Putin, the European Union and the undermining of British Democracy

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Published: 21st November 2017

This article looks at what we currently know about Russian interference in our democracy and the EU referendum and what Molly is doing to challenge this.  

What do we know?

In recent weeks it has become clear that Russian attempts to subvert democracy did not orginate with the US presidential election but that the techniques used successfully then were honed during the Brexit referendum campaign. In the US there is a full-scale FBI investigation into Kremlin meddling but in the UK almost nothing has taken place. We appear to be leaving the back door to our democratic processes open and Russian intelligence has walked right in.

Although Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian, and other online journalists, have been publishing evidence for some time, the story broke when the Prime Minister mentioned it in her speech at Mansion House on 13th November. However she, and other commentators, have deliberately omitted to make any connection with the Brexit campaign. It has been left to Labour MP Ben Bradshaw to raise these questions in the Commons.

Given the close links that there appear to be between senior Conservatives, Conservative friends of Russia, and the very highest levels of a Conservative government – and the powerful influence of Russian oligarchs in London – it may not be so surprising that there has been little appetite by a Conservative government to investigate further. But it is truly shocking that the subversion of our democracy by a foreign power should have been treated so lightly.

There is a South West angle here, since the allegations of illegal funding for the Leave campaign focus around Arron Banks, who lives in Bristol, and his company Better for the Country Ltd. The communications director for Leave.EU, Andy Wigmore, is also based in Bristol and has admitted that the campaign was running bots (software that runs automated tasks on social media) from the city. All concerned have strenuously denied any Russian influence or money, although they routinely retweet messages from Russia Today and have a close relationship with the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko.

What is Molly doing?

Molly has made a formal complaint to Avon and Somerset Police, questioning whether crimes were committed in the Bristol area in connection with illegal funding for the Brexit campaign or the management of social media bots. You can read about the complaint here.

Molly has also contacted the Electoral Commission to ask them about the nature of their inquiry into the potentially illegal funding of the Leave campaign. You can read further details here. She is following up by asking the House of Commons Library to clarify who has the power to act in these circumstances, essentially asking the question who is our equivalent of the FBI and why they have not acted.

The European Union has been more active against Russian propaganda, setting up an East StratCom task force in September 2015, whose work has been largely focused on the EU’s eastern border. More detail available here. Molly has asked the taskforce to commence investigations into Kremlin involvement in the EU referendum campaign and raised a question with the European Commission, asking whether it is aware of Russian interference in the referendum campaign and whether it considers this as an attack on the stability of the EU.

She has also asked the European Parliamentary Research Service to investigate what the European Union institutions generally are doing to counter Russian propaganda aimed specifically at the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.