Tom Meek, Renew’s lead for Policy and Strategy, finds common cause with John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s new book
You can’t say we haven’t been warned. John Micklethwait, previously editor at The Economist and now Editor-in-Chief at Bloomberg News, and Adrian Wooldridge, the Bagehot columnist at The Economist, have written a new book: The Wake Up Call. Why the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the West – and how to fix it. For a very accessible overview and discussion of some of the implications, read this interview that John Micklethwait gave to Alain Elkann on 6 September.
In this latest offering, the authors pick up the challenge they outlined in a previous book – The Fourth Revolution. The global race to reinvent the state (2015). As veteran observers of the workings and politics of Western states they have long seen the cracks: a persistent lack of trust in politicians, an apparent inability to deliver real reform or large projects, and resignation among voters that they can effect change through the ballot box. The Wake Up Call turns that polite exposition into an urgent shout. They argue that respective reactions to the pandemic have shown up all too clearly how the West is now far behind the East in terms of efficiency and capacity. And this is not at all an argument for centralised control and complete disregard for personal and property rights. Quite the opposite. Pointing out that efficiency, capability and capacity of states have very little indeed to do with levels of liberty guards against Western states seeking to use that excuse.
So what is the real reason for the West having fallen behind in this way? Micklethwait and Wooldridge pull no punches in answering this: the West’s weakness stems ultimately from the people running Western states. And this is certainly the case here in the UK. The brightest now tend to avoid joining the civil service or government. The UK state has taken on more and more over the past 70 years but has not kept pace with technological progress. So the state is overloaded and is not drawing on creators and innovators to help improve efficiency, capacity and capability.
At Renew we would go further than examining the quality of the people running the UK. Behind that, and the issue we are setting out to tackle, is the political culture in the UK. We get the people we get in government because of the way our political system works. Patronage and top-down, centrally-driven parties create toxic environments for anyone wanting to offer themselves up for public service as an MP or in government. And the treatment of the civil service by politicians is enough to put anyone off joining, before you mention the pay. (As an ex-civil servant myself, I feel pretty sure that many still serving endorse this infamous Tweet.)
So fixing the UK state requires fixing our political culture first: opening our politics up, changing where power lies and who controls it – giving it back to voters and even to the MPs themselves – and making every vote count. If we are successful in this we will be well placed to reinvent the wider apparatus of government and turn our attention to working with people to deliver what they need where and when they need it.
We have heard The Wake Up Call loud and clear and we are already taking steps to respond. Will you join us?
Renew's David Britten discusses how the exams fiasco this year shows why we need political reform
Turn your mind back to March when we were in deep lockdown. I was talking to my son and he was concerned that he had his A levels coming up and did not know if he would be able to physically sit his exams or if they would be on line or even what he would do next year and his plans for university were just a dream. An article in the Guardian on March 15th was even advising the Government that they should cancel the school year for those students taking GCSE’s and A levels, and they would restart their final year in September 2020. You can imagine his response to a 3 year A level course.
So the Government closed schools on the 18th March, and all exams were cancelled. In his statement the Prime Minister said “I understand their frustrations, we will make sure their progress isn’t impeded and that in time they will get the qualifications needed”. He was advised that he would get his grades based on teachers adjustments. Basically teachers would be asked to give each student a grade, and within that grade rank the students.Ofqual would check to make sure there was no overinflation by schools. Simple and straightforward, and my son was told by his teachers he would have his predicted grades. No mention of algorithms.
Roll on early August, he had been contacted by his university, and his halls have been confirmed. With results day on the 13th August, I felt a slight apprehension with this Government, but surely even this Government after Covid 19, Brexit and numerous other mistakes that have made would not mess up these exams results. I was wrong. Having been involved with Renew since we started, seen up close how this Government, and previous Tory Governments works, I was concerned. The sensible and experienced Conservative politicians like Damian Hinds and Justine Greening (previous education secretaries) had been forced not to stand for reelection as they refused to back Boris Johnson and his disastrous ‘Get Brexit Done’. They had been replaced by Williamson and Gillian Keegan (No 2 at Department of Education) - Gillian Keegan was on holiday in the French Alps tweeting about her holiday on the day of publication of the A level results, you could not make this up.
Having some experience in the ‘algorithm’ world after working in tech start ups for the last 10 years, we would test a new algorithm to see the results and if we could create anomalies. It seemed Williamson aka Cummings didn't even do that, as they would have immediately seen the results and broken the algorithm- an exceptional student in a year group whose expected grades would outperform previous years results, and from an inner metropolitan borough with a high class size would, with the algorithm,have their grades downgraded. The student who attends a high performing school, with small class sizes would have their grades maintained if not upgraded.With competition so intense to be accepted into the top universities, a downgrade from A to B would mean instant rejection.
To allow the results day to go ahead was a dereliction of duty by Williamson, when he knew of the disaster looming. 500,000 students would receive A level results, and saying each child has 1.5 parents who are involved in their education, you have 1,250,000 people of voting age who would be furious by this mismanagement of the A level results. It just shows the arrogance of a party run by Cummings with a majority of 80 seats- they don’t care about public opinion. Fortunately after pressure from public opinion there was another U turn and the predicted grades, or the algorithm grade- whichever was greater- was awarded. It was a disgrace to see the Liberal Democrats silent on this issue.
But we can do something about this. We need to reform the Political system and you can only do that from within. If you are a student contact Alex Gunter [email protected] who is heading our drive to sign up students and young people so Renew can become politically active on campuses. If you are a parent and you are outraged by how your children have been treated contact us [email protected] and help us ensure this never happens again. I was so outraged by the fiasco, I have started a petition for the government to release the working of the algorithm- my petition passed the first hurdle but is now waiting review which due to Covid could take 14 days before I can launch a full petition- again a Cummings ploy to take the steam out of the situation and stop democracy working.
If you follow the political pundits, it appears Williamson offered his resignation but Johnson/Cummings refused to accept it. How can Williamson leave and not Cummings after the Barnard Castle arrogance. Williamson will be moved sidewards or downwards in the Autumn reshuffle- betting companies are refusing to take bets on the Williamson demotion. But it does appear that some people have a conscience as Sally Collier, chief regulator of Ofqual, has fallen on her sword and resigned.
So please do something, exercise your responsibility and make a stand against how the 2020 Students were treated. Sign up for the newsletter, join as a member or if you are a student contact Alex. And if you can sign my petition I would be most grateful!
Renew's European Co-ordinator Terry Knott on the reality of Brits living in the EU27.
It’s not generally known that there are some 1.3 million (upper estimate 2.1 million) British passport holders in the other (currently) 27 countries, of the EU. The majority are based, inevitably, in the four big nations: Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but there are still lots elsewhere.
These Brits are often referred to as 'ex-pats', abbreviated from the Latin, ex-patria or out-of-country. This term is technically correct, but misleading, as it conjures up a mental picture of our slightly chubby, slightly balding chaps with hankies on heads, sitting in deckchairs, with a six-pack of beers nearby! Or even worse, the tattooed, frequently drunk, topless and/or mini-dress clad louts and loutesses, on the beaches and bars of Europe.
The reality of Brits abroad is very different. The UK Dept for Work & Pensions records that some 80% are in fact working, studying, researching and exploring other countries and their respective cultures, while enjoying differing climates and scenery. The rest (around 20%) are mainly retired. In doing so, a very large percentage are paying U.K. tax, either on salaries, or pensions, as well as tax in their country of domicile. Those working are often at the sharp end of British marketing and sales, usually earning revenue for the U.K.
As Brexit looms (there, I’ve mentioned the B word), it’s worth pointing out that there are tax reciprocal agreements between most EU nations and the U.K. One must hope this will hold true, after Brexit; but don’t bank on it.
Apart from the ‘hard’ aspects of living in the EU, the Brits abroad are also ambassadors among locals, with most taking a part in local communities and learning local languages, although ironically it’s usually those who voted Remain; while Leavers often insist on speaking English, speaking slowly, in loud voices, as if still running a British empire.
Talking of Empire, Brits abroad do in fact have the advantage of history. In spite of a slightly sniffy attitude in Paris*, to spoken English, I have found a touching regard for our language in many EU countries, (including, speaking personally, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia and Italy). English is still the most widely used second language across the world. Allied to this, there is also a sneaking admiration for our military and economic history, while (thanks to Brexit throwing the issue into relief) there is increasingly incredulous regard for the appalling mess that the current Tory Government is making of Brexit: derision and sympathy, in each parts, but still a long term affection.
To integrate in France, I spend about four hours a week learning French and using it in shops, garages and soon helping my daughter to refurbish a local house. Recently I organised 140 French & Brits in a local Boules competition - good fun! I also speak some Spanish and, since I’m married to a Norwegian, I also speak other Scandi languages. I do my best to portray the ‘Best of British’ to my local neighbours, in inverse proportion to the bad manners of our U.K. politicians and the vituperation of most of our U.K. press.
Finally, a word on the rights of Brits abroad to vote in U.K. elections. In spite of three successive Tory Manifestos, promising to rescind the so-called 15 year rule, the Tories have failed to do so; and in fact ‘talked it out’, after the relevant Bill’s Second Reading, in the House of Commons. This legal device prevents U.K. passport holders, who have lived more than 15 years outside the U.K. from voting in U.K. elections; this in spite of continuing to pay taxes in the U.K. Post-Brexit, Brits abroad will also lose their local election vote in their host country; although there is an ECJ legal challenge to allow Brits to retain European Citizenship (status to be clarified).
It is alleged the 15 Year Bill was blocked, by the Tories, who believed (with some justification), that Brits abroad would vote lock, stock and barrel, to block Brexit and its ensuing chaos and reduction in Freedom of Movement. But let us recall, that the English lost the American Colonies, under the battle cry of 'No Taxation, without Representation'!
The new, energetic U.K. Renew Party (www.renewparty.org.uk) is a leader in the UK-wide European movement, which includes helping represent Brits abroad and also reversing the adverse, downstream effects of Brexit, such efforts to be stepped up, as the U.K. moves towards another government election, in 4 years time; but also upcoming elections in Scotland & London. The Renew Party seeks to pursue a fair, honest set of policies, to counter the more extreme swing in politics, that we have seen from both Hard Right and Hard Left, in recent years.
Summary. A considerable number of Brits live and work abroad, estimated at 1.3 to 2.1 million, on the U.K. government’s own figures. Most of these pay some taxes in the U.K. Some 80% of Brits in the EU are working, studying or researching, with an appreciable income stream, to the U.K. Yet those having lived in the EU, for more than 15 years are currently barred from voting in U.K. elections and referenda. There are ongoing efforts to overturn this unfair & unjust situation, including support from the U.K. Renew Party.
European Coordinator, U.K. Renew Party
* For Parisiennes, secure in their superiority, it must be said that most French, outside Paris, regard Parisiennes as étrangers (foreigners)!
In a new feature, this week we will be looking at the human side of international politics.
This week we speak to a Brit living in Holland, and a Nederlander living in the UK.
1) When did you settle in the Netherlands/UK, why, and how easy was it?
2001. I had studied in Amsterdam for the 1999-2000 academic year, and after graduating from Durham I was determined to return to the Dutch capital.
At the time it was no more difficult than traveling to Amsterdam and moving in with my then girlfriend. Apart from getting a tax number at the tax office I don't think I properly registered until I bought a flat in 2010. Of course since Brexit I have applied for permanent residency, but nothing like that had been necessary before.
I came to London in 2006. Arrived at Gatwick, took a train into Victoria to see the city I was going to call home for the foreseeable future, and remember thinking ‘What have I done?!’ when passing some of the more deprived parts of London. Parts that are now undoubtedly unaffordable. I got to Victoria Station armed with an Oyster Card given to me by someone who had lived here and was going to pretend I’d lived here for yonks. I was going to navigate the Tube like a local.
It turns out the card had been disabled, the Oyster gates to the city wouldn’t open for me and the accent of the TfL chap was undecipherable. I was not yet accustomed to the many accents that make London so cosmopolitan.
I chose London in search of a bigger city after Amsterdam had gotten too small for me. I remember that I found the first year quite challenging. The city was considerably bigger alright, with all the perks that come with it, but the downsides were considerable too. Everything is at least 45 minutes away, most things are quite expensive or otherwise complex to obtain. The hoops to jump through were Kafkaesque (How to open a bank account without a proof of address? How to sign up for a utility without a bank account?). That first year the city was a living organism trying to make life as difficult as possible.
2) Will the UK's departure from the EU affect you in any practical ways?
I have taken several Dutch language exams to qualify for (non-EU) permanent residency and eligibility to apply for Dutch nationality. One of the many things I have learned from Brexit is that I really need to vote somewhere, preferably where I live. As The Netherlands generally disallows dual nationality, becoming Dutch would mean renouncing my UK nationality. With every day of Boris Johnson's 'government' such a step becomes more attractive, but the 500 pound fee is rather irritating, especially as it was 50 quid until shortly after the referendum. It's almost as if someone wanted to make a bit of cash out of people having to take such a drastic step.
My partner and child are Dutch nationals, so obviously I have to accept the fact that moving with them to my home country is going to be very difficult from now on.
As a freelancer with UK nationality I do also have concerns as to whether I can work for clients outside the Netherlands after the transition period ends. Also, if I apply for jobs, will employers look at my nationality and assume hiring me will involve cumbersome administration?
It already has. I run a number of businesses, one of which we deliberately headquartered in the Netherlands so it would remain in the EU. It has added quite a few uncertainties and administrative headaches, though.
Brexit has also created new business for me. I used to advise foreign companies that were interested in coming to the UK. Usually either American companies wanting to come to Europe and who thought the UK was a good bridgehead (thinking that the British are just Americans with funny accents, they find out soon enough) or startups from the Continent who saw the UK as a first step towards the American market. That flow has largely vanished so I now help Dutch businesses wishing to come to the UK despite Brexit or, sometimes, UK companies that want to have an EU foothold in the Netherlands because of Brexit.
I was also asked to become a regular Brexit columnist for Dutch business publication De Ondernemer where I now help Dutch SMEs make sense of what on earth is happening in the UK.
Compared to my British friends I am less impacted by Brexit, fortunately. I have Settled Status in the UK but I obviously kept my EU Citizenship so I still have Freedom of Movement in 30 odd countries. If I ever tire of London I can move to Berlin or retire in Lisbon. Some of my friends are less fortunate.
3) How is life different now?
People generally just laugh about how silly 'we' are and how incompetent and ridiculous Boris Johnson is. I fear that a no deal outcome will damage the Dutch economy and lead to an anti-British mood.
I don’t feel that I am perceived differently since the referendum but I suppose that is partly because I live in London and not in Lincoln. I can also, inexplicably, sound like an English public schoolboy so if anyone dislikes me it’s usually for that, not for being foreign.
What I have noticed, though, is that London seems to have lost some of its shine since the referendum. So many friends and ex-colleagues have left London for Berlin, Barcelona or Copenhagen. I wonder how that will pan out over the next few years.
4) If you had known then what you know now, would you have done anything differently, or prepared better?
I should have taken permanent residency and done the exams prior to the referendum. The result would have been less unsettling. My daughter was born in January 2018 and I did worry a lot about possibly being separated from her.
Like so many I underestimated the sentiment and the lack of knowledge about the EU among many Brits. Going back I would have wanted to educate people about the EU years before the referendum.
That said, I studied Political Science while living in one of the founding members of the European Union and during the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam, and I have learned more about the EU in the last four years than in the last twenty-five.
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone so educating people about what the EU actually is would have been a lot harder in, let’s say, 2015 than it was after the referendum.
5) What have you learned from your new home (and what have you taught it)?
I have learned that Amsterdam is very different to small-town Netherlands, which is generally very conservative. The Dutch equivalents of our very own populists are working hard to exploit these differences to create a culture war. EU membership isn't the main item on the radar at the moment (Muslim immigration and Zwarte Piet are more popular) but that can always change.
There is a process that I assume many newcomers to a country go through, I certainly did. The first year was full of ‘This is stupid, why don’t they just do this like we do it in the Netherlands?’. This was followed by probably two years of ‘This is quite a good way to approach this, why don’t they just do it like this in the Netherlands?’. After that you enter a phase where you see the flaws in both, and try to fix both. I have learned more about the good and the bad of the Netherlands in the fifteen years that I lived in London than I did in the thirty years I’ve lived in the Netherlands haha! I can certainly recommend leaving your country of birth for a while to better understand it.
As for teaching the Brits, I am still on the virtual barricades. Whether that’s linguistically (when you live in Great Britain you can’t go on holiday to Europe, you’re already in Europe) or politically (a parliament that doesn’t control its own agenda? Interesting). I am not holding my breath, though.
6) What are the greatest challenges now facing the EU and the UK?
Protecting our democracies from lies and misinformation that targets people on social media. The threats of populism and nationalism are ones I fear we will succumb to if we don't.
I think the UK needs to find its feet again, and that won’t be easy. A lot has been upended in the UK, economically and socially. The dust (and polarisation) needs to settle a bit and then comes the long hard slog of slowly re-aligning on a case by case basis. Over the next decade I expect the UK to sign up to Erasmus and Horizon again, Europol eventually and, who knows, back in the Single Market at some point?
The EU will need to learn to trust the UK again. As the Dutch say ‘Trust comes on foot but leaves on a horse’ so that will take some time.
7) Cheddar or Gouda?
I'm a vegan. I don't eat cheese. I have noticed that veganism seems to really wind Leave voters up. Why?
Gouda, because I really don’t get Cheddar. You can wake me up for Stilton or Wensleydale though!
8a) Which Brexiter would you most like to debate?
I'd love to ask Michael Gove if he was 'ignorant or just lying' when he promised a British lady living in France that EU based Brits were protected by 'all sorts of treaties' and that a vote to leave the EU would have no effect whatsoever on our residency rights. He did this live on a TV debate for Sky News.
I'd then like to ask him if he is the same 'Michael Gove' who - 3 years later - advised Brits living in the EU to take the necessary steps to secure local residency as our rights would be removed when Britain leaves the EU and that there was nothing the UK Government could do to assist us.
8b) What’s the best thing about the United Kingdom?
The Arctic Monkeys. Or Radiohead.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. - if you find current UK politics dark and/or heavy, try Cavell's music.
Renew Member and Prospective Candidate, Jamie Hirst, examines local lockdowns
Governments and their departments love blanket policies. Left, right or centre they all love a cheeky blanket policy. They are easier, cheaper and quicker to implement. The fact that the Courts repeatedly find blanket policies illegal is just a minor inconvenience.
That’s not to say blanket policies can’t be useful. As mentioned, they can be quick to implement, but they need to be updated, just like the early Coronavirus regulations, which were implemented with set review dates.
A case-by-case approach is only used willingly when it is advantageous to the individual. Put another way, how often has an official used the phrase “We’re looking into this on a case-by-case basis” and you have thought, “they’re stalling”.
This is why we need to worry when the government announced that local lockdown measures will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Not only does it give the government far too much leeway, it means that people across the country have no way of planning. If the government is serious about restarting the economy, the ability for businesses to be closed on short notice is hugely problematic. On a more general term, the ability for the government to lockdown areas of the country at will, with no notice or consultation with local councils, is extremely worrying.
Yes, we know they are trying their best. We know these are unprecedented times. But let’s be honest, we are well past the initial peak when decisions needed to be made on the hoof. Surely things have settled down enough for us to gather our thoughts and have proper measures in place for dealing with localised outbreaks. There are alternatives to Johnson and Hancock having free reign on deciding how, where, and when to lockdown individual areas of the country.
What seems like a lifetime ago, Johnson unveiled the UK alert levels, alongside the first steps of easing lockdown. At the time I commented to some of my fellow Renewers that there was no discernible link between the alert level and the lockdown measures. A clearer link provides certainty, but also offers flexibility.
The government can define specific lockdown measures dependent on the local alert level. Local authorities could then use them to meet local requirements. How can central government decide on effective measures on a local level? Additionally, if I know the alert level for my area, I have a better idea of what may happen next week and be able to prepare appropriately. It would also ensure people were more aware of how their actions directly affected local restrictions. The current, “behave or else!” approach isn’t working.
The beauty of aligning lockdown to the alert level is it also allows for exemption on, yes you got it, a case-by-case basis. When non-essential shops were able to reopen, we all knew that some would find it easier than others to implement Covid-19 secure measures. If non-essential shops are allowed to open at level 2 (for example), some individual shops could be granted permission to remain open at level 3 if they were deemed to have implemented more stringent protective measures than other premises. Not only does this provide flexibility, but it would help to drive up the quality of the safety measures being adopted. This same approach could be applied to pretty much every sector of the economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions are going to be part of our life for the foreseeable future. We are out of the crisis mode we had at the beginning of the pandemic and making it up as we go is no longer acceptable. We need a clear, coherent strategy for handling local outbreaks. Unfortunately, clarity and consistency are not this governments’ strong points.
Renew member and candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 general election, Haseeb Ur-Rehman, argues that the Russia Report damningly reveals just how influential a part Russia has played within UK politics.
The Russia Report is a peculiar document, which obfuscates, skirts, insinuates and in some places almost sarcastically detracts from the Brexit issue; the latter of which nevertheless is central to the Report’s very existence.
It seems that this version of the Report is not the same as that from nine months ago, as it is not explicitly or directly as damaging to the Johnson’s Government, as his initial reluctance to release it, would suggest. Many things are left unsaid or implied and have to be garnered or pieced to together by the reader, suggesting that the Report was intended to be read in conjunction with other information in the public domain dealing with Russian influence over and interference with, the 2016 Brexit Referendum, yet still not providing a full and clear picture. For instance, the two threads more specifically dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum; “Case study: the EU referendum” and the political influence of “Russian Expatriates”, are not explicitly linked together, although when considered together, do more clearly indicate the nature of the relationship between Russia and Brexit. The Russia Report, unto itself, almost confirms the very issue that it is trying to address; the weakness and inability of the UK security and intelligence agencies to protect the UK from Brexit and is almost a testament to the extent of party-political control over the security agencies, particularly where they are almost tasked with protecting the UK from the very political party, forming the government they report to.
The Russia Report deals with Brexit indirectly in its various parts and has to be read in its entirety to draw conclusions. The portion “Disinformation and Influence” begins to touch upon Brexit and states in Paragraph 28 that “Russia’s promotion of disinformation and its attempts at broader political influence overseas have been widely reported” with the example of “Kremlin-linked entities hav(ing) made ‘soft loans’ to the (then) Front National in France, seemingly at least in part as a reward for the party having supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea”. The source for this statement is redacted. Without admitting to anything untoward on the part of any UK political party, pressure-group or “think-tank”, the suggestion here is that Russian funding for Far-Right movements across the EU is a documented fact, indicating that the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is fully aware of such funding being received by such groups.
In the following Paragraph 29, the Report states, “Russia may spread disinformation or seek to influence political events for a wide range of purposes, but all in support of its underlying foreign policy objectives” with the example of “direct support of Russia’s preferred outcome in relation to an overseas election or political issue; and (the) general poisoning of the political narrative in the West by fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’”. The Report states that ‘wedge issues’ refers to “highly divisive subjects which bifurcate a country’s population, often (but not always) into socially liberal and socially conservative camps, and which often to at least some degree transcend traditional political party boundaries. Examples of wedge issues include abortion and gun control in the US and Brexit in the UK.” ]
Paragraph 29, is therefore very laterally confirming that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and is subject to Russian disinformation campaigns and “astroturfing”: “a propaganda technique whereby a viewpoint is falsely presented as belonging to a certain group”.
Confirming both Paragraphs 28 and 29, Paragraph 31 states that “(t)he UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.” noting that “that the formal HMG assessment categorises the UK as a “REDACTED” target for political influence operations.” Paragraph 31 goes on to further state that “(t)he Agencies have emphasised that they see their role in this as providing secret intelligence as context for other organisations… and do not see themselves holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference, and indeed… appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.”
This is followed in Paragraph 32, with “Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.” Paragraph 33 and 34, then proceed to discuss issues of scale, capability and access of the various organisations who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, with various recommendations from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
Paragraph 31 and 32, in essence, state that Russia targets the UK with its disinformation campaigns and political influence operations, yet for largely unstated reasons including “nervousness around… intelligence and security Agencies (being) involved in democratic processes” (as stated in Paragraph 33), the various organisations, who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, are not prepared to do so, as doing so evidently in their view, is a task for Government.
Paragraphs 39 and 40 specifically begin to deal with the “Case study: the EU referendum”, in the context of that above, stating that the impact of attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU “would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so” and that yet “it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process…”. Paragraph 40 states that the brevity (“six lines of text”) of secret intelligence provided by MI5 at the outset of the Inquiry, is also indicative of the “nervousness” described in Paragraph 33. This “nervousness” is described in relation to an issue “as contentious as the EU referendum” as “illogical; this (being) about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.”
Paragraphs 39 and 40, in effect, admit that Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum occurred, although no attempts have been made by Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament to ascertain the impact of such influence, for perceived difficulties in doing so. Paragraphs 39 and 40 further state that the failure of organisations tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, vis-à-vis such Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, occurred as a result of an illogical reluctance of these agencies to be involved in, or be seen to be involved in, democratic processes and a lack of ownership of such responsibilities by any one agency.
Continuing to deal with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (i) of “Case study: the EU referendum”: “Failure to prepare”, Paragraph 41, refers to “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014” particularly referencing “Ben Nimmo – #ElectionWatch: Scottish Vote, Pro-Kremlin Trolls, 12 December 2017”. This Paragraph concludes with “We note that – almost five years on – “REDACTED””; presumably referring to the United Kingdom General Election held on 12 December 2019.
Paragraph 42, states that it was only following the conclusion of the 2016 Brexit Referendum did “the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area” and admitting that such levels of threat were a “game changer” and that “prior to what we saw in the States, [Russian interference] wasn’t generally understood as a big threat to [electoral] processes”.
Paragraph 42, referring to two redacted conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) as of May 2017, states that “(h)ad the relevant parts of the Intelligence Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the (Brexit) referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”
In Paragraph 41, the reference to Russian influence, specifically concerning the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, seems to be a party-political throw-away and the “credibility” of the “open source commentary” by which this particular instance of electoral interference is substantiated, seems primarily to be the pro-Atlanticist and ideological credentials, of the originator of the said commentary, more than anything else. Notably, the same commentator has previously, at least partially, acknowledged Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and has variously and conspicuously tended to focus on the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, as subject to such influence. By merits of acknowledged Russian influence in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, and presumably in the United Kingdom General Election in 2019, as well as the acknowledgement of the severity of such interference only becoming apparent to the intelligence services, subsequent to the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Paragraphs 41 and 42 again confirm the high likelihood of Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, particularly as the Report admits that this conclusion would have been reached had the Intelligence Community, assessed such risks prior to the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Still dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (ii) “Narrow coverage”, Paragraph 44, states that “HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election…” and proceeds to reiterate the innocence of Arron Banks. Paragraphs 45 and 46 deal with the failures of the government, intelligence and security agencies; to even have been able to detect Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, from “open source materials”, which given that the Intelligence and Security Committee’s belief “that open source material is now fully represented in the Government’s understanding of the threat picture” was “surprising”.
Paragraphs 47 and 48 conclude the Report’s analysis of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum in Section (iii) ”Lack of retrospective assessment”, stating that, given the issues at stake for Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum are not as “clear-cut”, as for Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, “where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote with an unclassified summary being made public”, the Committee’s view is that a similar assessment of Russian interference in 2016 Brexit Referendum should be conducted and published. Paragraph 48 states that the discovery of minimal Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum would “represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”.
The next portion of the Report deals with Russian Expatriates, resident in the UK, stating in Paragraph 50 that “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, with “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin…well integrated into the UK business and social scene”. Paragraph 50 further states that “that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
Paragraph 51, addresses the “(g)rowth industry of enablers” “who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK” including “(l)awyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals” who “played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence…” “…linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.” In Paragraph 53, the Report states that “it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined”. Paragraph 54 states that “several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with…political organisations… having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”. This Paragraph follows on, stating that “it is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state…” which should be scrutinised, “…given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them”. References are made to “the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament requires that MPs register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House”, which is recommended to be introduced at the Lords.
The portion of the Report dealing with Russian Expatriates admits the extent of political influence Russia has over politics in the UK, including discussing the direct involvement of persons close to Vladimir Putin in making donations to political parties. For the purposes of Brexit, aside from undisclosed funding to other pro-Brexit organisations and parties, such donations would specifically be relevant to donation receipts by the Conservative Party. In the discussion involving “enablers”, the Report does not specifically focus on but presumably includes, such enablers who demonstrably had and have, a specific interest in promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, particularly the various “55 Tufton Street” pro-Brexit think-tanks and especially the “Conservative Friends of Russia” (now re-labelled as the “Westminster Russia Forum”). For the purposes of Brexit, the participation in these organisations, by various Conservative Party MPs, almost certainly constitutes “Russian Influence” on politicians and is therefore within the scope of the consideration of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Although the business interests of the Lords are explicitly referred to, such relationships amongst others, of various Conservative Party MPs with compromising Russian interests, are not. This is also particular in the case of persons close to Number 10 and simultaneously close to the promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, who have questionable relationships with the Russian State and Russian actors and enablers in the UK and Russia.
The Russia Report very apprehensively and indirectly confirms that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and was, and is, subject to Russian disinformation campaigns, with a view to destructively divide the British public into diametrically and ideologically opposed camps. The Report also indirectly suggests that Russian funding likely reached Far-Right pro-Brexit groups before the 2016 Brexit Referendum. Russian influence over British politicians and the political establishment is almost ubiquitous and the ability of Russia to facilitate Brexit as a foreign policy objective vis-à-vis the UK is an issue the British government were unable, or more likely unwilling, to take steps and measures to contain or prevent. The Report confirms that the intelligence and security apparatus of the UK were not able to contain, anticipate and did not even seek to anticipate Brexit as a Russian foreign policy objective and are almost entirely subservient to the Government on a party-political basis. The Intelligence and Security Committee finds some solace in celebrating the unlikelihood of Russian inference in the physical “paper-based” electoral processes of the UK, but are very unfortunately unable to even adequately discuss how Russian influence can actively and successfully manipulate the very national narrative of the UK that lead up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Chris Lovejoy poses the question: how can we help the UK resolve this crisis before its too late?
400 million people in highly developed countries don’t know why they have suffered so badly from the coronavirus. The failure to publish relevant data in the USA and UK made it difficult for opposition parties, and the media, to rigorously scrutinise decisions the government has taken on critical issues affecting their country. Various checks and balances found in mature democracies should have required governments to publish relevant data. We don’t know why opposition parties haven’t demanded relevant data, why investigative journalism and research by academic bodies didn’t create a demand that this tragedy was rigorously investigated, or, even why capitalist lobby groups failed to prevent themselves suffering incredible losses. But a failure to scrutinise decisions on critical issues resulted in the government becoming the de-facto sovereign body. This degraded democratic processes in the USA and UK, increasing the possibility that decisions taken to end the lockdown will not be implemented smoothly, which might cause a second wave of the epidemic.
After external authorities had published critical facts that affected the USA or the UK, some government decisions need to be justified. For instance:
· WHO report cases of coronavirus infections and deaths, which reveal the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of infections and deaths (per million citizens), yet the UK government claimed, without providing relevant facts, it had successfully dealt with the virus.
· WHO revealed the crisis is rapidly growing in the USA and a surge in infections in the USA could occur before the presidential election. The USA government also claims it has successfully dealt with the virus without providing relevant facts.
Some government decisions may need to be justified by other facts. For instance, it is known that infectious viruses shouldn’t be ignored and restrictions are necessary on planes, for example, as passengers sit in a confined space, creating an ideal incubation area for the virus and the flight enables the virus to quickly move into new areas. The risk of spreading the virus is reduced if passengers with high temperatures are quarantined until it is proved they were not infected by the virus. Other decisions also may need to be justified as:
· Governments normally stockpile essential medical equipment and, if more is needed, they rapidly obtained additional equipment (as the EU did).
· Some Governments warned their citizens a crisis was imminent and explained how citizens can minimise the risks of being infected.
· Most Governments didn’t believe in herd immunity and, when they couldn’t stop the virus, they quickly enforced a lockdown (to save lives and reduced the economic damage).
Therefore, in the USA and the UK, some decisions may need to be justified.
People are naturally worried about being infected by the virus and suffering economic damage, as some politicians who accentuated the crisis remain in power. While the globe is recovering from the economic costs of the lockdowns, the UK will find it difficult to recover from this crisis. This is because the UK has not yet made a treaty with the EU or with any of its major trading partners. The difficulty in finding new export markets will be increased (because the UK weakened its political relationship with the EU; is currently opposing China on several fronts; claims Russia has interfered with the UK elections etc.) and it is challenging to persuade countries the UK is a desirable business partner after UK ended a 40-year commercial agreement in a manner that causes considerable costs to the EU.
There are weaknesses in the USA and UK’s political systems (and, if either system failed, it would have major global consequences). Yet the greatest impact a political failure would have is on its citizens and, therefore, the UK must consider how the UK’s political system could be improved as the virus might re-emerge in the winter.
The problem will be to identify changes in the UK’s political system that weren't divisive and would reduce the risk of another lockdown.
Therefore, can Renew members help? For instance:
· Tax havens reduce the amount of taxes collected and this reduces government services or requires the government to increase the taxes that other taxpayers have to pay. Therefore, can recovery be partially financed if tax havens were restricted?
· Could members evaluate if constitutional changes can prevent the UK Government from implementing contradictory policies? For instance, the government argued people over 70 were vulnerable to the virus and required them to stay in their homes and not see their relatives or friends. Yet the government also instructed the NHS that elderly patients, who had ceased to require intensive care, should recover from the virus in old people care homes in which neither staff nor patients had adequate PPE. Tragically, about a quarter of all vires deaths occurred in care homes.
· Could Members evaluate if constitutional changes may enable Parliament to scrutinise decisions made by the government, or make Parliament the de-facto sovereign authority in a crisis?
Therefore, can you help the UK resolve this crisis before it is too late?
James Clarke, Leader of Renew, said: “I can confirm that Renew has been fined by the Electoral Commission (EC) for a number of very minor administrative breaches of electoral law. I would like to make it clear that Renew takes such matters very seriously. The EC fulfils a vital role in ensuring the rules of our democracy are adhered to and everyone at Renew supports the work they do.
“Renew made mistakes, there is no getting away from that, and we are extremely sorry for that. We will learn from this experience and promise to do better in the future.
“We do not dispute the judgement of the EC; the breaches they have accused us of did take place. However, I would like to make it very clear that the breaches were as a result of an overworked and perhaps disorganised largely volunteer workforce at Renew. We were guilty of filing documents late, more often than not by just a few hours.
“Renew does not have the resources of the big political parties. We are essentially a grassroots organisation that relies on the donations of party members, rather than large corporations, trades unions or others, to operate. Unfortunately, the level of the fine we have received from the EC is a significant blow to us and as a proportion of our funding is enormous.
“Yes, we made some mistakes and we are sorry for that. However, our mistakes were unintentional and are nothing compared to the allegations that have been levelled against other political parties in recent years. I don’t recall them being fined the same proportion of their funds as we have been for committing minor administrative breaches.
“Renew believes in open, honest politics and that is why we accept this fine and apologise for our mistakes. Mistakes will happen from time to time and we believe it is important that politicians admit when they are wrong, take responsibility and endeavour to do better in the future.
“However, we also believe that all political parties should be treated equally, so we urge the EC to continue to scrutinise the accusations of wrongdoing that abound around the Brexit Party, the Conservative Party and the leave campaign, which are far more serious than missed deadlines to file documents.”
Draeyk van der Horn, Renew's spokesperson on Food and Farming, delves into some of the concerns surrounding gene editing.
New genetic modification techniques (NGMTs) such as “gene editing” present ethical concerns as well as economic and environmental ones. There are a number of unresolved questions and concerns.
There is an overwhelming flaw in the claim that gene editing of food crops and animals is similar to accelerated breeding or natural mutations as this is wholly unprovable.
At the moment we have a regulatory approach to our food and farming standards that rests in the precautionary principle. If we give way to a laissez-faire deregulation model, where the onus is put on consumers or “those harmed” to come up with “proof of harm” we are in very different waters. Rigorous independent scientific research must be commissioned and the proponents of NGMTs must show no proof of harm is evident before wider consultations can begin. The UK’s shift and potential acceptance of a deregulated approach is perhaps due to this governments haste in submitting to new trade agreements that potentially lower food standards, most notably with the USA.
The bar to gene editing acceptability must be robust and high, given it allows for outcomes that may be unprecedented in human experience. Familiar species and breeds may become unrecognisable over time through gene editing, through the ongoing manipulation of genetic code. Gene editing also raises concern around “ownership” of these new varieties and breeds, profoundly impacting food security by concentrating ownership of our food, though patents, into the hands of a few.
From a strictly scientific and technical perspective, NGMTs are clearly genetic modification procedures that result in the production of GMOs and as such must remain within the remit of existing GMO legislation.
The challenges for future food production are not simply based in the lab, but in the fundamental need to create food that works in harmony with the planet rather than a short term sell that does not tackle the underlying issues. Our planet is capable of feeding us. If we focus on reducing waste, build resilient food networks that serve local communities and embrace sound agricultural principles we nurture more than just our food and land but our well being.
Food and Farming needs to be recognised in terms of its stewardship and in terms of creating and maintaining traditions that support all life, working in harmony with natural systems. Supporting our farming communities means focusing on a path that supports a sustainable future, rather than rushing towards the irreversible direction of gene editing, that is quite simply dicing with our future.
Draeyk van der Horn
Spokesperson on Food and Farming
The Renew Party
Renew's Terrance Knot investigates the demise of democracy in the UK.
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, "strength". Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally considered the first democracy in 508–507 BC.
Since then, many countries have claimed to be democracies, but none more so than the United Kingdom. Indeed those who still profess to be British, and who identify, more or less, as English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, have often taken pride in a supra-national United Kingdom: renowned worldwide for its sense of honesty, fairness and democratic decision making and rule, although in some cases harshly, but with “tough love” over countries comprising a quarter of the globe.
Nowhere was the sense of a thriving democracy more portrayed than in the coming together to support the “mother country” in the two World Wars, with thousands laying down their lives, for a concept founded on a common ideal, principle, or faith. Meanwhile one of the modern bodies of democracy was - at the same time as women got the vote - a health system, created for all. We also battled with the consequences of the national sale of assets to fund the defence of democracy – still living, believe it or not, with the abolition of the Slave Trade. Many will find it hard to come to terms with the fact that, although the UK connection with this trade officially happened in 1833-1840, throughout the British Empire, we were still paying off the money borrowed for the Slave Abolition Act in 2015!
On a lesser scale, the UK took steps to abolish child labour, to improve schooling (although the battle between so-called private and state-run schooling continues to this day) and workers were striking and marching against poverty and unemployment (Yarrow march 1936 et al.). On the back of this poverty and the feeling of frustration about the condition of the country, trade unions gained in power, especially in the fields of mining, textiles and transportation. An even-minded person would perhaps admit that the people of the country were fighting back in the only way they knew how: by denying their labour. Indeed they were “voting with their feet”, a democratic exercise of their human rights.
Before readers assume that this is a rant about human rights, let me assure you that it is not: it is simply a portrayal of some of the major steps along the way, as the British people, led by the English in 1215, gradually threw off the yoke imposed by royalty, later the “robber barons” and finally the affluent upper classes. This development of the “rights of man” (Thomas Paine in 1791, published a book, in which he linked the French Revolution with the idea that popular political revolution is permissible “when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people”) was a gradual process, over several centuries, but sped up as modern communications allowed ideas to be spread over the internet and similar systems.
Meanwhile the other major component countries, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in no particular order, also showed a strong and understandable tendency to rebel and "do their own thing".
It is of note that, impoverished though she was after the Second World War, Britain (readers will forgive if I shorten Great Britain and Northern Ireland to “Britain, or the UK), played a major role, in international deliberations, post WW2. This applied, amongst other activities, to help to rebuild Europe, much of which was in ruins, both financially and in terms of assets and infrastructure. Of course, anyone with a grasp of basic history knows that this included the initial building blocks of a Free Trade Area, or Market, which grew in time, into the European Union.
This one short paragraph above disguises an enormous development, which in time has proved enormously popular, no matter how some may try to gainsay it, encompassing an amazing mixture of long-term civilisations, including a rather unsteady Greece, the so-called cradle of democracy, and many younger and smaller countries, some of which did not exist, at the end of WW2.
Again, despite sniping and protestations to the contrary, this union, as opposed to the British one, developed a democratic system of elected members from each country, a council and a mechanism for enabling each countries’ own elected senior ministers to exercise the right to contribute to - and vote for – its further development. It would be a surprise only to the most naïve, that this development, enabling seventy-five years of relative peace in Europe, has not been without its problems along the way, but try to point to a similar union which has not? Indeed compare the UK’s chequered history of sometimes vicious infighting between Irish, Scots, Welsh and English. Compare also, the “Land of the Free”, in which the American Confederacy fought against its Southern counterpart; and some in Virginia still quarrel to this day!
So, while the Continent of Europe was rebuilding itself, with initial whole-hearted input from the British, what of our own “Home of Democracy”?
We have only to say the word “Brexit”, to recall immediately the appalling schism that has developed in our union, and the negative effect this is having on our immediate international neighbours. One has only to take advantage of the Freedom of Movement that we have enjoyed for the last seventy-five years, to realise the shock and horror, the incredulity and derision, the snigger behind the hand that confronts the British, as they travel, holiday, or read the international press.
To say that we have become an international laughing stock, as the present Tory government wrangles about percentage points of approval or disapproval, is an understatement.
Yet, this wrangle, voiced in every newspaper, TV show and published article, both pre and during the pandemic, seem to make little difference to the small yet vocal group of alt-right politicians, bent on wresting political and financial advantage and lining their own pockets and those of their friends and cronies. Never mind that current polling indicates some 55-65% of the population of the UK would prefer to cancel Brexit. (Professor John Curtice, political guru, asserts that many of the young, who were unable to vote in 2016, are now “twice as likely to vote Remain and puts the Leavers on only 44-47%).
But here is the crux of the matter. Under the current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, the public vote of 2016 overturned the referendum of 1975 and since then, the 2019 election, by what some regard as devious means, persuaded the great British public to return the Tories with a majority of 80 members in Parliament. This completely ignored the fact that a “proportional representation” (PR) electoral system would return a very, very different result. Yet neither the Tories, nor indeed the Labour Party, would vote for such a change, as their power base depends upon the status quo.
It does not help that the major party, in favour of PR, the Liberal Democrats, were completely out-manoeuvred and beaten, in the 2019 election: hardly a cause for confidence in the future. Other smaller parties also exist, such as the relatively new and centre of the road Renew Party, and the Green party, but again, under FPTP, the “big beasts” of politics are reluctant to switch loyalty, to more centrist policies, which lack a high profile. Except by honest and reasonable people, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer these days, most support tends to go to the headline catching extremists, rather than the outmoded concept that “the government of the people should be by the people, for the people”!
In that respect, the writer and many others, both friends and acquaintances, are amazed at the supine attitude of the average “Brit in the Streets”, compared with, for example, the French and many other significant countries in Europe, who are not slow to voice their views on poor government. Apart from two major marches, which saw not a single person arrested, the British public seems to have rolled on its back to have its tummy tickled! People outside the UK regard this as quite extraordinary and quite at odds with the battles and indeed a Civil War, fought for democratic freedom.
Meanwhile, the UK’s current government takes full example of the impact of the pandemic, to cement its grip on power and to railroad through policies and stratagems, that cannot be queried or fought on the floor of the House of Commons. It might be said that the Tories have a stranglehold on the throat of Democracy.
One other point before I close. From one who lives most of the time now, in Mainland Europe, amongst a thriving, educated, motivated group of 1.3 million British citizens, I must note that two aspects of life are paramount. We view with mounting horror, the downward slide of democratic freedoms in our mother countries of the union; and we feel embarrassed at the pity we encounter, amongst our fellow Europeans.
Is Democracy dead in the United Kingdom? Not yet, maybe, but on its last gasp.