The last two weeks have seen Britain’s gravest secret finally break into the public domain: that Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum. The fact that such an operation happened is not surprising or even, in itself, much disputed at this point: if the United States, Germany, France, and other Western democracies were targeted, it would be odd if the UK were left alone. What is extraordinary is that it has taken over 15 months for the news to be properly discussed in public. In that time, a small army of journalists has been working to overcome offshore secrecy and Britain’s repressive defamation laws to bring the matter to the public’s attention. A few MPs, notably the Labour Party’s Ben Bradshaw, have worked to break the silence, and now the quasi-governmental Electoral Commission is investigating.
But even today, the government remains committed to its code of silence: ministers will not comment, the intelligence services are standing aside, and the police are doing nothing. The government has appointed no special counsel and ordered no public inquiry, even as mounting evidence suggests that Russian subversion operations in Britain and the United States were closely connected.
There are several reasons why the British government would act in this way. Before explaining those reasons, though, it is worth setting out the series of revelations that have captured the public’s attention in recent weeks.
First came a series of pieces by Open Democracy on the strange political funding activities of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up the Conservatives in a virtual coalition government. In particular, the work focused on a £435,000 donation to the DUP by the obscure “Constitutional Research Council.” Inexplicably, most of this was spent on pro-Brexit advertising in London.
Next, Open Democracy ran a brilliant investigation into the Brexit donor Arron Banks by Alastair Sloan and Iain Campbell on October 19th. The article forensically examined Banks’s business dealings and concluded that he appeared to lack the wealth required to make £7m in cash donations to UKIP and the Leave.EU campaign group. Within days the Electoral Commission announced a direct investigation into Banks’s donations, including “Whether or not Mr. Banks was the true source of loans reported by a referendum campaigner in his name.”
Meanwhile, researchers at City, University of London discovered that an army of 13,500 Twitter bots had promoted Brexit during the campaign. In response, Damian Collins MP, chairman of the culture, media and sport committee, has launched an investigation. He has also written to Twitter asking the company to share information on the bot network.
The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has been one of the few voices in Parliament to raise the matter of Russian interference in British democracy. On October 23rd he asked Theresa May:
[…] have the UK Government or their agencies been asked for help or information by the American congressional team or U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller, who are investigating alleged Russian subversion of the U.S. presidential election?
The Prime Minister ignored the question, which Bradshaw repeated three days later to Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House. She replied: “If the Right Honorable Gentleman wants to write to me on this, I will see whether I can get him an answer.” Finally, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told another Labour MP, Chris Bryant, that there had been no requests from Mueller’s office, and indeed that he was not aware of any Russian meddling in the referendum. It seems a remarkable claim that Mueller has not made contact with one of Washington’s closest intelligence partners, despite the relevant activities of Trump associates like George Papadopoulos and Julian Assange in the UK.
The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) would be a natural venue for these matters to be examined, including the Foreign Secretary’s surprising statement. However, the committee has not been re-convened since the election, supposedly owing to problems in agreeing its composition, leaving the ISC temporarily unable to act. Given the centralization of power in the British system, and the diminishing willingness of senior public officials to resign in the public interest, the government has considerable power to obstruct state institutions from discharging their duties.
While the government remains conspicuously silent, revelations in the press continue to suggest the extent of Russia’s interference. On November 4th, the Mail on Sunday published an interview with a whistleblower from the St. Petersburg “troll factory” at 55 Savushkina Street:
The former insider at the 24-hour Russian troll factory revealed: ‘At the time of the Brexit referendum, the gist of posts was in favour of leaving the EU.
‘Our workers were given a line to take and what we wrote was monitored by our chiefs.’
During the Election, messages were sent out on social media and political debate forums ‘supporting Labour Party arguments, attacking May and backing Corbyn.’
Asked what the objective was, the troll replied: ‘You have to ask the high-level bosses, but it seems to me, to make discord in London and the UK.’
As these revelations were surfacing, Robert Mueller’s investigation unsealed its first indictments. The surprise was George Papadopoulos and his mystery professor contact, who was quickly unmasked as Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor of diplomacy. Both men were based in London.
It is worth noting that the Trump campaign and UKIP leadership have gone to great lengths to publicize their co-operation and warm relations. Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, was one of the first foreign politicians to meet Trump after he won the U.S. Presidential election, resulting in the famous “golden door” photo with Arron Banks, Andy Wigmore, Gerry Gunster and Raheem Kassam.
It is also notable that as far back as June, the Guardian reported that Nigel Farage was a “person of interest” in Mueller’s investigation, owing to his visits to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is voluntarily incarcerated in the tiny Ecuadorian embassy behind Harrods. The crucial question regarding Assange is who supplied him with the hacked DNC emails that he subsequently posted on the internet. Farage’s friend Roger Stone admits to “contact” with Guccifer 2.0., a front site used to release some of the DNC material. Although Farage was spotted entering the Ecuadorian embassy in March 2017, the question of what earlier visits he made and what he might have delivered is of paramount interest to U.S. investigators.
It is indeed puzzling that Theresa May and her ministers will not say a word about British elements of Mueller’s investigation, or indeed about the attack on Britain’s democracy. But there is some precedent here. My security sources say that during David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister from 2010 to 2015, at least two reports by the security services into Russian influence and political funding were ignored in cabinet. In June, Heidi Blake of Buzzfeed published an investigation into 14 Russia-related deaths on British soil, most of which had been overlooked or explained away by the police and the security services. Blake was inundated with U.S. security and intelligence sources complaining that their British colleagues were no longer willing to counter Russian murders on their own soil.
The pusillanimous attitude of the previous Cameron government can be explained by several factors. These include the strategic naivety of senior figures in the government and the conviction of senior ministers, particularly the Chancellor George Osborne, that Britain’s prosperity could only be maintained by massive capital inflows, no matter how dirty that capital might be. If the Kremlin’s assassinations were vigorously investigated, Russia would be alienated, and the inflows would be reduced. No doubt there are still some in government who share this distinctly sub-Churchillian view.
Shocking as the murders described in the Blake investigation were, the stakes have risen immensely with the Brexit vote, which may have permanently altered the UK’s destiny. Whether Brexit is a good thing or not is, in a sense, irrelevant, as is the theoretical question of whether the interference carried the Leave vote over 50%. What does matter is that a hostile power, whose aim is to split the Western alliance and to weaken each of its members, was seemingly allowed to operate unchecked. British people of all stripes—whether Brexiters or Remainers, Labour or Tory, Scots, Irish, Welsh or English—ought to be united in their will to expose what has happened, to punish the perpetrators and to put an end to these operations.
Why, then, does the elected government, whose first duty is national security, devote itself to concealing this story, rather than exposing it? There are four reasons:
- The Conservative Party, and in particular the cabinet, is deeply divided over Brexit. Theresa May, although herself ambiguous on the merits of the policy, has committed herself to executing the withdrawal from the EU. If information emerges that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the referendum process, her task will become even harder and the government may even collapse (bearing in mind that it only clings to power thanks to a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, itself embroiled in these questions). Therefore, she may well prefer to ignore information about Russian interference.
- May made a point of visiting Trump ahead of other leaders and publicly associating herself with him; the two leaders held hands, although it was later revealed that this was because Trump is frightened of staircases. If there is indeed a “Brexit strategy,” then a central element of it is a fast and comprehensive trade deal with the United States. May simply cannot contemplate a breakdown in relations with the Trump White House. Thus, she may be loath to investigate any connections between Russian operations targeting the U.S. 2016 presidential election and the EU referendum. Moreover, the earliest signs of suspicious contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia were provided by Britain’s GCHQ to the U.S. Intelligence Community, thanks to assistance given by other NATO allies. It is fair to assume that if Britain’s intelligence agencies were to continue delivering information on this theme to their U.S. counterparts, the White House would be displeased and the chances of a favorable and fast trade deal would diminish.
- From Cameron’s election in 2010 until his departure in 2016, Theresa May was Home Secretary, responsible for security. It was during this period that the aforementioned Russian influence operations were carried out. From a government responsibility point of view, she has no one else to blame but herself.
- The Conservative Party itself has accepted sums from Russian sources and would therefore risk being discredited itself. From one perspective, these donations may be seen as mostly marginal and not especially suspicious. For example, Lubov Chernunkin, wife of a former Russian finance minister, offered to pay £160,000 in 2014 to play tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. There were also donations from financial companies with deep links to Russia. But rumors are now surfacing in Whitehall that more substantial donors to the Conservatives under Cameron gave “dark money” whose origins are extremely difficult to ascertain.
The entire story boils down to a single sorry fact: the British government has chosen to put its own political interests above those of the country and of national security. It has also decided to elevate a relationship with a U.S. President over the Anglo-American military and intelligence partnership (admittedly a distinction that has not arisen before).
The probability that the May government will act decisively is small. The intelligence services may know a great deal about Russia’s influence already, but accounts of the government burying their reports into the matter suggest that they are being muzzled. So far, there is no sign of any willingness on the government’s part to pull the trigger on a thorough and transparent investigation.
In the meantime, the government and the Conservative Party will struggle on through the mire of sex scandals, petty rivalries and Brexit squabbles that characterize the current political scene. But as they do so, they should think of their obligations to the British people, and reflect on the ancient definition of treason: “giving of aid and comfort to the King’s enemies.” A cynical, weak, and cowardly abdication of duty in the face of Russia’s interference is an error of omission, not commission, but the effect is much the same. To use the language of the Justice Department, have the UK’s leaders stumbled into being “accessories after the fact”? In a legal sense, the answer is no—but in a moral sense, the answer may well be yes.