Friday, 22 November 2019

It's time to take Russian electoral interference seriously

I have a question for you: where do you think democracy is working more effectively – in Washington DC or in London?

You may well think it’s a tough call: after all, can any democratic system that throws up a Donald Trump or a Boris Johnson be said to be working effectively?

So consider the following.

In Washington, the President is effectively on trial, as one by one, senior administration officials are called to testify, on oath and in public, about his attempts to force the government of Ukraine to help him dig up dirt, real or imagined, relating to a political opponent, the former vice-president Joe Biden.

In London, publication of a detailed report drawn up by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee into potential Russian interference in UK elections has been shelved. (A leaked version was published in the Sunday Times last weekend.) A few days after the decision was announced, the Conservative party received a £200,000 donation from Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister.

Coincidence? Maybe. She has certainly made big donations to the Tories in the past: £160,000 for the honour of being allowed to play tennis against Boris Johnson and David Cameron in 2014, and £135,000 to spend an evening with Theresa May and six of her female Cabinet colleagues earlier this year. (Mrs Chernukhin is a British citizen and therefore perfectly entitled legally to give as much as she likes to British political parties.)

There’s more. An investigation into Boris Johnson’s relationship with the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, who was awarded grants from public funds while Johnson was mayor of London, is currently on hold while a police oversight body decides whether there is enough evidence to mount a criminal investigation against him. The oversight body has agreed not to announce its decision until after the election.

And on the subject of cash, did you see the details published yesterday by the Electoral Commission showing how much each of the political parties received in donations during the first week of the campaign? (The figures relate only to donations of more than £7,500.)

Nearly ninety per cent of the registered donations went to the Conservatives: as well as the £200,000 from Mrs Chernukhin, there was one and a half million from theatre producer John Gore, half a million from an investment firm, and another half million from a property company. The Tories’ one-week total came to £5.7 million, compared to £218,500 for the Labour party, £275,000 for the Lib Dems and £250,000 for the Brexit party.

In Washington, there is at least an attempt to uncover corrupt behaviour. It probably won’t succeed in removing the president from office (Mr Trump is only the fourth president in US history to face impeachment, and only one, Richard Nixon, was forced out), but from this side of the Pond, it looks significantly more effective than what we observe in Westminster, where the prevailing message seems to be ‘Oh, stop making such a fuss. There’s nothing to worry about.’

Johnson himself said as much in a BBC interview a few days ago: ‘There’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve ever seen of any Russian interference in UK democratic processes.’ Given the prime minister’s well-deserved reputation for uttering falsehoods (oh, all right then, telling lies), I would suggest that we are entitled to take his assurance with a large pinch of salt.

Contrast the disgracefully dilatory nature of the inquiries in the UK with what the exceptionally impressive British-born former top White House Russia expert Fiona Hill told Congress. She said the Russians ‘deploy millions of dollars to weaponise our own political opposition research and false narratives …’ Does no one in the UK think it matters?

It is surely not unreasonable to assume that what the Russians have tried so successfully to do in the US and elsewhere – subvert the electoral system – they have also been trying to do here. We already know of the links between Russian government officials and senior figures in the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and we deserve to know more.

So my answer to the question I posed above? Perhaps surprisingly, I conclude that the US system is working better than ours. Admittedly, it’s not saying all that much, considering how abysmal the UK record is on such matters.

But it is a shocking indication of how inured we have become to external interference in the political process that hardly anyone is making a fuss. I just hope that the bunch of MPs we elect next month will be up to the task of cleansing the stables.

(By the way, if you haven’t registered to vote yet, the deadline is next Tuesday. Here’s the link to the government’s registration site.)


Tinkersdamn said...

Take Russian interference seriously? Yes.

Follow the money (overt and covert)? YES.

From this side of the Pond, money doesn't enable a Party's speech, it ensures the masses will hear it. In a two Party system when one Party regularly receives the majority of funds from wealth, the other Party has justified that it will be no more than a focus group's breathe to the left of the wealth Party in order to compete for funds. This has been the US dynamic for decades. This is why the "centre" has been lost.

In our 'Oligarchs of the world, UNITE!' moment, it's important we keep perspective. Democracy has its enemies, foreign and domestic, but those methods to use heard speech as a weapon of mass distraction or as promoter of Otherization and fracture are hardly inventions of Russia and their financing of it is hardly a drop in the bucket. Oddly enough, it may be because the Russians are foreign that we more clearly see how corrosive to democracy our domestic political playbooks are.

Paul Lashmar said...

After looking into this in depth I have concluded that there was so much covert intervention in favour of leaving in wide range of ways from Russian interference, to Cambridge Analytica's (I think highly effective) social media operation to actually breaking the Electoral Commission rules by campaigners that had thus been a General Election it would have been declared null and void. As no significant politician wants to say this so we are stuck with the Referendum being seen as legitimate. (And I am not even getting into the lies). Facts have not been an important part of the referendum. It reminds me of going to war on the 'compelling evidence' of WMD - and that had really gone well, hasn't it?

Anonymous said...

Russia is using different tactics to undermine different countries. Putin's objective is to divide & conquer, so he can bring the beloved USSR back again without interference from Europe or the US. Russia is playing a very clever game of chess

I half-agree about the US being ahead of us about uncovering Russian corruption - Trump & his corrupt gang haven't lost the fight yet

John Sweeney has published his very interesting complaint to OfCom about the Beeb and balance:

And has no-one checked up why the Daily Mail has connections with Russia ?