Government reticence on this issue does not serve the national interest. We must get to the bottom of what took placeby / November 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
When I first started asking questions about Russian interference in British politics last year, I think it’s fair to say that most people thought I was a bit of a crank.
It was about a year ago when the first compelling and credible reports began to emerge in the US of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. There were reports around the same time of similar Kremlin activity in European countries.
Given the uniquely destabilising impact of Brexit and President Vladimir Putin’s well publicised support for it, it would have been very odd, I thought, if the UK had not been a target too.
As a former journalist I’m curious. Having worked in former Communist East Germany and had a stint as Security Minister in the Foreign Office, I have some knowledge and experience of how the Kremlin operates. So I began asking fairly simple and innocuous questions in parliament and in correspondence with ministers about what, if anything, our government knew.
The silence was deafening. Ministerial responses from the prime minister downward were a combination of denial and obfuscation. “Nothing to see here,” they assured me. That only made me more suspicious. Why was the British government so uniquely reluctant to talk about something that politicians in America and across Europe were discussing?
At the same time, having raised my concerns publicly, I began to receive information, encouragement and suggestions of lines of inquiry. Some of the people who contacted me were clearly conspiracy theorists pushing outlandish ideas, but others were serious and experienced investigative journalists, financial investigators and people with a great deal of knowledge of the intelligence and security services. They had been working on this subject for a considerable amount of time. Some of what they suggested to me sounded farfetched. But, every step of the way since, they have been proved right.
Twelve months on, we have multiple investigations by the Electoral Commission. These include the role of Russian generated and funded social media activity in the referendum campaign. In the last month alone we’ve had a whole run of news reports which have exposed how covert Russian twitter accounts were pushing anti-EU and anti-immigrant messages in the run-up to the Brexit vote.
“Given the destabilising impact of Brexit, it would have been very odd, I thought, if the UK had not been a target of Russian interference”
The Electoral Commission is also probing the funding of the Brexit campaign itself and its main financial backer, Trump cheerleader and Putin apologist Arron Banks. The Commission has fined the Leave-supporting DUP for taking impermissible donations from an obscure organisation called the Constitutional Research Council. The Council gave more than £400,000 to the DUP during the referendum, most of which was spent in England and the Commission says it imposed the fine because of a failure to reveal the source of the money.
The Commons Culture and Media Select Committee is holding an inquiry into Kremlin-backed social media, as evidence of the huge scale of this activity on both sides of the Atlantic mounts. I’d be surprised and disappointed if parliament’s Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, now it has finally been reconstituted, does not examine this area as well. After all, it has unique and direct access to the heads of our intelligence and security services.
Then there is the powerful US investigation, led by Justice Department Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, looking into alleged collusion between Putin and the Trump campaign. This has already reached our shores—indicted and other named individuals having undertaken their activities here in the UK.
In spite all of this, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, was still insisting last week that he was not aware of any Russian interference in our democracy. The prime minister, in her otherwise excoriating attack on Kremlin methods in her Mansion House speech on Monday, went out of her way to exclude Britain from the long list of countries targeted.
The government still seems determined to stick to its “there’s nothing to see here” line. This is either right, in which case, fair enough, I’ll go back to my day job. Or the reticence is political.
The government is understandably hesitant to acknowledge anything that could lead people to question the legitimacy of the referendum result. Ministers are also hyper-anxious about doing or saying anything to embarrass Trump, on whom they depend for the fantasy trade deal which is going to save us from the economic fall-out from Brexit.
This reticence is no longer sustainable. Nor does it serve our national interest. It is likely to be overtaken by events and information yet to come out. The government will be left looking flat footed, evasive or worse.
I don’t know where this will end. But I do know that there are theories being worked on and allegations being investigated which, if proven, would be game-changers.
Without Russian subversion of the referendum, there would be plenty of very good reasons to exit from Brexit. But, if that subversion did happen, we have the right to know, because this goes to the heart of the security and integrity of our democracy.