Sunday National, 26th July 2020.
You may need the assistance of a bathroom mirror or a sympathetic relative, but every six months or so, I strongly recommend that you check the back of your skull for signs of a zip, clasp or fastener holding your cranium together – because significant numbers of our politicians seem to think your head buttons up backwards. Having checked my napper this morning, I’m happy to report there is no visible seam or stitch in mine – but you never can be too sure. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
This has been a week of credulous spin in British politics. So what else is new? But on any fair reckoning, the last seven days been a voyage of discovery. Let me sketch the timeline. On Tuesday morning, Westminster’s long-delayed Intelligence and Security Committee report into Russian interference in UK politics was scheduled to be published. The hold-up was entirely attributable to the machinations of Downing Street, who subjected the committee’s findings to a nine-month pocket-veto.
No convincing justification has yet been given for this delay. Number 10’s explanations have been consistently inaccurate and self-serving. No plausible account has been given to justify why this happened, and why Boris Johnson considered it essential this report was not put before the public before the election in December 2019.
The only rational inference is that, in the judgement of the Prime Minister and his coterie, it contained material which could be materially damaging to the government, the Conservative Party, and maybe Brexit too. Just how damaging its conclusions might be were a matter of speculation. It seemed probable, however, that Johnson was concerned that nothing should be seen to undermine the perceived validity of the 2016 referendum, or jolt fresh life into the now undead Remainers and the doomed People’s Vote campaign they championed.
Given the fact that the public and the press seem largely uninterested in the other procedural infelicities which characterised the 2016 referendum – the unlawful splashing of cash around, the shadowy funders, the contempt for legal limits on campaign spending, the unlawful collusion between different campaign groups, the impact of misinformation, disinformation and the unashamedly economical with the actualité in plain sight – it isn’t obvious why they would conclude a battalion of social media accounts howling into the void on Twitter or Facebook should be treated as the decisive factor which tipped England towards voting to leave the EU.
The mainstream media in the UK have been doing a roaring trade in this kind of propaganda on their own for decades without any assistance from the Kremlin and their online catspaws. You don’t need any kind of Russian conspiracy to read this kind of copy day and daily in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Telegraph and Sun newspapers, endlessly amplified through mainstream news and radio.
On Monday, in advance of the publication of the ISC report, the Telegraph newspaper ran a screamer front page. The headline? ‘Russia report: Kremlin “tried to meddle in Scottish independence vote” – but did not target Brexit,’ the house journal for grogblossomed reactionaries everywhere south of the Wash gleefully proclaimed. While the 2014 referendum was mired in “the first post-Soviet interference in a Western democratic election,” the Telegraph suggested this would prove in stark contrast to the pristine exercise in popular democracy the Brexit referendum represented. “There is no direct evidence of Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit referendum,” the paper reported. A clean bill of health then. Nothing to see here.
The media is an echo chamber. Through Monday, the supposed Telegraph revelation bounced through the bulletins and was picked up and circulated by other press outfits. The source of this friendly leak to the Telegraph is not identified, for obvious reasons, but you don’t need the acumen of Sherlock Holmes or the detective skills of Poirot to deduce that this home-grown spin operation was calculated to insulate the political project of Brexit from scrutiny, and to imply, at the very least, that one reason to be sceptical about Scottish independence is because Vlamidir Putin may see it as an handy tool further to undermine the UK’s fragile internal integrity and faltering international standing. On the other hand, you might think the UK government is making a fine job of achieving these outcomes all on its own.
It was also obvious that the source of this indiscretion hadn’t thought about the Scottish Tories. This allegedly Russian-busted poll, after all, is the sanctified, everlasting referendum of Scottish Tory imagination. It is their “we said no and we meant it” moment. Just as Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are – understandably – keen not to dent the perceived legitimacy of the Brexit referendum, it isn’t obviously in the Scottish Tory interest to undermine the outcome in 2014 either. But not to be discouraged, with all the political cunning, elegance and guile of a sea-cucumber navigating a trapeze, Jackson Carlaw responded by demanding an “immediate” public inquiry, arguing “the SNP has questions to answer in relation to Russian interference.”
And so Tuesday toddles along. The clock strikes 10.30am – and the ISC report spills into the public domain. Enterprising hacks across the land – myself included – raced to find the section dealing with Scotland and Brexit. And what do you know? The Telegraph tale was at best a half-truth, the Brexit spin powerfully misleading. The basic error is this: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, particularly when your spooks have been on a four-year tea break and inadvertently neglected to follow up any of the leads.
While the Committee noted “there has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014,” they conclude dthat the UK government “has “not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”
Stewart Hosie put it snappily. “The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the EU referendum, because they did not want to know. The UK government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered.” And just as the Scottish Tories in Edinburgh pressed their demands for an inquiry here – an inquiry, incidentally, Holyrood really doesn’t have the powers to hold – in Westminster, Johnson’s administration loftily swatted away the suggestion that any weather eye should be run back over the events of 2016. Rationalise that discrepancy, if you can. Brexit’s mystique must be maintained.
There seems every likelihood that Putin’s regime interfered in both the 2014 and 2016 polls. It seems equally unlikely we will ever be able to say with confidence what impact, if any, this interference had on how the electorate voted. But this isn’t a game of your-Russian-intereference-is-worse-than-my-Russian-interference. Whatever your political stripe or hue, it is not in our interests for our democracy to subverted in this way – any more than we can afford to be indifferent to the mystery money and big donor culture which the Tory Party are soused in, and the corrosive effect it has on how we’re governed and decisions taken.
Maybe it is mounting panic, but under Jackson Carlaw, the Scottish Tories seem entirely bereft of strategic thinking. Time and again, they pack themselves into painful political contradictions, seemingly unable to restrain their reflexes to jump on any and every criticism they can throw at the SNP, even when such criticism objectively damages their own political interests. It tells you everything you need to know about the cynicism and superficiality of the Conservative Party that believe they can be at once outraged by a lack of an inquiry in Edinburgh, and think one shouldn’t happen in London, that they believe their opponents have questions to answer, but feel obliged to answer none themselves, that Kremlin support can at once be weaponised to criticise Scottish independence, but dare not speak its name on Brexit. Mr Carlaw, just how gullible do you think folk are? We know better. We checked for buttons this morning.