Russia and the Referendum
by Paul Francis, August 2019
Everyone knows that the Brexit campaign was unpleasant. Lies were told, outrageous claims went unchallenged, and there was a deliberate attempt to stoke up fear and hatred of immigrants. Reasonable doubts were dismissed as “Project Fear”, and there was no serious consideration of what Brexit might mean for Scotland, Ireland or Wales, let alone its impact on Europe. It was all about Anglocentric males competing for attention, without any concern for the impact they were having. This was considerable and destructive, culminating in the murder of Jo Cox.
What’s less well known is the serious possibility that the Brexit vote was flawed. It was not the result of a free and fair election, and there is a strong case to be made for declaring the result void and revoking article 50. There was an early attempt to challenge the Brexit result, in the court case of Wilson v. Prime Minister. The argument was that Theresa May acted unreasonably in proceeding with article 50 because there were three indications that the referendum was fraudulent – overspending by Vote Leave, a criminal investigation into Arron Banks, and evidence of Russian involvement presented to the parliamentary select committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
The problem was that much of the evidence was incomplete. Ideally, they would have liked to draw on the conclusions of the National Crime Agency and the Electoral Commission, but at the time of their application neither of those investigations had been completed. In the current volatile climate, where High Court judges can be branded “enemies of the people” by tabloid newspapers, it’s sad but understandable that some enquiring bodies are tentative in their approach. If Nigel Farage is the most powerful politician in the country, nobody’s in a hurry to question the source of his power.
For the judges in the Wilson v. Prime Minister case, such considerations were irrelevant. They ruled that the challenge to the referendum result had not been raised sufficiently early to meet the demands of the Referendum Act and the Representation of the People Act.
A further ground was that the success of the case depended on demonstrating that the Prime Minister had acted unreasonably in activating Article 50, and in the judges’ opinion that aim had not been achieved. Part of their concern was to protect government’s room for manoeuvre – if all decisions are subject to lengthy retrospective questioning, how will anything ever get done?
In their desperation to challenge the referendum result, the Wilson team threw together very different kinds of evidence, and at the time of their application the weakest part of their case was the allegation of Russian interference. The irony is that the clearest demonstration of that involvement (the final report of the DCMS select committee) only arrived in February 2019, at precisely the time when the court was refusing wilson the right to appeal. There is a case to be made for arguing that Russian interference affected the referendum result, but it has to be done under a different legal framework than that used for Wilson v. Prime Minister.
We are dealing with a transformed electoral context, where the vast majority of the campaigning effort – the time, thought and money – is channelled online, mainly through social media. The evidence is fluid and transient, often deliberately disguised, and we don’t yet have the regulatory framework to keep track of it, let alone control its misuse.
So far as Russian intervention is concerned, it has taken the full three years since the referendum for us to get a clearer picture of what happened, but that doesn’t mean that it is too late. I believe that the evidence we now have demonstrates that the 2016 referendum was not a free and fair election, and that its result must be set aside.
On November 13, 2017, Theresa May told the Russians that “we know what you’re doing.” They responded “and we know what YOU’RE doing.”
Two days later, however, she insisted that the examples of interference to which she referred were all from Europe, but did not include the Brexit vote. On that she was happy to accept the evidence of her foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, that there was “no evidence yet.”
He insisted “I haven’t seen a sausage”, and then testified to that effect. Chris Bryant was surprised:
“We asked him about Russian interference in Brexit in the foreign affairs committee last week and he categorically denied he had seen a shred of evidence. I just thought ‘blimey.’ Even as a junior minister in the foreign office Russia stuff came across my desk every single day.” (Observer 12.11.17)
With the wisdom of hindsight, Johnson’s denial is ludicrous. We now know that there was heavy Russian involvement in the Scots independence campaign of 2014, and in the US election of 2016. In between those events, would they really have missed the chance to affect a vote that would help to destabilise the EU?
But we didn’t have all the available information, so the DCMS select committee, under Damian Collins, was asked to see what they could find. Their inquiry into disinformation and 'fake news' was announced in September 2017. The committee held 23 oral evidence sessions, including one in Washington, received more than 170 written submissions, and heard evidence from 73 individuals. Their report was published in February 2019, and it’s well worth looking up – google “DCMS on Brexit fake news”.
From unpromising beginnings – a small group, with little expertise and few resources – the precision and tenacity of their enquiries has attracted widespread admiration. The Washington Post referred to them as a “plucky little panel”, and the clarity of their questioning has been contrasted with the bombastic showboating exhibited by some of their American counterparts. They have been surprised at some of the publicity they attracted, but what particularly struck Collins was:
“…just how many connections take you back to Russia…There’s never been a point where we thought ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as we feared.’ ” (Observer 29.7.18)
They steer a calm course between the various estimates of what might have been going on. They include evidence from the 89up.org group, whose CEO Mike Harris testified that
“The Kremlin’s propaganda channels had three times more impact on Twitter than both the official Leave campaigns combined.”
This is during the hectic last week of the campaign in June 2016, when Vote Leave and leave.eu are spending the maximum effort and more money than they’re allowed on one last-ditch effort to swing the vote.
The columnist Rafael Behr insists that “a few roubles and robotic tweets could not account for 17.4 million people rejecting EU membership.” (Guardian 13.11.18) As a general statement that’s correct, but if we’re considering the specific impact on the result then the important figure is not 17.4 million, but 600,000. Those are the marginal voters Dominic Cummings identified as having decided a knife-edge victory which could easily have gone the other way. He was confident that it was Vote Leave’s massive targeting of online resources which made the difference. If that effort and expenditure is dwarfed by what’s coming from Russia then we’re talking about more than “a few roubles and robotic tweets”.
The DCMS committee contrast the Government’s hawkish approach on the Skripal case (including an analysis of the Russian online disinformation campaign) with its airy insistence that there was no Russian impact on Brexit. (248)
They include this quote from a Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov:
“Foreign politicians talk about Russia’s interference in elections and referendums around the world. In fact, the matter is even more serious: Russia interferes in your brains, we change your conscience, and there is nothing you can do about it.” (259)
The committee also wants to know how other enquiries are progressing:
“We repeat our call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into the Russian interference in UK politics.” (273)
This was the response:
“The Government does not, and cannot, direct the police, Electoral Commission or the security service to investigate particular allegations.”
But they were not being asked to direct anyone to do anything. They were being invited to co-ordinate intelligence about the various enquiries already going on, so as to develop an accurate overview. On reflection, the Government preferred to keep their heads firmly placed in the sand:
“There is no evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes.” (Recommendation 39, May 2019)
It’s worth stopping to ask exactly what kind of evidence would count. A Remain supporter, maybe, who changed their vote on the basis of one Russian tweet? The point about this kind of influence is that it’s very hard to measure, and in many cases those affected are simply not aware that they are affected. That sounds patronising, but it’s true. Today’s voters are far more reliant on social media than they used to be, but proving a direct causal link is extremely difficult.
One possible approach to look at the testimony of the winners – the architects of the Brexit victory. They may find it hard to agree about the precise manner in which their victory should be followed up, but they are unanimous about the means through which it was achieved:
“Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work done by Aggregate IQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.” (Dominic Cummings, reported in the Observer 13.8.17)
“Since we deployed this technology we got unprecedented levels of engagement. One video, 13 million views. AI won it for Leave.” (Arron Banks 14.5.17)
“Well done, Bannon. Well done, Breitbart. You helped with this. Hugely.” (Nigel Farage, YouTube video, 29.3.17, since deleted)
Some of this work was illegal, and considerable effort was put in to try to hide it from scrutiny by the media or by regulatory authorities, but there can be no doubt that those controlling this operation were confident that their online strategy was central to their success. And if that’s true, then it’s significant that Russia was putting in more online effort than Vote Leave and leave.eu combined.
In the US, the examination of the Russian campaign is further advanced. The Mueller report provided painstaking confirmation of hostile activity, and it’s on the basis of that work that Jimmy Carter calls Trump an “illegitimate president” who was helped into office by Russian interference in the 2016 election. (The Guardian 29.6.19)
Trump and Putin regard this as a great joke they’re happy to share in public. Carter is an impressive, principled figure, but it remains to be seen how much impact he can have in Trumpland.
Back in the UK Boris Johnson is sure that nothing went on. May set up the DCMS enquiry, but hadn’t the stomach to confront the challenge which its evidence presented. Other influential Tories are too hypnotised by the post-Brexit fantasy to show any interest, and it’s a hot potato that nobody expects Corbyn to grasp. The situation cries out for fresh political leadership prepared to take on a complex but crucial issue.
There is one important consolation. All previous attempts to challenge the referendum verdict have involved Remain telling Leave that in some way they got it wrong – either that they were criminal, or that they were stupid. It remains true that whatever happens, we have to deal with serious social divisions arising from this process.
But the benefit of focussing precisely on the issue of Russian influence is that it’s not about Leave and Remain. It’s about a much older, more central principle, that when a country takes an important decision through a ballot its citizens should be free to do that without the distraction of foreign intervention. This is not losers telling the winners that they broke the rules – it’s the Brits telling the rest that they have to be free to decide for themselves. Not everyone will be willing to accept that distinction, but it’s important that it be made, and it gives us a better chance of a positive future than any of the alternatives currently on offer.
Paul Francis is a retired teacher, living in Much Wenlock, Shropshire.
He is the author of teaching materials, educational polemic, an autobiography and a novel. He is a prize-winning playwright who has had collections published by Edward Arnold and CUP. He is also a prolific poet, active in the West Midlands poetry scene, who has won local and national competitions.
His most recent polemical work was On the Damascus Road: Grenfell, O’Hagan and the LRB (Liberty Books, October 2018).