The Russia report’s criticism of the government was unambiguous and unhesitating. JAMES BALL wonders what comes next.
Reading a report from parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) often feels like trying to deduce a cryptic message from an oracle in Classical literature.
A stinging criticism from an ISC report might typically read ‘we now have confidence in the agencies’ capabilities in this area’ – because the ‘now’ implies they previously lacked that confidence. Lesser things than that have made the headlines in the past.
The latest ISC report – published, finally, on Tuesday – was not like that. There was no need to read between the lines, no need to parse ambiguous phrasing, no general sense of reassurance you needed to know how to decode this document, into Russian activity in the UK. No, this was a stinging criticism of huge swathes of the British establishment, let alone just our government or intelligence agencies.
Elite London institutions were castigated for taking money from Russian oligarchs and becoming their influence-peddlers in exchange. Political parties received fire for taking that same cash, with peers singled out for their outside work, often undeclared thanks to lax parliamentary rules. The government was lambasted for turning a blind eye to all of this, and the intelligence agencies for doing the same – largely for a quiet life.
Given this was a report published for and by the British establishment, it was scathing. It called for wide-ranging actions – new laws, new investigations, new official responsibilities for MI5, and more.
What it didn’t do, however, was give us any answers on the Brexit referendum.
In a way, that should not come as a surprise: the ISC exists to scrutinise the UK’s security and intelligence agencies. It is neither a policing nor an intelligence agency, nor a regulator. It is a panel of nine members of parliament, aided by a small number of expert advisors and the outside witnesses it consults.
It was never the job of that panel to investigate the Brexit referendum itself. What it was tasked with was the role of scrutinising the official investigations carried out behind the scenes by MI5, MI6, GCHQ and some of the inter-agency bodies and ministries which would supervise such a thing.
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What it brought to light was in some ways more shocking than any substantive revelation – it found that none of the bodies had done anything much at all.
As the USA’s FBI uncovered evidence of Russian interferences in its elections, as EU nations uncovered signs of Russian money or influence in their politics, and as UK journalists raised questions about actions here, the agencies seemingly did little.
For some of us who backed Remain, that is itself an indication of conspiracy and wrongdoing: who told the agencies not to investigate? Why didn’t ministers want to know more? The silence itself is damning, surely – especially when the government moved almost immediately to reject the committee’s recommendation for a public intelligence agency report on interference with the EU referendum.
There is another plausible, but less dramatic, explanation though: the top of the Conservative Party is dominated by an arrogant set of people who don’t much care about issues like national cohesion or trust in politics. To those people, challenging the integrity of a vote they had just won felt like a needless pain, and so they didn’t opt to launch or back any political public inquiries. Coupled with this would have been the offence to their egos at the idea they might have needed Russia to win a referendum they felt they won fair and square.
Add to that the – quite probably wrong – calculus of not wanting to create any openings for political enemies just before a snap election, and you get the government’s decision to delay the report last autumn and now to try to move on quietly from it as quickly as possible. Because there is nothing in it for them personally or politically, why should they cede this ground?
To some the first explanation – of a deliberate conspiracy to silence the issue – will certainly seem the most plausible. But the second – while corrosive to our society, and still largely unforgivable – is the most likely, especially given the margin of victory of 1.3 million votes means that no Russian intervention was likely the decisive factor in the 2016 Brexit vote.
The problem is that this is the last answer we are likely to get on this topic. There won’t be a public inquiry or an intelligence agency investigation. And the – understandable – anger at this outcome, and over the government’s inaction, risks doing Russia’s destabilising work for it.
The way to start tackling the problem of Russian interference is to try to de-politicise it – and that means moving on from it being a proxy fight over Brexit.
Russia doesn’t interfere in UK politics because it cares about the well-being of its citizens. Whether it’s pushing division over Brexit or posting hacked documents about trade talks and the NHS, it doesn’t do it because it has a view on any issue in particular. What it wants is to polarise us and to undermine our faith in our democratic processes.
Given the Kremlin’s zero-sum view of the world, it is a win for Russia just to make us less happy and less well-off, even if it doesn’t actually benefit Russia in any kind of strategic way.
If what we take from the Russia report is a further loss of faith in our democratic processes (note, this definitely does not mean our current democratic leaders), then it has ultimately benefitted Putin and his administration.
A more constructive response is to try to concentrate on making sure our future elections are safe, and that our members of our establishment and institutions are less vulnerable to being bought up and bought out by oligarchs acting as satellites for the Kremlin’s influence.
That will require a political coalition drawing from the right and the left – something which should be eminently doable, as it has been done in the recent past. Making tackling electoral interference a Brexit dividing line doesn’t help us do that.
We need new rules requiring stricter oversight of political actors on social media, of automated accounts, of political hacks and data dumps. We need to do more to make sure politicians have to disclose exactly who is paying them for outside jobs and donating for their election – and what meetings they get in return.
We need to know who lobbyists truly represent. We need to make it easier to freeze and confiscate the assets of corrupt people bringing money to the UK.
We have a national problem that has been ignored by the government for reasons of personal comfort and political gain. We need to make doing so harder, to protect our future elections and our political discourse itself.
A first step of that is moving the discussion on from purely fighting and re-fighting the Brexit debate. It’s time to look, even if it is anxiously, at our future instead.