A country under the influence: Russian interference in British politics

The UK’s ostensible new “ethical foreign policy” stands up to little scrutiny – not least as the government’s preferred form of Brexit limits chances it will ever enact such a policy.  

The phrase “ethical foreign policy” is, in the British context, associated with the memory of Robin Cook, Tony Blair’s first foreign secretary. Conservatives have tended to view it as so much virtue-signalling, or at least as unrealistic. Yet last week Dominic Raab, foreign secretary in Boris Johnson’s government, seemed to don the old Cook mantle: announcing sanctions against a slate of Russian and Saudi malefactors, he echoed his predecessor in affirming Britain’s vocation as “a force for good in the world”.

Alas, the last few days – and in particular the publication by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of its long-awaited report on Russian meddling in the United Kingdom – have only underlined the gap waiting to be bridged between this noble aspiration and the current reality.

Raab’s language last week could not have been more trenchant, or more specific: “Today this government and this House sends a very clear message on behalf of the British people: that those with blood on their hands, the thugs of despots, or the henchmen of dictators, won’t be free to waltz into this country to buy up property on the King’s Road, or do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or frankly to siphon dirty money through British banks or financial institutions.” But then, when he spoke, Raab had no idea that a short while later we would all be able to read in the ISC report just how pervasive and embedded Russian influence has become within the British establishment.

Indeed, the Johnson government has gone to great lengths to keep the report under wraps. It was ready for publication last autumn, at a time of intense interest in what it might say about Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum (the December general election was the last chance for Remainers to press their argument for a second referendum). But Johnson decreed that the decision on what to do with the report should be one for the new ISC, once it had been reconstituted after the election. That process was stretched out over half a year. A new ISC is meant to elect its own chair; the government unblushingly moved to impose its own stooge – only to be outsmarted last week by an independent-minded Conservative member who secured the chair for himself. The new committee then voted for immediate publication of the report.

What was the government so keen to keep from us? Inevitably, the text is heavily redacted; and much of the report’s impact lies less in dramatic new revelation than in authoritative confirmation of what was already widely suspected. It is really no surprise to learn that Russia is an aggressive mafia state, with state organs and organised crime working together in a “symbiotic relationship”; or that UK systems are subject to repeated Russian cyber attack; or that Russian disinformation efforts persistently seek to confuse, divide, and foster extremism.

The Boris Johnson government has gone to great lengths to keep the ISC’s Russia report under wraps.

As for the key question of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, it turns out that we do not know – for the very good reason that we have not looked. The various agencies avoided the issue as a “hot potato” – and it seems that neither the government under neither Johnson or Theresa May wanted this particular stone turned over as they pressed on with taking Britain out of the European Union.

Equally disturbing is the picture painted of the extent to which, over the last 25 years, dirty Russian money has been deployed at the heart of the British system: whether through donations to political parties, a wide spectrum of charitable and cultural largesse, or straightforward purchase of members of the House of Lords (astonishingly, it turns out that it is not a criminal offence, under current legislation, to be the covert agent of a foreign intelligence service).

So successfully has Russia “invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment”, according to the report, that “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’”.

The report also highlights the scale of the “growth industry of enablers – individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK”. Ranks of lawyers and accountants and estate agents have grown rich helping oligarchs to launder their money, enjoy it, distribute it to buy further influence, and secure it in tax havens.

Depressingly, in a section entitled “Trying to Shut the Stable Door”, the report muses on how tough it will be to do much about this, now that Russian influence is so entrenched, and given the mismatch between the praetorian guard of professionals retained to defend Russian interests and the under-resourced regulators and investigative agencies trying to do something about it. The Knightsbridge shops and King’s Road estate agents seem to have little to worry about for the foreseeable future.

Nor, for that matter, have the Saudi arms-buyers. Scarcely had the list of Saudis sanctioned for their involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi been published when defence secretary Ben Wallace phoned his Saudi counterpart to mend fences. Rather more to the point, Britain then announced that it would resume issuing export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia (suspended since last year after a legal challenge related to the war in Yemen).

Britain is hardly alone among Western countries in its vulnerability to subversion and corruption by unpleasant foreign regimes, or in its reluctance to acknowledge the fact. (The parallel between Johnson’s and Donald Trump’s determination to disavow Russian interference in popular votes that only just went their way is striking). Nor is Britain the only country to present itself to the world with a degree of hypocrisy – the tribute, after all, that vice pays to virtue. But given that Britain’s coronavirus-induced economic woes will soon be amplified by Brexit, not to mention the escalating row with China – well, it might be prudent to dial down the self-righteous rhetoric, at least until we have worked out some alternative to arms sales and money-laundering as ways to make a national living.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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