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The unfounded hysteria about Russian interference is being driven by the political centre struggling to find a way back, argues Chris Nineham

British politics just keeps getting stranger. We have a government in utter and deadly disarray over coronavirus, habitually lying about its performance and paralysed by a gathering tsunami of layoffs and closures. 

Yet one of the main things the political classes and the media seem to want to talk about are bizarre claims that Russia sought to interfere in the Scottish Independence referendum, the Brexit vote and the 2019 election.

What makes all the fuss stranger is that the claims outlined in the report on Russia from the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee released on Tuesday are backed up with almost no evidence. There is reference to “credible open source commentary” apparently indicating Russia tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. “Open source commentary’ is security service intelligence assessment jargon for articles in the press. 

We are not told much about the articles referred to although a footnote does mention a story about ‘Pro-Kremlin trolls’ by Ben Nimmo. Ben Nimmo is a £5,000 a month consultant to the Integrity initiative, the organisation condemned even by Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan for its attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. 

The report goes on to mention other open-source material, including studies of attempts to influence the EU referendum using the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik or social media campaigns. But no actual evidence of interference is presented.

Corrupt capital

It also refers to the economic and social influence of rich Russians, and Britain’s habit of “welcoming oligarchs with open arms”. This, it claims, offers “ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’”. It is of course true that because of its high property values, networks of offshore tax havens, and lightly regulated financial markets, London in particular is a magnet for unsavoury billionaires from around the globe. 

There is no doubt too that sections of the British political class are deeply corrupt, partly because of the amount of spare cash swirling around the capital. Many politicians take money in various forms from a whole range of corrupt regimes, often close allies. There is little doubt that senior Tories are close to a number of leading Russian oligarchs.

This is a dangerous situation that needs to be dealt with. But the undoubted greed of many British politicians and deep corruption of the British establishment is not what is being discussed here. 

Putin runs a deeply undemocratic, crony capitalist regime. It is highly likely that the Russian government does try and influence politics in Britain and elsewhere. All major powers mount operations abroad. Britain has been involved after all in a whole range of military, drone and cyber attacks on foreign countries in the last two decades. But claims that there are a lot of Russians with links to Putin who are integrated into the UK business scene because of their wealth is really not evidence of a particular Russian plot to subvert our democracy.   

Things get even more bizarre. The report itself accepts that there is no evidence that if any attempts were made to interfere that they had any impact at all. In fact the report explicitly says that it doesn’t even seek to explore that question, saying that it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to do so. 

What is more, the report goes on to say that:

“In terms of the direct threat to elections, we have been informed that the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound: the use of a highly dispersed, paper-based voting and counting system makes any significant interference difficult.”

Method in the madness

So what is really going on here? Why all the hysteria around a report that it itself admits proves absolutely nothing? Politicians and commentators of the centre have long been warning of Russian interference. Such claims serve a number of purposes. First they suggest the illegitimacy of the Brexit referendum and the case for Brexit in general. ‘It was Putin what won it’ is the ludicrous and, as this report shows, completely unfounded implication.

Of course the Johnson government should have released this report when it came out and the fact that they didn’t is being used to further imply there is some link between the Brexiteers and the authoritarian Russian regime. 

Secondly they represent a general ideological assault on protectionism and economic nationalism. They can and are used to attack the left too. Putin is a useful bogeyman for all those who want to take us back to the ‘glory days’ of globalisation and the dream of wider European integration. 

Thirdly they are being used as part of an argument for a more robust military and security policy and in particular one that centres on our relations with our European allies. As one ‘security expert’ was arguing on Tuesday, ‘this is a warning about the need to reconnect with Europe at the political and the security level’. Behind that is the message that democracy is in danger from tyrants and that we mustn’t abandon our willingness and ability to fight foreign wars to defend it.

But this isn’t about democracy, this is about the nostalgia of a political centre struggling to find a way back.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.