completely unacceptable and you will be pushed back – unless, that is, you are strong and hurting you hurts us. Then different rules apply.

Twitter: @Freedland

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