Dare call it treason?

“No one should miss the stench of cowardice, and yet there is no sign voters care or understand that cowardice runs through the British state”

Politics
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID SIMONDS

Cowardice defines Britain’s attitude to treason. As long as traitors have dark skins and Muslim names, it is easy for society to condemn them and shrug as our country allows their children to die. It took a hell of an effort by MPs and charities, and pressure from the US and Turkey, to persuade it to bring back a small number of orphaned British children from north-east Syria, whose parents had gone to fight and kill for Islamic state.

You can guess the reasons why ministers had to wait until they were shamed by, of all people, Donald Trump and Recep Erdoğan. They see the children, including the babies and toddlers, still living in the disease-ridden and violent refugee camps, as collateral damage. The authorities are not sure they have the evidence to prosecute their parents and fear the backlash if they help them return. They know that Islamic State encouraged women to be just as vicious as the men. Potential terrorists could be among the returning mothers or teenagers. So it is expedient to dump their kids on the Kurds or just dump them completely.

No one should miss the stench of cowardice, and yet there is no sign voters care or understand that cowardice runs through the British state. And not only in its abandonment of innocent children. When they greet people in pinstriped suits and well-cut dresses who act for Russia and other hostile powers, the authorities are just as
pusillanimous.

This election ought to be a moment of illumination, showing how Britain has failed to adapt to a changed world. During the Cold War, communist countries engaged in subversion. Most notably, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) acted as Moscow’s fifth column. Yet although it had a significant influence on the Left, particularly in the trade union movement, the CPGB was never a substantial force. Only a trivial handful of Maoists backed Beijing. Whatever successes Soviet espionage enjoyed, communist countries could never exploit the lobbying services modern capitalist societies offered those who could afford their fees. Communists had to keep their distance from capitalists (and vice versa). Now Russia is an autocratic kleptocracy and China is Maoist in name only, both can buy the once-forbidden services, along with the opportunities created by a service known to barely anyone outside universities when the Berlin Wall fell: the internet.

The campaign began with a display of contempt for the electorate for which I can find no precedent. As Standpoint went to press, Boris Johnson was refusing to allow the public to read the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia: its influence operations in this country and its attempts to manipulate elections and referendums. You should know that the committee is the only public body outside government that has access to the country’s secret intelligence. It is the best independent means voters have of learning about threats to national security.

Pause and consider what we have become. The government will not tell the public how a hostile foreign power interferes with the democratic process. Threats to British democracy have become official secrets. Perhaps Boris Johnson worried about offending Donald Trump. Maybe the report included evidence from the same sources which revealed Russia’s interest in the president’s election campaign, and his fondness for Vladimir Putin. If this is true, the government was censoring Parliament on behalf of not one but two foreign powers.

But the prime reason for suppression is Brexit. Boris Johnson and the Conservative party are committed to leaving the EU “do or die”. They dare not produce evidence that the vote to leave may have been manipulated, however slightly. Nor until recent weeks was the Labour opposition willing to oppose.

My colleague and friend Carole Cadwalladr exposed, with the help of the whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, how Facebook had allowed the consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data of tens of millions of users and sell it to politicians on the make. She published emails from Arron Banks showing how he and the Leave.EU campaign team met Russian embassy officials as many as 11 times in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. Despite repeated meetings with Corbyn’s front bench, she could not persuade Labour to take an interest. Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell watched on in amazement. Can you imagine, he said to me, what Robin Cook and the Labour politicians of a previous generation would have done with this material? The communist clique around Jeremy Corbyn has abandoned Marxist-Leninists for oligarchs, and paid court to Putin at Black Sea resorts. It had no wish to raise hard questions either.

That failure to act would be bad enough. But since 2016, other guardians of the British state have been bellowing warnings. Reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into fake news, and the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had different concerns. But they shared a central theme. In the words of Damian Collins, the chairman of the fake news inquiry: “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day.”

Collins is anything but a Remoaner. He is a Conservative MP who nominated Boris Johnson for the leadership of his party. But he is also a democrat, and to apply a much abused word correctly for once, a patriot, who wishes to defend the democratic system.

His committee wanted the government to establish an independent investigation into “foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election. The government did nothing. The Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission wanted imprints on online advertising so we could know who was behind it. Again, nothing was done. A responsible government would have a protocol for warning the public when major interference in an election is detected. Britain does not have such a government, or anything resembling one.

The Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington wrote: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Four centuries on, his cynical argument still holds. Both major political parties intend to carry on exploiting the new avenues for propaganda opened up by digital technology. So determined are they to use them, the Committee on Standards in Public Life could not even persuade the Labour and the Conservative parties to agree to abide by a code of conduct to stop members threatening and abusing each other. How can a democracy protect itself from subversion when its democratically elected leaders see no partisan benefit in protecting it? When, indeed, they look on the opportunities for political gain the abuse of the system offers and greet them with wolfish grins?

The Conservatives are very keen on plans to compel voters to produce photo identification before casting their ballots. They believe that alleged electoral fraud by voters of south Asian heritage benefits Labour. (Labour opposes it and talks with some justice about the evidence for fraud being slight.) The wider point, surely, is that when they think it is in their interests, politicians will move to protect the system from corruption. That they show no desire to move to tackle the propaganda explosion shows how little concern they have for the democratic interest.

I suspect they want the public to fall into fatalism. Russia, Facebook, and the web itself appear vast and uncontrollable forces. But Facebook has British offices and staff. If it broke British law, its senior management in California would be as accountable through the normal system of extradition treaties and international arrest warrants as any other alleged criminal. It is the absence of law that will lead Britain to an election whose result will inevitably be met with accusations of foul play.

Fatalism also ignores the fact that specific British citizens are performing specific services. Earlier this month the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee reported on Chinese interference at British universities, which appears to be coordinated by the Chinese embassy. University vice chancellors can be identified and held to account. So why are officials of the China-funded Confucius Institutes allowed to confiscate papers that mentioned Taiwan at an academic conference? Why do university authorities do nothing when dissidents are harassed? Universities want Chinese money. If they are prepared to sell out academic freedom to get it, then wider society must force them to change their ways.

I have sat in an English courtroom and seen expensive lawyers go along with a Russian sting operation against the heroic fund manager Bill Browder. Putin hates him because he organised international sanctions against criminals backed by his regime who defrauded the taxpayer and murdered the auditor, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed them. I knew one of the solicitors suing Browder for libel on behalf of an ex-major in the Russian interior ministry. (Needless to add, the mysterious major never appeared in court, and when he lost, never paid tens of thousands of pounds he owed in costs.) My lawyer acquaintance’s impeccably liberal principles are not in doubt. But to everyone in the courtroom, apart from a fuming Browder, it seemed natural for Britain to open its legal system to an avowed enemy and use it to punish a Putin critic.

Why not? London is awash with Russian money. The private schools, the upmarket estate agents, the property developers, the luxury shops and the launderers in the City depend on it. So insouciant have they become, they do not feel the need to explain themselves. Last year the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said “others should now judge” whether the City law firm Linklaters had become “so entwined in the corruption of the Kremlin and its supporters that they are no longer able to meet the standards expected of a UK-regulated law firm”. The firm said it was “surprised and concerned” at the criticism. But in behaviour that to me encapsulated the scorn of the City for the nation state, it had declined to appear before the committee, part of our supposedly sovereign Parliament. Linklaters now says: “We recognise that in this case we missed an opportunity.”

Tom Tugendhat, the committee’s chairman, and Labour’s Khalid Mahmood have proposed updating the Treason Act of 1351, which is still in force, even if it no longer prescribes the death penalty for all “who compassed or imagined” the death of the King. Tugendhat told me he would be happy to see the wealthy in court, even if they received no punishment, just so there could be a public shaming of those who betrayed their country. The dilemmas he raises are real. Although I would enjoy the spectacle of Mayfair estate agents and City lawyers in the dock more than I can say, I feel that the criminal law should punish specific crimes, not make gestures.

Do we want to be a country where government tells universities how to behave? Or the state denies legal redress to suspected Russian agents? Or censors the Web in “the national interest”? Do we indeed trust the state not to abuse its power and accuse legitimate critics of being traitors, saboteurs, and, to coin a phrase, enemies of the people? These questions are not easy to answer. The trouble with Britain is that they are not even being asked. They are being ducked for a reason Sir John Harington understood in the 1590s. When treason prospers, none dare call it out.