The biggest threat to UK democracy probably isn’t Russia. It’s probably disinformation peddled by the UK Government, political parties and campaign groups.
Yesterday, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a breezy report about how the UK Government “took its eye off the ball on Russia.”
The report identifies that Russia poses a significant threat to the UK security, in part due to state-funded, malicious cyber campaigns targeted at the UK. These offensive attacks have allegedly attempted to influence every major democratic vote in the UK since the 2016 Scottish Referendum.
It concludes that disinformation campaigns spearheaded by adversarial foreign states pose a threat to democracy in the UK, recommending that an appropriate defence against this threat would be new regulations for advertising on Social Media and a new set of powers for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Even redacted, it’s a fun read; highlighting some of the current challenges faced in international relations.
However, the recommendations at heart of the report highlight the UK Government’s continued lopsided stance on tackling disinformation in UK politics.
So What’s In The Russia Report?
Not a lot.
It says Russia’s not a nice place, Russian’s hate the West and the Secret Intelligence Services should have done more about the threat from the mid-2000s.
On the whole, it portrays Russia as the misunderstood nihilist. You know, the one who sits at the back of the class, setting fire to things and misquoting Nietzsche.
The report then recommends that to establish the framework to address the situation, new Ministerial powers should be given to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Cabinet Office), empowering them to protect “democratic discourse and processes from [international] interference.” While the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) must establish a protocol with social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and ‘name and shame’ those that don’t.
So What’s The Problem?
Delivering powers to prevent foreign interference with elections will not address the most potent challenges to democracy in the UK.
Instead, reports like this arguably divert attention from serious domestic issues with UK politics that the UK Government should be actively addressing rather than just paying lip service to.
Briefly, here are some of the actual domestic challenges faced by UK democracy:
- The Unchecked Ugliness of Electioneering. Take the 2019 General Election Fact Check UK scandal and well documented factual fallacies in the campaigning material used to support the 2016 EU Referendum Leave and Remain campaigns. In both instances, note the significant lack of consequences faced by those who benefited politically from misleading the public. Right now, during an election, there’s no effective punishment for those who don’t play by the rules. That’s a licence for anyone to lie their way into Government.
- Prevailing Public Mistrust of the UK Government and Political Parties. There are plenty of reasons people don’t trust the Government or politicians; but it’s not helped by the UK Government’s continued reliance on misleading statistics. This could be anything from the continued use of heavily caveated unemployment and disability figures, misleading R&D investment totals to frequent misclassification of old funding as ‘new’. The same goes for political parties who misquote their record in Government. The average person is never going to verify claims like this themselves, and when they see claims that they are wrong in the Sun or Guardian, why should they continue to trust politicians.
- The UK’s Failed Citizenship Test. The persistence of a relatively poor national understanding of how laws are made, how Government works and how MPs are voted into office. How can people actively participate in a democracy when they don’t understand it?
- Continued Constitutional Failures of the UK Electoral System. How can every vote matter in a system in which every major party has endorsed some form of tactical voting during a national election? Or is willing to rewrite electoral boundaries without the check of Parliamentary scrutiny? Or is a vote in a country that still employs the first past the post system? What was the argument for it again? Namely that more often than not, it delivers a stronger Government than those ‘awful’ coalitions mainland Europe has to suffer.
However, unlike an international aggressor, these issues are pretty boring. Every time I try to force a conversation about constitutional politics with my friends, they call me a Lib Dem and ask if Nick Clegg’s my boyfriend.
But still, what’s the point in protecting a democracy when the electorate do not have the right to make informed decisions?
Can you even protect a democracy when the electorate do not have the right to make informed decisions?
I’d argue not.
What Do You Do?
Whether the political system works is always going to be dependent on your definition of ‘works’. My definition of ‘works’ is that the electorate know what they’re voting for, and understand as best they can, the consequences of what they are voting for.
I really hate it when people write about issues, but don’t suggest how to resolve them. So, here’s how I think you’d go about rectifying some of these challenges:
- Proper Consequences for MPs and Parties Promoting Disinformation. Give the Electoral Commission the powers and resources necessary to assess when political candidates and their parties have lied or purposefully misled the electorate. Also give them powers to enforce adequate punishments on said parties. Parties and campaigning groups don’t care about monetary fines. They don’t work. Instead, why not force a reduction in the number of voting MPs that party can have at any one time; so the consequence is potentially the loss of majority, but not the complete loss of representation.
- An Independent National Research Unit. When there’s a General Election, political parties rely on their own research units to provide statistics for their campaigns. The electorate then has to rely on Fact Check UK, the BBC and other unaffiliated organisations to assess whether politician’s and party’s claims are factual. There should be a state funded, independent organisation that provides accurate information to those running for election, and debunks figures that have been manipulated for the electorate. This responsibility should not be given to Big Data companies, as they should not be part of a national election. This organisation’s definition of truth should not be influenced by possible commercial or political gain.
On the topic of education, I don’t think there’s a simple solution here. Specifically, I do not believe mandatory classes at secondary school would really increase anyone’s understanding of the system.
On the boundaries issue, as long as there’s no way to create laws that are immune to amendment, beyond actually introducing a written British Constitution, I don’t see how this could be achieved effectively.
However, on the whole, I’d argue that these two actions would do more for democracy in the UK than any action on Russia will.
Disagree with me? Great. Tell me why.