Litvinenko was a British citizen and our prime minister needs to show moral courage

Very soon our Prime Minister David Cameron will be having his Don Pacifico moment.

You may have forgotten about Don Pacifico. He was a Gibraltarian Jew who had business interests in Greece. When these were damaged by a mob, Lord Palmerston demanded compensation, and, after quite a bit of gunboat diplomacy, got it. It was this incident that led Palmerston to make his famous speech “Civus romanus sum”, laying down that British subjects, wherever they were, could expect the protection of the British government, and foreigners who attacked Britons or their property could expect to pay a heavy price.

That was back in 1850. More recently we have had a case of a British citizen murdered by two foreigners not aboard, but right here in London. I mean, of course, the case of Alexander Litvinenko. Shortly the lengthy enquiry into his death is to publish its report, and it is widely expected to find what many have considered to be beyond doubt for a long time: that agents of the Russian government were responsible for Mr Litvinenko’s death.

But this comes at an awkward time for the British government, as it seems we need the Russians onside to help solve the Syrian morass. Hence Mr Cameron’s dilemma. Does he play down the Litvinenko crime, and effectively try to ignore the fact that the Russian government murdered a British citizen on British soil, for the sake of some as yet unspecified advantage to British policy in Syria? Or does he throw the book at the Russians, even if this damages his foreign policy objectives? Incidentally, Russia embarked on its Syrian involvement, which seems not to have made much strategic difference on the ground, and which must be costing Russia a lot of money, for precisely this reason: to give it a bargaining chip with the West in dealing with the Litvinenko case and of course the war in Ukraine.

My fervent hope is that our Prime Minster will rise to the occasion and show a bit of moral courage. The Litvinenko case has been brushed under the carpet for long enough as it is. To turn a blind eye to Russia carrying out extra judicial killings on foreign soil is to ask too much. Moreover, the government has a duty to protect all its citizens, and Litvinenko was British. To ignore one such killing would be to invite others. It is also important to note that sanctions against Russia are working. Now is not the time to relax them, but to increase them. But more than anything else, there is the question of truth, which trumps all other considerations. We cannot and must not deny the truth about the Litvinenko murder. It must in justice be acknowledged.

As for Russian help with the Syrian war, does anyone really think that Mr Putin is to be trusted, and that he is a man we can do business with?