The Russia report confirms it: the government had reason to suspect a violation of our democratic processes, and ignored it
The conclusion of the Russia report is damning not for what it says, but for what it cannot. Neither the British government nor intelligence agencies made any effort to investigate the alleged hacking of the UK’s most significant democratic event in generations.
The intelligence and security committee’s (ISC) Russia report does not hold back. It states that “we have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference … in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election”. Its press release is even more blunt, declaring that “the government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016”. The committee duly recommends that the intelligence services “produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum” and publish an unclassified summary.
Predictably, the government has rejected that advice. It has responded that “we have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”, and given the lack of new information, “a retrospective assessment … is not necessary”.
We should note that many Russia experts doubt a coordinated interference in the Brexitreferendum. Some argue that it vastly overestimates, and indeed flatters, Russian power, casting Vladimir Putin as an omnipotent and organised super-villain, rather than the frequently stymied leader of a chaotic state bureaucracy. Many also note that Russia had both economic and political interests to maintain a strong EU – not least as a bulwark against the US. Much of the consensus suggests that interference was probably low-level and uncoordinated – a moderate nuisance rather than a major attack.
Nevertheless, allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum did not emerge from the ether and were not simply the online ramblings of conspiracy theorists. As the report notes, there is credible evidence that Russian actors have interfered in foreign elections over a period of some years, and the Russian state often views foreign policy as a zero-sum game.
The prospect of Russian interference should therefore have been taken seriously, not dismissed as partisan theatre. As one expert put it to me, “the best way to counter Russia’s influence is to expose it, transparently, without political games”. A government that valued the integrity of its elections and institutions would make every conceivable effort to investigate and combat breaches. This government’s entire approach to the Russia report suggests that it instead privileged its own short-term interests.
Why has the government looked the other way? Frankly, it has simply been consistent. The referendum was compromised in a number of ways. Some, such as the allegations of misspending, were about laws. Others, such as the naked falsehoods published by Vote Leave, were about basic fairness. And yet early on, for whatever reason, the UK government decided that Brexit was the will of the people and that was the end of it. Under the stewardship of Theresa May, the referendum transformed from political moment to religious text. Brexit became our national creed and would not be questioned.
This approach has infected our body politic. As the ISC noted, MI5 has been anxious not to be seen as involving itself in “contentious” politics. Really this reveals the hyper-tribal nature of our modern political landscape. Nothing is, or is seen to be, neutral. Even well-meaning attempts at objectivity are slammed as political point-scoring. But to investigate the workings of the referendum is not to take sides in a political dispute, but to ensure the proper functioning of our democracy. That cannot rely on winning by any means necessary, and no democratic engine can survive without occasionally lifting the bonnet. A British government should not simply want to confirm the legitimacy of our elections. It explicitly needs to.
The fundamental point here is not that we would have remained in the EU if it hadn’t been for shady officials in Moscow, or troll farms in St Petersburg. Even if such a smoking gun exists, it will probably never be found. Rather, the government had reason to suspect a violation of our democratic processes and ignored it. An admission of such a breach would have caused embarrassment. It could have made life even more difficult on the global stage. Worst of all, it would have demanded greater justification for the national self-sabotage our government has resolved, at any cost, to implement.
The scandal revealed today, then, is not that our democracy was corrupted or voided by the actions of a foreign power – it’s that the British establishment didn’t care either way.
• Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the thinktank British Influence