The Russia Report, politics and the corruption of democracy in the UK

The Russia Report was, after significant fanfare following the (mis-)handling of the process of the election of the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, finally released yesterday. On a first read through, there might indeed not be a lot of explosions in it, but that’s not to say that there’s no dynamite been planted. Indeed, and contrary to my earlier prediction, there was more than just embarrassment for the current UK government in its pages.

Remarkably, the text was released outwith the auspices of parliament.uk, which handles the publication of parliamentary business. After some searching, I found the page for the Committee on parliament.uk – but it is more or less blank, apart from listing the members of the committee (having been updated following the election of the chair). Indeed, this is a screenshot of what confronted me yesterday evening:

ISC page 21-7-20

Instead, the ISC has its own, entirely plain text website, including its history and publications, whose back-to-basics appearance initially made me wonder whether this was some spoof, malicious or otherwise. Furthermore, and remarkably, the report itself has been released through Google Docs. This I find quite extraordinary. A report on the highly sensitive question of interference in UK democracy, authored by a ‘joint other committee’ of parliament, having interviewed key witnesses some of whose evidence needs to be redacted, and seeking action from the UK government not least on the specific question of online harm, being released on Google Docs is, quite literally, incredible. More or less immediately on opening the report, Firefox informed me that it had blocked a pop-up window.

Perhaps there was not time, especially during the pandemic, to get the official parliament.uk webpages updated in time, and perhaps the page is already being updated (it hadn’t as of 2.45 this afternoon); or perhaps the Committee has chosen deliberately to emphasise its independence – the word is, after all, contained in the URL of its site – from the government (although all such committees are independent of the UK government: they have to be, to do their work properly in holding the government to account). But to release a report of this nature and dealing with such an issue as this through the medium of Google Docs is both astonishing and remarkable.

[EDIT 28 July: one week later and the ISC page on parliament.uk still looks the same – although of course the Report has been laid before parliament.]

The main points of the conclusions of the report are clearly now well into the public domain so I won’t waste any time in documenting them, other than simply pointing to the clarity of Foreign Policy‘s quick take; and to the Committee’s own press release (also on Google Docs…). I want here to explore just a couple of the implications.

First, this is clearly incredibly embarrassing for the current UK government. To have any independent criticism of its actions as being ‘asleep at the wheel’ while the democracy of the country that you govern is potentially interfered with ‘as the new normal’ is embarrassing enough. But – more than that, and of course the reason why we have a bystander government in the area set out by the report – is that it has been captured by one, or more (see below), foreign government(s). Russian oligarchs have been welcomed ‘with open arms’ as investors with tier one visas into the ‘laundromat’ of London (actually since 1994) and they have grown close to this government (and, indeed, to leading figures in previous ones). It is no coincidence that Johnson celebrated the 2019 election result the following day at a party hosted by the Lebedev family; the Tory Party has, over a period of time, accepted significant donations from Russian oligarchs seeking to build patronage and extend influence but to do so covertly. There is, of course, a reason that these oligarchs have become very rich and are able to live long enough to enjoy the wealth they have been given. And, if your state aim is to invest in disinformation and to further the goal of disruption, who better to invest in than today’s Tory Party? It’s not as though as it’s come particularly expensive.

Second, the report is, so far, a little short on recommendations, although the Committee may see this as the target of its future, continuing work. Nevertheless, it quite clearly identifies the lacuna which has been government action as regards the UK being a target for disinformation and influence campaigns going back at least as far as the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. It is a disgrace that this report – which does not appear to have been added to under the new Committee – was not published prior to the last election: although, of course, there is a reason for this. That all parties – government itself, as well as the intelligence agencies – see the potential for external influence in the UK’s electoral processes not so much in the balloting but in the campaigning as too much of a ‘hot potato’ is damning enough. That no-one cares sufficiently about democracy is, ultimately, the reason why it dies – but it is astonishing that none of the agencies seems to have wanted to take some initiative in this area.

Partly, of course, this is because the agencies have come to see defending democracy as a political task. Astonishing as this, it is of course a product of the polarisation and the intensity of feeling that our referendums-based politics of recent years has engendered, and it is also a product of the opprobrium that official bodies – including, of course, the Electoral Commission – receive when they seek to go about their job. Here, as a sidenote, our democracy is lucky to have campaigners and whistle-blowers such as, for example, Carole Cadwalladr prepared to take the abuse to get some of this stuff into the open. For, make no mistake, the leaders and financiers of mobs such as these have, at the very least, no interest in preserving democracy.

At the same time, the reason for lack of action on the government side, apart from it being in hock to vested interests, is quite simple. It would be easy to state that, as a Vote Leave (Continuity) government, it has no interest in looking at the potential for disinformation campaigns to succeed since it has no reason in encouraging anything that might discredit the outcome for which it fought. That’s true, of course, but the truth is also a little deeper that that: this is, in style, a campaigner government, and on a single issue, and one that is, therefore, singularly ill-equipped to grasp the thorns of the detailed policy development work that is required of governments. It is not interested in doing the hard yards of a trade deal with the EU; it is not interested in the tough slog of developing a practical response to a pandemic; it is not interested in taking action when its senior adviser breaks rules which apply to all, or in its ministers dining with donors before planning decisions or engaging in pork barrel politics; and it is simply not interested in objective criticisms of its bystander nature.

This is not only because the government adopts the disinterested, lazy, irresponsible and fatuous character of its leader, or because its leading ministers are appointed not because of their actual capabilities but on the basis of their essential adherence to the One True Faith and their ability therefore to be co-opted into going along with anything which doesn’t disrupt that objective. This government is only interested in, and only capable of achieving, the campaign-based objective which brought it into office and in facilitating as much anarchic disruption as it can. Brexit now having been achieved, and the free trade deal with the EU either having been scuppered or else realised in only a minimal silhouette of an agreement, there is actually no reason for it to be any longer in office. As a Labour supporter, committed to social and economic justice and in redistribution to achieve those aims, and in facilitating a just transition to a sustainable, green economy, I would say that, I guess. But, objectively speaking, this government’s job under our current electoral system is done and it needs to get out.

Third, the Committee has done invaluable work in pointing out that:

The UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum [i.e. to that in the US conducted by the Director of National Intelligence] and that an unclassified summary of it be published. (para. 47)

Given the careless approach of this government, as well as its immediate reaction in reiterating that it has seen no evidence of interference and that no such enquiry was necessary, it will need to continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on it and to commit the necessary resources so that the agencies can make such an assessment. This is, by the way, a requirement of all select committees for as long as this particular government stays in office, and not only because it has a ridiculously large majority. Holding the government accountable within parliament is not only an essential pillar for democracy in ordinary times, it is, at this time, a vital task in keeping that democracy alive. Making it ‘illegal’ for spooks to be in the country unless, ludicrously, they have identified themselves as such spectacularly misses the point of the problems to which the Committee is pointing, i.e. of (dis)information activity having moved online. What action is required is to think more closely and much less casually about the use of social media platforms, particularly during plebiscites, in undermining democracy and in achieving the aims of foreign governments. It is good that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is pressing the government on online harm; and it needs to keep on doing so.

Do I think that such an enquiry should lead to the 2016 referendum being re-run? No, I don’t – and that is of course not what the Intelligence and Security Committee is calling for. Digging in on this, as the government did yesterday, simply reveals that it fears it has something to hide. We are already out of the EU and so re-running the referendum is not only pointless, it is practically impossible. The issue of the UK’s membership of the EU is dead for a generation – much as I deeply regret this, we can’t now revisit it. Furthermore, this is not only now a question for the UK – it’s one for the rest of the EU, too. But the issue is also bigger than this partisan issue – we are all, on whatever side we stand, damaged when our democracy is attacked. If it requires an acknowledgment that there is no revisiting 2016 to make this government order an enquiry to assess how potential interference can – and should – be combated in the future, then it is a price worth paying.

I would like to see the closing of the Pandora’s Box of the use of referendums in ‘settling’ issues of national importance but, more than that, what has become clear from the Committee’s work is that we need to reform our electoral system to rebuild democracy. We probably do need state funding for political parties. We probably do need electoral reform: I was never particularly committed to this – indeed, I voted against in the 2011 referendum, albeit mostly because I was not in favour of the Alternative Vote system being proposed – but it is clear that our current, tribal winner-take-all politics is incapable of handling the nuances of modern political life and the task of rebuilding the country post-Brexit and post-pandemic, as well as in the face of the external pressures being put up against it. We can’t again have an extremist government elected with a sweeping mandate but whose actual capability is so poor; and neither again can we have the position where the leader of one small opposition party can block the efforts of all opposition parties to work together in the national interest, as was the case last autumn. And certainly we need to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an upper chamber which evenly balances representation from all the countries of the UK and in which the voices of all the other countries can be heard and respected.

And, one final point, neither is this just about Russia. The Russian state might have had much to benefit from the disruption of the UK, in 2014, and then the EU as a result of Brexit (and, we might add, in extending war in the middle east when the migrants that action produces head for the EU); and certainly the hands of its agents are all over the Tory Party. But, to analyse the source of the funding of the campaign to leave the EU and the benefits this has, for some, and all the other tentacles of the Tufton Street network – the source of that is quite clearly the other side of the Atlantic. Our democracy needs protecting from the US, too.

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