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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Russia report highlights the need to protect our democracy

As shocking as the Russia report is, there will not be many who will be surprised at its contents. It has been known for some time that Putin's Russia has sought to interfere in and influence the outcomes of elections. What is surprising is that there has been no attempt to discover whether that same interference influenced the European referendum.

As the Guardian says, unlike the US – where a report into Russian interference in the 2016 election was produced within two months of the vote – Britons have been kept in the dark about Moscow’s meddling. They continue:

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson rejected a call by MPs on the intelligence and security committee (ISC) for an inquiry into “potential Russian interference in the 2016 vote”. The government claims there was no evidence of “successful interference in the EU referendum” – but how would it know if no one has looked? The lack of curiosity about the protection of the political process from foreign influence is bad news for a liberal democracy built on the idea of safe elections. But it is good news for Mr Putin, who wants western voters to lose trust in their political systems.

The ISC report is about a year old. It seems likely that Mr Johnson had blocked its publication for political reasons. If it had emerged that there had been no assessment of the seriousness of the threat that Russia posed to our democracy last year, then without a majority in parliament he might have been forced to concede one. After December he could brush off calls for an inquiry. Given the steady stream of revelations about Mr Putin’s well-oiled campaign to interfere in elections across Europe, it ought to be obvious that there should be an appraisal of how many Russian financiers, trolls, hackers and provocateurs were allowed to influence the most important political choice the country has faced in decades.

The motivations of the prime minister deserve scrutiny. Russia is not a rival to western democracy, but it is a hostile state that lives off our moral flaws. That is the message lurking in the lucid prose of the ISC report. Mr Johnson shows little enthusiasm for the necessary steps to disrupt the flow of ill-gotten gains into the UK. His line seems to be that conniving with crooks is only wrong when one is caught. Mr Johnson thinks that if oligarchs want to enrol peers in their business interests, then that’s up to them. The prime minister appears to view influence peddlers as political entrepreneurs who don’t need to be burdened with the red tape of parliamentary reporting requirements. Then there is the burgeoning sector of enablers in the banks, law firms and estate agents who grease the wheels of money laundering. Mr Johnson thinks Britain has got the balance right when it comes to Mr Putin’s friends. He could not be more wrong.

The paper points out that MPs believe Russia is a “highly capable cyber actor” that “considers the UK one of its top western intelligence targets”. Yet elections are conducted over social media in this country with little regulation. They say our politics has become poisoned by figures who have floated upwards on a rising tide of disinformation.

Surely, it is time that electoral law is updated to counter these threats to our democracy.
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