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30 July 2020

Of course Russia interferes in British politics. The question is: what do we do about it?

From my time on the defence select committee, that Russian disinformation would be deployed in our elections and the referendum is no great shock, says Phil Wilson.

By Phil Wilson

In the early hours of 13 December, after I had thanked all those who needed to be thanked at the count for administering the general election and those who helped my own campaign, I congratulated my Conservative opponent on his victory. I reminded him and those who were there what I always believed and still do: it is the first duty of government to defend its people and patriotism is not an evil. To hear Keir Starmer echo those sentiments at Prime Minister’s Questions when he said, “Under my leadership national security will always be the top priority for Labour,” I felt the sacrifice of so many of us on 12 December was being repaid. Combined with the cleansing of the wound of anti-Semitism, it was a moment the fetid air of the Corbyn era was shown the window. The party is indeed under new management.

In the new era, Labour’s management has been clear on the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) long-delayed report into Russia’s involvement in British affairs. Full and considered cross-party support is on the table to ensure our country’s security. Patriotism is once again part of the Labour lexicon.

There is a need for new intelligence and security legislation; a need to resource the United Kingdom’s vigilance and for government ministers to ask questions of the intelligence service when information in the public domain seems to point to Russian interference in our democratic processes.

As a member of the House of Commons defence select committee and a British delegate to the Council of Europe, I became well aware of the influence Russia can have on the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Vladimir Putin will exploit any opportunity to exacerbate divisions within organisations such as the EU and Nato. His ambition is to discredit the liberal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law the West defends as an alternative to his autocratic rule. His approach is hybrid: kinetic where necessary, cyber or disinformation when needed – or, more likely, a combination of all three. Putin’s approach to the UK is more understated – unless, of course, you are a former Russian spy living in Salisbury. Whatever the metaphor, the behaviour is sinister. One of Russia’s preferred options is the use of disinformation to influence internal events in Western democracies.   

For Russia, information warfare is a 24 hour, seven day a week, every week of the year activity. Roman Skaskiw, an American journalist of Ukranian decent who now lives in Ukraine, believes there are nine aims of Russian propaganda, which include: destroy and ridicule the idea of truth, pollute the information space, confuse the conversation and rely on dissenting political groups to deliver your message abroad.

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The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said the UK government was “almost certain” Russia did try to interfere in the 2019 election. But government tone changed when it came to the Brexit Referendum. During that campaign, according to the government, it has seen “no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”.

There is obvious inconsistency in the government’s messaging. On the one hand, it is “almost certain” of attempted interference in last year’s election, but the bar is raised for the Brexit referendum to no “evidence of successful interference”. “Successful interference” is not the same as no interference. 

It seems incredible to believe that Russia interfered in the Scottish referendum and the 2019 election but wasn’t interested in Brexit. It would seem the lack of evidence is because the government hasn’t gone looking for it because they did not want to know. As the Labour MP Kevan Jones, a member of the ISC said: “The outrage is that no one wanted to know if there was interference.”

The ICS report also highlighted the role of Russian money in London and called for new legislation to tackle “the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite”. There also needs to be a strategic approach to our national security. Russia Today should be investigated by Ofcom. We need to look again at potential Russian involvement in recent elections and referenda so that we can secure our country’s democracy for the future. Lessons need to be learned.

Keir Starmer has worked with the security services as director of public prosecutions. We need, more than ever, that expertise. Labour has offered to work with the government. Boris Johnson needs to take up the offer. It is, after all, the patriotic thing to do.