“… Whatever the grim necessity of these [sexual harrassment] revelations, they contribute to a sense of decline and institutional failure, and thus to an increasingly dangerous lack of trust.
But the rot in Westminster goes beyond alleged sexual harassment, to other forms of subversion that have yet to be exposed. As May prepared to go to the House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, there was a very significant development in the continuing but almost unnoticed investigations by a handful of journalists—most operating outside the mainstream media—into the financing of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.
After inquiries led by the independent media outlet OpenDemocracy, Britain’s Electoral Commission announced an investigation to see whether an insurance entrepreneur named Arron Banks broke the law by allegedly channeling $11 million in loans and gifts to a campaign for the U.K. to leave the E.U. (Banks, in response, tweeted, “Gosh I’m terrified.”)
The source of the money is somewhat of a mystery. OpenDemocracy, led by editor Mary Fitzgerald, carried out an analysis by Iain Campbell and Alistair Sloan of Banks’s financial affairs that allegedly showed he was not nearly as rich as he claimed, and suggested the $11 million came from elsewhere.
Some suspect the source is Russia, whose dark money has allegedly been used to fund operations of destabilization across Western democracies.
While Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw have consistently promoted the need for scrutiny on this and other possible Russian influence, Banks mocked the idea. “Allegations of Brexit being funded by the Russians . . . are complete bollocks from beginning to end,” he said. Meanwhile, his representatives tried to menace OpenDemocracy. “Make sure you get it right—it’s clearly a political hatchet job and our lawyers will take action if you get one bit wrong,” read a recent e-mail to Fitzgerald.
The Russian ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, was quoted on the Russia Today site as saying the story was “outright insulting for the British government and the British people,” which is not, if you read it carefully, a categorical denial.
There are two other big concerns about the influences on the Brexit vote, which are equally important yet still ignored by the largely Brexit-supporting press and—more shockingly—by the BBC.
In this respect, Britain differs radically from the United States, where media and institutions have taken seriously their duty to hold the Trump administration to account on possible Russian involvement in the presidential election a year ago. In the U.K., there is a kind of chill that surrounds the subject of the E.U. referendum—anyone who dares to doubt that the result was purely the “people’s will” is ignored.
The first area of doubt concerns a donation of $574,000 to the leave campaign from the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which now props up the May government in Parliament.
As OpenDemocracy has revealed, the money was channeled through a secretive group called the Constitutional Research Council (C.R.C.). Because Northern Ireland has special rules to allow donations to be made anonymously, it is impossible to discover whether the money comes from a legitimate source, as defined by British electoral law. But a hint of something unorthodox came when the Electoral Commission levied a fine of $8,000 in connection with C.R.C.’s activities.
The more worrying development, which Britain shares with the United States, is the use of big data and voter targeting on social media by the far right, which is now believed to have been very influential in the Brexit referendum.
Where to draw the line between the activities of the Russians and the far right is difficult because their interests and methods overlap. However, a recent academic study has shown that a network of Twitter bots comprising 13,493 accounts tweeted on the E.U. referendum, only to vanish the day after the vote.
It is hard to know whether these were controlled by Russia or the far right. “Putin’s agents tried to influence the U.S. election,” E.U. chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted this week. “We need to know if they interfered in the #Brexit vote too.” (If you want a very full explanation of this new peril, it is worth reading the research in full.)