If in doubt, blame Putin

The front page of the Sun newsaper, with the headline "Be-Leave in Britain", with a Union flag layered under the word "LEAVE". At the bottom of the page it says "Vote to quit EU on June 23".Last Sunday there was a Nick Cohen article in the Observer about Russian influence and how, for example, Russian “dark money” is suspected of funding the Leave campaign now that it appears Arron Banks isn’t as rich as we had been led to believe:

The FBI is investigating how Russia hacked the Clinton campaign and used Facebook and Twitter to spread fake news. Ukrainians are preparing for the next stage of resistance to Russian forces. European foreign ministries and intelligence services have finally understood that Russia’s imperial strategy is to weaken the EU and Nato in every country except, it seems, this sceptred isle.

Russia knows its best tactic is to use migrant crises to stoke nativist fears. “German government threw their country under feet of migrants like a rug, now try wipe their crimes under carpet,” tweeted the Russian embassy in London in 2016 as the Kremlin began a successful campaign to promote the interests of the chauvinists in Alternative for Germany. A bank close to Vladimir Putin loaned $10m to Marine le Pen’s anti-EU Front National. He encouraged the anti-immigrant Freedom party in Austria, the Lega Nord in Italy and Jobbik in Hungary.

Cohen also gets in a dig at Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for having appeared on RT (Russia Today), the Kremlin-backed English-language TV channel, as well as their “satirically named ‘justice’ spokesman”, Richard Burgon, who “has never denounced the injustice Putin brings to Russia and the wider world during the nine occasions RT has had him on air”.

I’m no great fan of Vladimir Putin. He’s corrupt, dictatorial, has started a civil war in and then invaded Ukraine and presided over the destruction of Chechnya, the reign of terror of Ramazan Kadyrov and his thugs complete with the assassinations of journalists who tried to investigate his abuses, like Anna Politkovskaya (and plenty of ordinary Chechens). But blaming him for Brexit, like blaming him for Trump, is taking it a bit too far. This was a disaster cooked up in western newspaper offices and think-tanks, and even if Putin was able to channel money to campaigners via people like Arron Banks and fund billboard adverts and battle-buses, it’s unlikely his role was decisive when there has been a campaign against the EU by London newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, going back at least to the Maastricht debates of the 1990s, and other major newspapers including the Sun also supported Leave and have ridiculed the EU, often conflating it with the European Convention on Human Rights, with which it has no connection, blaming it for anything a Tory government cannot do.

The obsession with finding an explanation for Trump’s victory or the Brexit vote which Russian influence is puzzling. There is no suggestion that the Russians have been tampering with voting machines or otherwise interfering in the ballots themselves; the claims have all been about funding, about propaganda, about fake news, in all of which they were at the very least matched by those they supported in Britain or America. No amount of Russian money could have bought the election for Trump without enough Americans being racist enough to overlook his open and violent racism when he made vague promises about jobs or “America first”, or misogynistic enough to ignore his misogyny, and so on — let alone those who actually shared his attitudes, of course. No amount of Russian money could have bought Brexit without the decades of propaganda from the Tory press here — not to mention other unaccountable sources of funding for think-tanks and pressure groups in both countries whose spokesmen are frequently presented as experts or voices from the grassroots in the media.

It’s sad to see the Left (even the Nick Cohen type ‘soft left’) looking to foreign influences to blame for damaging decisions made by people in their own countries. It’s very reminiscent of what dictators do when faced with dissent in their own countries (Assad of Syria being a well-known recent example). There were real reasons why people in the UK voted for Brexit as well as racism and Little-Englanderism; people need to examine Britain’s manner of engagement with Europe and how it damaged British industry and workers rather than dismiss British voters as dupes of Russian propaganda.

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