A Tale of Two Cities
The greatest threat to British democracy comes not from Moscow or Brussels but is “Made in England”
Two extraordinary events, both centred in historical English provincial cities, have gripped the British public this March. First came the attempted murder of the double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. As soon as the excitement surrounding this started to subside, the Guardian and Channel 4 exposed the dirty tricks in which Cambridge Analytica indulge.
Both events have offered a distraction from Brexit-related matters but have also, at least in the short-term, provided a space for our beleaguered Prime Minister to redeem herself. She has been able to enter the ring and be cheered, even by some members of the opposition, for her speed and forthrightness in attributing the blame for the Salisbury poisoning to Vladimir Putin. Her indignation about the dirty tricks in which Cambridge Analytica, by its own admission, engages has also received general approval.
Paradoxically, if Theresa May has been correct in pointing the finger of blame on Putin for trying to kill Skripal, then she is in the anomalous position of being able to thank him for the opportunity that he provided her to restore her credibility with British voters and to split the parliamentary opposition. At least in the short term, it has raised her ability to push ahead in negotiating the “hard” Brexit that she is pursuing in spite of the huge economic costs that it implies for us all. In this sense the “Salisbury poisonings” will have allowed the Brexiteers to heave a sigh of relief at a time when they may have been fearful of a swing in public opinion towards the idea that Britain would be better off staying in the EU.
What the Cambridge Analytica affair tells us is that it is now possible for anyone who so wishes to secretly buy highly professional privately managed services that are able to tip an election outcome or to influence government policies in the directions that their paymasters want. What they offer is not just the ability to harness social media on a massive scale to induce changes in individual voting behaviour but also, according to investigative reporters from the Guardian and Channel 4, a range of “dark arts”, handled by former British and Israeli spies. They will carry out “deep deep” research on opponents to identify and expose their vulnerabilities, put out fake news stories, set up “honey traps” and arrange “bribery stings” backed up with video evidence.
I have absolutely no intention to suggest that Cambridge Analytica was in any way involved in the Skripal affair or even in influencing the outcome of the UK’s EU Referendum in June 2016. What must concern us, however, is that they – and possibly other similar firms – are telling potential customers that they are able to exercise a determining influence on the outcome of electoral or political events, with no scruples about using dirty tricks.
The shape of Britain’s future relationship with Europe now hangs in the balance. Which way it tips in the coming months will have a fundamental impact on Britain’s prosperity and international standing for years to come. Much is at stake, notably for big business and for politicians who aspire for power. There is now a situation in which those who feel threatened by one outcome or another and who can access a few million pounds from well-hidden sources have the option of secretly hiring consultants such as Cambridge Analytica to exercise a profound but subtle influence on the decision, whether taken by the government, parliament or the electorate, as to whether to leave the EU or remain part of it.
I am sure that, if you are prepared to pay enough, they would orchestrate a Skripal II scenario for you or agree to dig up – or invent – dirt to assassinate the character of anyone who stands in your way. Running a fake news campaign would come cheaper for you but could be equally effective!
We are in an alarming situation in which the integrity and proper functioning of our democratic institutions at this critical time is threatened by an emergent web of institutions that successfully harness advances in communications and in the “dark arts” of espionage in order to subvert “normal” political processes. They will work in total secrecy for the highest bidder, eluding detection and cancelling all traces of evidence as they proceed. They exploit delays in the introduction of new legislation on the use of cyber-space and they know how to run faster than the institutions that are meant to regulate them!
The greatest danger to British democracy does not come from Moscow or from Brussels but is entirely Made in England. A largely British firm provides its services not only in its home-land but claims to have influenced the outcome of elections in the United States and countries in the Caribbean and to have operated clandestinely in eastern Europe, admitting “no one even knew they were there, they were just ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out”.
It may be good for the Prime Minister’s ego and her standing with the electorate to bash Putin for the botched murder of a couple of Russians. The risk, however, is that this raises international tensions when it must be in our long-term interest to nurture peace in the region and that it risks damaging valuable trade relations when we are seeking to expand British exports. Surely the priority for any UK government should be to clear up the rot in its own backyard, closing down the companies that live by subverting democracies and clapping proper controls on the finance houses domiciled in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that offer financial safe-havens for multinationals and the super-rich.
In the meantime, it would seem prudent for the government to propose to the EU that the Brexit process should be put on hold until we have complete confidence that our democratic institutions are fully proofed against subversion and manipulation by Cambridge Analytica and institutions of that ilk. Only then can we and the countries of the EU be sure that they are “fit for purpose” and able to take transparent decisions on the most important policy issue of our lifetime.