Only the most delusional limey would deny that, when it comes to popular culture, Britain is downstream from America. In politics, too, we follow your lead. Tony Blair pursued Bill Clinton’s middle way; David Cameron adopted George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism—although Tories won’t readily admit that. A whole generation of British politicians grew up watching The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s power-porn TV drama about the White House, and are nerdishly gripped by the glamour of America’s executive branch. I remember when advisors to Ed Miliband, the hapless last leader of the Labour Party, used to insist that their man would triumph if only the party would “let Miliband be Miliband”—a nod to “Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” the title of a West Wing episode. That was embarrassing.
Does this mean we’ll have a British Trump in ten years? I doubt it, but you never know. Yet Britain’s elite is aping America’s by working itself into a frenzy about Russia. It’s become commonplace, among well-to-do types anyway, to say that last year Vladimir Putin “hacked” British democracy, just as he did in America with Trump. A loudening chorus of politicians and journalists now claims that Kremlin-backed forces must have hijacked the referendum on our membership in the European Union, and brainwashed the 52 percent of us into voting for Brexit. Right-wing anti-establishment populism isn’t popular, you see, it’s just that Russian dissemblers, robots, and fake social-media accounts have infected the Western mind.
People have been whispering about Russian interference in the Brexit vote for months. But it only started in earnest last month after Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and former journalist, used parliamentary privilege—the closest thing we have to free speech—to call on the government to investigate “the role of dark money” in supporting the various anti-E.U. Leave campaigns. He demanded a government inquiry to look into “hybrid social media warfare, including paid-for Facebook adverts and fake Twitter accounts used as bots, as well as an investigation into impermissible donations.” He cited a series of exhaustive investigative reports by the website Open Democracy into the finances of Arron Banks, the man who funded the Leave.EU group to the tune of six million pounds.
On the back of Bradshaw’s intervention, others came forward. The latest issue of The New European, a curious new pro-E.U. newspaper, carries the headline “PUTIN THE BOOT IN: WHY RUSSIA IS WORKING HARD FOR A HARD BREXIT.” Inside is an article by Labour’s Shadow Minister for Digital Economy Liam Byrne: “WHO IS HACKING BREXIT?” Alongside those words is a large, red-tinted image of Putin’s face, which might give you a clue as to the answer.
Bryne argues that Putin’s strategy is to discredit Western leadership, and that the advent of social media, Internet bots, and automated “trolls” has greatly boosted his opportunities for so doing. One Russian tactic, he said, in an intriguingly tangled metaphor, was to “fire up the troll farms to throw fuel on the fire.” He went on to explain that data scientists had shown that Russian Twitter accounts had written “45,000” messages about Brexit in the 48 hours before the vote. Given that there are an estimated nine million Twitter users in Russia and some 350,000 tweets are posted every minute, that doesn’t seem too shocking a number. But Byrne goes on:
Tens of thousands of accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, suddenly switched their attention to Brexit in the days leading up to referendum.
Byrne says this has become standard Russian practice in European elections:
Russian Twitter bots, or “active amplifiers,” went into overdrive to spread anti-Macron and pro-Le Pen messages during the French election and then shifted focus during September 2017 to attack Chancellor Angela Merkel and support far-right German candidates.
Byrne also argued that Britain needs “our own Robert Mueller inquiry” to get to the bottom of Russia’s nefariousness.
Is Byrne right? Or just a classic “remoaner”—somebody who voted to Remain in the E.U. and now whines on about the result? It’s impossible to say for sure. It is obvious that, in Britain and America, blaming Russia has become something of an elite fetish. Nobody calls you antisemitic, Islamophobic, or racist if you say that Russians are subverting Western democracy, apart from the Russians of course, but everybody thinks they are mad anyway.
At the same time, it is equally clear that Russian agents—at least artificial Russia-based social-media accounts—are indeed trying to sway Western electorates. Russian operatives are fighting an information war, whether it be through Twitter, Facebook, or the Russia Today TV channel, or by funding anti-establishment parties across Europe. Is this free speech or evil propaganda? Nobody really knows.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Arron Banks, the self-styled “bad boy of Brexit,” was up to no good. He’s a Trump-like figure. For now, however, the only evidence against him is that his riches are opaque and his Russian-model wife, Ekaterina Paderina, was once suspected of being a secret agent. Banks once made a joke of this by buying her a personalized license plate for her Range Rover which read “X MI5 SPY.” Eat your heart out, Donald.
The big difference between America and Britain as far as Putin-related conspiracies are concerned is that whereas the U.S. President is under suspicion of collusion with Russia, nobody suspects the British Prime Minister. May campaigned to Remain in the E.U. She can hardly have been a Moscow patsy on that score. And May’s tone towards Putin is very different. In early November, at a lord mayor’s banquet, she accused him of trying to “weaponise information” and attacked Russia’s “illegal annexation” of Crimea. “I have a very simple message for Russia,” she said.
We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.
May’s speech delighted Russia hawks on both sides of the Atlantic and across the political spectrum. “That, cousins, is how a conservative talks,” wrote Daniel Hannan, a well-known Brexiteer, in his column for the Washington Examiner. In the New York Times, meanwhile, Andrew Rosenthal wrote an article about May’s address entitled “This is How Grown-Ups Deal With Putin.” As you probably can guess, Rosenthal applauded May’s statements on Russia, and compared her favorably to the American President:
Trump’s message to the Kremlin is simple, too: Do what you want. He believes President Vladimir Putin is “sincere” in denying Russian attempts to meddle in the American elections, and is tired of asking about it—if he ever actually did.
May, desperately embattled as she is, must have been grateful for the praise. She hasn’t had such a good reaction in the press for months. Quite what her tough rhetoric will achieve is another matter, however. Even if she does know what Putin is up to—I’m not sure she does—she clearly does not know what to do about it. Proof that Russia did “hack” Brexit would still not invalidate the referendum result, as even Liam Byrne admits. It would, however, weaken May’s position as she attempts to extricate Britain from the E.U., so her objective in bringing up Moscow’s meddling is uncertain.
What is clear is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, upper-middle-class citizens are increasingly convinced that populist advances—that is, democratic results they don’t approve of—are caused not so much by bad government or an innate crisis in Western liberalism but by Russian trickery. The commoners are not voting how we want them to; somebody else must be controlling their tiny brains. And that someone had to be Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
In Britain, the finger of suspicion has begun to point at the Legatum Institute, an extremely well-endowed think-tank, which runs something called “the prosperity index” and is now a leading pro-Brexit voice in London. Legatum is backed by the New Zealander and hedge-fund billionaire Christopher Chandler, who made his money out of the chaos of postcommunist Russia, and in particular from the reorganization of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, after Putin’s election as president in 2000. According to Byrne, Chandler “appeared in an intelligence review in Monaco aimed at clearing out the Russian mafia but . . . this found ‘no evidence of wrongdoing.’ Soon after, however, Chandler relocated to Dubai and Singapore.”
On November 26, The Mail on Sunday, a pro-Remain tabloid, ran a story accusing Chandler and Legatum of being “Putin’s link” to a hard Brexit. Legatum issued a very strong rebuttal on its website on the same day, calling the Mail’s claims “nonsense”:
We refute in the strongest possible terms the allegation that The Legatum Institute Foundation is aligned with, influenced by, or somehow connected to Vladimir Putin or the Russian state, or has ever been. This is patently false, completely unsubstantiated, and frankly, laughable.
Legatum is an odd place, no doubt, but if it is a Russia-front organization, it is playing an extraordinarily strange double game. The institute hired Anne Applebaum, arguably the world’s leading anti-Russian intellectual, to lead its London program, until she quit over Brexit. It has also employed Peter Pomerantsev, the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a book about Russian misinformation and propaganda in the 21st century. It would be very funny if these people had been duped into working for the Kremlin without realizing it, but that seems far-fetched even by Russian surrealist standards.
Mind you, Russians do have a good dark sense of humor. RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin-backed news channel broadcasting in America and Britain, has made a joke of the new Russia-Brexit obsession. It put up posters in key London tube stations that read “Missed your train? Lost an election? Blame it on us!”