Why the UK government’s attitude towards Russian interference is so concerning

Robert Wilcox

“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive”.

Hannah Arendt, On the Origins of Totalitarianism

The government failed to take the necessary action to safeguard our democracy from Russian interference. That was the damning conclusion drawn by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (the “ISC”) in its report, which was finally released on Tuesday following a nine-month delay. According to the report, “the Government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required”. During Prime Ministers’ Questions on Wednesday, however, Boris Johnson dismissed criticism of the Government’s failure to act, declaring that such criticism was “motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on the European Union that took place in 2016”.

It is worth revisiting how long it has taken for us to get here. The report itself was sent to the Prime Minister on 17 October 2019. It normally takes a maximum of 10 days for such reports to be signed off for publication. Johnson did not see fit to make the report public in the run-up to the General Election last December, despite what it may have told the electorate about the sort of influence that Moscow might attempt to exert over the process. He did, however, approve the report for publication on 13 December 2019, the day after the General Election.

Nevertheless, the report was still not made public. Johnson said that it would not be released until the ISC was reconvened; yet it is for the Prime Minister to nominate its membership. The ISC finally reconvened this month – the longest period the ISC has gone without sitting since its formation in 1994. But the controversy did not end there; the government drew criticism from Tory and opposition MPs alike for its attempt to shoehorn Chris Grayling, the former Secretary of State for Transport, into the role of Chair of the ISC. His particularly infamous track record while in government has led to the nickname “Failing Grayling”. Although the government denied that it was attempting to influence the appointment, which it is not legally entitled to do under section 1(6) of the Justice and Security Act 2013, the whip was removed from Tory MP, Dr Julian Lewis, because he voted with opposition committee members to secure the appointment for himself. Lewis, the only current Tory MP who has previously sat on the ISC, received a text message shortly before the vote, asking that he confirm that he would be voting for Johnson’s preferred candidate. He did not respond as he felt it to be an “improper request”. With the Chair of the ISC in place, the report was at last published on 21 July 2020.

The findings contained in the report are deeply troubling. It notes that “Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets”. It then goes on to describe how Russia is capable of orchestrating highly sophisticated cyber-attacks against states, its extensive use of disinformation campaigns, the Russian money circulating within the UK’s political system and beyond (including academia, charities and cultural organisations), and the business connections that exist between members of the British establishment and Russia or Russian companies (the latter, to all intents and purposes, often being arms of the Russian state). Alarming though this is, much of it has long been known or suspected. What is really concerning is the ISC’s finding that our government has actively avoided taking the necessary action to identify possible Russian interference and to respond accordingly.  

Despite “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014”, the report states that the government has not “sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election”. This may be juxtaposed to the US response to allegations of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election; a summary of an intelligence community assessment into those allegations was made available to the public within two months of the election. In the the case of the EU referendum, for example, no subsequent assessment of potential Russian interference was made. The report notes that “even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe”.

The government’s lack of concern for Russian interference in our democracy is nothing short of scandalous. The delay in releasing the report, which itself states that Russian interference poses an “immediate and urgent threat to our national security”, has meant that actions to be taken on the back of the ISC’s recommendations have been delayed, and that the public went to the ballot box in December without the information contained in the report. Indeed, the report not only describes the means of interference that Russian has at its disposal but, more than that, it shows that our government has failed to perform what is probably the most basic function of any government: to do all it can to preserve the integrity of the state in the face of foreign interference. One does not need to invoke the nuances of political theory to recognise this; if a government does not protect us from foreign interference, we are open to manipulation, without our even being aware of it, and, ultimately, the danger is that we become nothing more than a vassal state. It is enough to simply sow the seeds of distrust in our politicians and political institutions, giving rise to a sense of indifference amongst the populace.

Perhaps, most worryingly of all, is that in responding to the backlash following the publication of this report, our government has betrayed its own authoritarianism. Johnson has rejected calls for an inquiry into potential Russian interference in the EU referendum. He has suggested that it is simply another attempt to cast doubt over the Brexit vote. It seems that this precisely the reason for the government’s inaction. It is worth looking at closely. Johnson is not only opposed to certain conclusions being drawn from information that is available; he does not want the public to have any access to information which might lead them to draw certain conclusions. Such an inquiry might find evidence of interference and, then again, it might not. But the electorate should be informed about the potential means that Moscow might use to attempt to influence us. What is really happening here is our Prime Minister, the person who has the greatest responsibility to our democracy, has taken it upon himself to decide which of our country’s democratic exercises can be the subject of scrutiny. Johnson is essentially deciding what it is that we should and should not know. When a government controls information in this way, it tends to be a sure sign that a country is leaving democracy behind.

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