After the Russia report: how to protect British democracy from interference

Boris Johnson waving with dog next to sign saying polling station
Boris Johnson votes in December 2019. Rick Findler/PA Archive

The UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has finally published its long overdue report on Russian interference in UK elections, nearly a year and a half after its completion and eight months after it was due for release. Even the public was incensed with the delay – a parliamentary petition calling for its release gathered more than 105,000 signatures.

While the report doesn’t provide concrete evidence of how the Russian state has interfered in UK elections, it highlights that Russia is a major threat to British democracy and political decision-making.

MPs on the committee criticised the government for failing to curb Russian interference. Attention must now turn to how British democracy can be protected in future.

Delay and subterfuge

The release of the report was delayed in November 2019 until after the December election. There has been much speculation about the reasons for the delay, including that the report contained juicy details of the Conservative Party’s connivance with Russian donors.

These were not detailed directly in the report - although Russian donations to political parties in general were highlighted. It is worth noting that despite strict disclosure rules for MPs, there is no requirement for members of the House of Lords to register individual donations of more than £100 received for any outside employment. The committee pointed to the need for a US-style Foreign Agents Registration Act to curb such lobbying.

The delay in publishing the report before the election was not surprising – it would have been foolish to openly publish a document providing the blueprints for how to interfere in British politics prior to a general election.

This was an election where Conservative Party strategists also felt the result might conceivably rest on a knife edge, following the hung parliament of 2017. This is my preferred explanation for the delay: releasing it prior to the election simply wasn’t worth the risk. In so doing, the government bought time to implement some of the ISC’s recommendations.

Since his election, Boris Johnson seemed hard at work to get his preferred man, Chris Grayling, into the chairmanship of a newly reconstituted ISC. This was perhaps to determine the final content of the report and manage the subsequent media relations.

However, another Conservative MP, Julian Lewis, had other ideas and convinced opposition Labour and Scottish National Party MPs on the committee to vote for him instead. He won the chairmanship – and was swiftly thrown out of his party. Few miss the irony of the subterfuge over who gets to chair the oversight committee for Britain’s secret services.

Growing threat

Russian disinformation operations aimed at elections attack the target country’s command and control system. Russia appears to have strengthened and increased its election interference activity in recent years – such as in the 2016 US presidential election and the 2017 French presidential election.

A few days before the Russia report was published, the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, also called out Russian attempts to influence the 2019 UK election through leaked details of post-Brexit trade talks with the US. These leaks suggested the NHS was on the table in the negotiations, allegations picked up and used by then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

If this is what it has been doing in the recent past, what will Russia try to achieve with disinformation in the future?

Vladimir Putin with flag behind him
Russia dismissed the new report as ‘Russophobia’. Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin Pool/EPA

How to respond

There is clearly a need for a coordinated response to counter Russian influence operations, as the report suggests the existing response has been inadequate. One solution would be to declare the electoral apparatus part of the country’s critical national infrastructure. Necessary parts of the government with an existing remit for detecting and countering disinformation should then be subsumed into one centrally co-ordinated, cross-government unit.

Such a unit does partly exist – and the government mentioned it in its response to the ISC report – but it’s not clear whether it involves the security services, who are critical to countering the subversion threat.

To be truly effective, the unit should include the part of government communications headquarters dealing with detection of cyber-operations by Russian and other hostile state actors; the part of the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport that works on disinformation policy; and the Cabinet Office’s fake news rebuttal unit. It could also bring in the Electoral Commission’s expertise on foreign donations, the Information Commissioner’s Office on data protection, and MI5 on the remit to protect parliamentary democracy, among others.

Social media companies also clearly bear responsibility for countering the torrent of disinformation. So far, they have singularly failed to provide an adequate response. Setting up a social media watchdog, like the Advertising Standards Authority for the advertising industry, to oversee the regulation of disinformation and hate speech should push them to shoulder their responsibilities.

Stacks of paper votes marked Remain and Leave
The Russia report said British security agencies hadn’t investigated potential interference in the Brexit referendum. Danny Lawson/PA Archive

In its response to the Russia report, the government said it was already working to counter the Russian subversion threat, including through new strategies put in place during the delay to the report’s publication. Reports suggest the government is also now looking to strengthen security laws.

However, the government maintains that there is no evidence Russia successfully interfered in the EU referendum – a point which RT, the Russian government’s press mouthpiece, jumped on with glee. Given the apparent scale of Russian activity in British life outlined in the report, it appears the government is taking a water pistol to a gunfight.

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