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22 July 2020

How hostile disinformation by Russia has harmed the UK

Vladimir Putin has succeeded in creating division and sowing uncertainty about the British state’s legitimacy

By Stephen Bush

David Cameron’s government knew of claims that that the Russian security services had interfered in the Scottish referendum but did nothing to safeguard the EU one. Theresa May’s government failed to investigate it. And the governments of John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May all provided a warm and willing home for figures close to Vladimir Putin to launder their money and their reputations.

Across the security services and the government, there was uncertainty about who, exactly, has responsibility for tackling disinformation from hostile state actors, with the British state displaying the same sensibility to monitoring the threat as the Arsenal squad does to tracking the opposition’s runners, while the United Kingdom’s security laws are painfully out of date and inadequate to the challenge. 

That’s the damning conclusion of the intelligence and security committee’s report into Russian involvement in British elections. The question at hand is not, despite what the government and several commentators seem to believe, “Did the Russians do Brexit?” or, “Did the Russians want Scottish independence to happen?” 

The purpose of hostile disinformation is to create division and sow uncertainty about the state’s legitimacy. To take Scottish independence: our present unstable equilibrium, of SNP dominance within a Scotland that remains part of the UK, is a victory of sorts for any hostile state. To take Brexit: a political atmosphere in which it is perfectly respectable to spread conspiracies about the civil service, or about whether Boris Johnson’s baby is fake is a victory. 

The question is: have successive governments done enough to tackle the problem of disinformation from hostile powers, and is the government getting a grip on the problem now? The answer to the first question is that they haven’t, and the answer to the second is it doesn’t yet look like it.

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