The Russia report reveals a story of repeated failure by successive governments

No prime minister has responded adequately to hostile acts by Vladimir Putin’s government since 2014. 

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Successive British governments and the security services failed to predict or adequately respond to hostile acts by the Russian government, failed to learn the lessons from a series of high-profile hostile acts, failed to adequately investigate or safeguard future electoral contests after receiving credible evidence of interference in the Scottish referendum, while providing a ready and willing service to launder dirty money for Russian oligarchs, who have successfully bought money and influence in the United Kingdom, particularly in the capital and through close financial and social connections to politicians, particularly in the ruling party. That’s the conclusion of a damning report by the intelligence and security select committee.

The report’s conclusions are not as simple as “Russians did Brexit” or “Russians tried to do Scottish independence/Russians did Better Together”. What the report discusses, as has been made clear on numerous previous occasions, is that it has for some time been an aim of the Russian security services to cause division and greater polarisation, while as has also been clear, the British economy, particularly in London, has provided a “laundromat” service for dirty money.

As far as electoral interference goes, the verdict is grim: the government of David Cameron knew there were credible attempts to interfere in the electoral process during the Scottish referendum of 2014 yet did nothing to safeguard the electoral process in either the general election of 2015 or the EU referendum of 2016. The government of Theresa May did not investigate the referendum of 2016 and it is not clear what tangible steps were taken to prevent interference in the general election of 2017. The election of 2019 took place under Boris Johnson and happened after the publication of this report, but it is, again, unclear whether the government took any action to prevent interference in that contest. Due to uncertainty about where exactly in the machinery of government the battle against disinformation by hostile actors is conducted from, it is far from clear if the relevant prime ministers or even the foreign and home secretaries were made fully aware of the problem. 

It is the latest instalment in a story of long-running failures on the part of successive British governments to get its Russia policy in order. Will it be the final chapter? That’s the task for Boris Johnson’s government – to break the cycle of repeated failure. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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