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MPs Allege Foreign Hacking Of The EU Referendum, Provide No Evidence

Russia - Vladimir Putin - Brexit - EU Referendum - Hacking - Theresa May

Cynical, calculating and alarmist MPs are undermining faith in democracy with their conspiratorial anti-Brexit shenanigans

“A voter registration site that crashed in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum could have been targeted by a foreign cyber attack, MPs say”, screeches the BBC.

The Guardian, spurred by its anti-Brexit bias to step even further over the line of journalistic responsibility, declares “MPs are concerned about allegations governments including Russia and China may have interfered with EU referendum website”.

Wow. One might think that there would be some solid evidence, a “smoking gun” or at least an accumulation of circumstantial evidence for MPs to use their public prominence and access to media platforms to make such an accusation.

But we live in an age when the political establishment, spurned by the electorate and destabilised by defeats such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have found solace in the kind of comforting conspiracy theories which they once decried. And so today we woke up to the insinuation that Russia (or some other foreign power, but really Russia) had covertly intervened in last year’s EU referendum and swung the result in favour of Brexit.

From the Guardian’s alarmist article:

Foreign governments such as Russia and China may have been involved in the collapse of a voter registration website in the run-up to the EU referendum, a committee of MPs has claimed.

A report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) said MPs were deeply concerned about the allegations of foreign interference in last year’s Brexit vote.

The committee does not identify who may have been responsible, but has noted that both Russia and China use an approach to cyber-attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

The findings follow repeated claims that Russia has been involved in trying to influence the US and French presidential elections.

My emphasis in bold. In other words, MPs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee went on the record to insinuate that a foreign power attempted to manipulate the EU referendum result while supplying zero evidence in support of their claim. Apparently their “concerns” were deemed worthy of inclusion in a lessons learned report on the EU referendum, even though none of the MPs on the committee could provide a single justification other than base paranoia.

The relevant section of the report states the following:

The Register to Vote website crashed on the evening of 7 June 2016. The Government has stated that this was due to an exceptional surge in demand, partly due to confusion as to whether individuals needed to register to vote. The Government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered. However, the Government clearly failed to undertake the necessary level of testing and precautions required to mitigate against any such surge in applications. The Association of Electoral Administrators criticised the government and the Electoral Commission for a clear lack of contingency planning.

We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets, though we do not believe that any such interference had any material effect on the outcome of the EU referendum. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based, while Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. We commend the Government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK. We recommend permanent machinery for monitoring cyber activity in respect of elections and referendums be established, for promoting cyber security and resilience from potential attacks, and to put plans and machinery in place to respond to and to contain such attacks if they occur.

But rather than providing corroborative detail in the body of the report, the committee merely restate the unfounded allegations:

102. Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as “technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance”.138 However the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’. We understand that this is very common and easy to do with botnets. There can be many reasons why people initiate a DDOS: commercial (e.g. one company bringing down a competitor’s website to disrupt sales); legal (e.g. a law enforcement agency wanting to disturb criminal activity on Darknet); political; etc. The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate.

103. PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based. For example, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

Now this is just plain self-contradictory. The committee state correctly that rival powers such as Russia and China use a “cognitive approach” to their cyber warfare efforts, seeking to influence the minds of electors through dissemination of fake news and targeted releases of stolen information to undermine public confidence in one or other side of a political debate. This formed much of the controversy over the allegations of Russian hacking of the US presidential election, with some people arguing that Russia deliberately hacked and then leaked damaging information about the Clinton campaign to Wikileaks while withholding any damaging information about the Trump campaign.

However, the type of hacking described (or imagined) by the MPs in their report is a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack, which is a technical, web-based attack designed to target computer systems and websites, not human minds. The MPs already conceded that the temporary unavailability of the voter registration website had no material impact on the outcome of the referendum; therefore, for Russian or Chinese cyber activity to have had any effect on the Brexit vote would have required them to have engaged in cognitive hacking – and the committee provides zero evidence, not even a suggestion, that this took place.

And besides, Russia had no need to wage the kind of “cognitive” cyber warfare that they are accused of deploying against the United States. Vladimir Putin didn’t need to hack David Cameron’s emails and leak the contents to Wikileaks for us to find out that he, and the rest of Britain’s political elite, considered eurosceptics to be “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – the kind of damaging private remark that rightfully helped to erode trust in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. No, David Cameron was bold enough to let the country know exactly what he thought of the 52% who ended up voting for Brexit, back in 2006 on a live radio show.

And interestingly, in 87 pages of findings, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – so concerned about the influence of foreign powers on our sacred democratic process – could not spare a sentence, let alone a paragraph, to censure David Cameron for inviting President Barack Obama to a Downing Street press conference for the sole purpose of browbeating the British public and threatening us with being sent to the “back of the queue” in terms of a future trade agreement with the United States. In a supposedly comprehensive review of how the EU referendum was planned and executed, was this not worth a mention?

And what about David Cameron’s flagrant breach of purdah rules by making a speech from the steps of Downing Street during the prohibited period? Again, this egregious violation of the letter and spirit of the referendum rules is apparently not worth analysis or mention by the committee, who seem only too happy to ignore elected officials and civil servants deceiving and influencing voters in real life while getting worked up about unfounded allegations of foreign interference.

PACAC has every right – indeed a responsibility – to be concerned about foreign interference in British democracy, and to apply pressure to the government to do more to guard against such interference where appropriate. But in their “Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum” report, all the committee have done is foment unfounded suspicions of foreign interference – an attempt to hack the Brexit vote which does not even match the profile of the type of cyber warfare favoured by Russia and China – knowing that it will be picked up and repeated by a credulous media who care more about a dramatic headline than the mundane reality.

Everyone will read the headlines declaring “MPs suspect Russian and Chinese intervention in the EU referendum”. Far fewer people will read down a few paragraphs into the various articles and realise that the paranoid, grandstanding MPs offered zero evidence to support their incendiary claims, and in fact destroyed their credibility through contradictory allegations. Fewer still will make it to the bottom of the 87-page report and realise that the alarmist claim is supported by just two meagre footnotes, neither of which provide a link to additional sources.

MPs are savvy people, and they know how the media works. By including this unfounded allegation on page 5 of their report, in the executive summary, they knew that it would be picked up by the media, especially those credulous and anti-Brexit parts of the media who might seek to spin this “news” in as defamatory way as possible to undermine public confidence in the referendum and in Brexit as a desirable outcome. That the PACAC chairman, Bernard Jenkin, was a founding director of Vote Leave only makes the appearance of such unsubstantiated, manipulative remarks in the published report even more perplexing.

As a tactic employed by losers fighting a desperate rearguard battle against Brexit, throwing mud at the legitimacy of the EU referendum in the hope that some of it might stick is an understandable, if still reprehensible ploy. But persisting with this behaviour will have grave and wide-reaching consequences.

Brendan O’Neill gets it right:

MPs say foreign states may have tampered with the EU referendum registration website and helped to bring about Brexit. The big ridiculous babies. It’s David Icke meets Veruca Salt, half conspiracy theory, half tinny tantrum over the fact that for the first time in their pampered political lives they didn’t get what they wanted. Grow up. It wasn’t sinister foreign agents who crushed your political dreams — it was us!

Absolutely.

Faith in the British political and media class is already at a nadir. Any further transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion with unfounded accusations and cynical attempts to delegitimise the referendum outcome – a continuance of Project Fear from beyond the grave – will only create an even greater crisis of legitimacy.

 

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With Military Cutbacks, Even Britain’s Shows Of Strength Reveal Weakness

RAF Russian Bomber Operation Rising Panther

 

The Express reports today that the Royal Air Force has recently conducted its largest air defence exercise in over thirty years, in response to the increasing frequency of Russian incursions into British air space and spheres of influence:

Operation Rising Panther, the first of six proposed air defence operations due to take place every year, will “show Vladimir Putin in no uncertain terms” that Britain is ready, willing and able counter increasing Russian aggression should the need arise, say military sources.

More than 30 aircraft, including 20 Typhoons and Tornado fighter jets as well as a range of ED-3, AWACS, Sentinal and Shadow surveillance aircraft took part in the mock attack-and-defence wargames over the North east of England, as well as ground-based command teams.

At first glance, this sounds like a positive development – like maybe the British government has finally woken up to the fact that history did in fact not end at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that future threats to our national interest and national security will remain, and be unpredictable, for many years to come. Given the circumstances, a show of force by the British military might be no bad thing.

And so it is, until you read the small print:

The Ministry of Defence played down Rising Panther’s significance, maintaining that it was merely the first opportunity since the end of hostilities in Afghanistan to hold an air exercise of this scale.

“Due to our continuing commitment to operations overseas, this is the first time we have had the full spectrum of our capability operating together at the same time in a realistic, opposed, environment,” said Wing Commander Andy Coe in the Ministry of Defence-run RAF News.

He added that this was the first time that the RAF had used AWACS and Sentinel together because they have been “in such high demand” in theatres abroad.

It is the facts that are implied, rather than those which are stated, which are most significant here.

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Should We Punish Artists For Their Political Beliefs?

LSO Valery Gergiev

Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra

 

Music and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and this timeless truth has only been reconfirmed with the continuing tumult and unrest in Ukraine.

Russia, the protagonist in this latest crisis, provides ample recent evidence that politics and music are best kept apart. The punk band Pussy Riot, for example, is hardly ever out of the headlines in recent months, with members being jailed, released, threatened and attacked by the authorities merely for adding their voices to the civic discourse, for wanting to make themselves and their beliefs heard.

But at the other end of the artistic spectrum, for the fine arts – especially classical music – the problem is not the Russian government’s persecution of artists, but artists’ apparent eagerness to praise the political leadership and to lend President Vladimir Putin their credibility.

The most famous current case is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev was one of the most prominent Russian artists to sign an open letter in support of Vlarimir Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Part of the letter’s text reads:

In the days when the fate of our compatriots in the Crimea is decided, Russian cultural figures can not be indifferent observers with a cold heart . Our common history, our cultural roots and spiritual origins , our fundamental values ​​and language have united us forever. We want to see the commonality of our peoples and our cultures have a strong future. That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.

Sometimes, these messages of support for Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression are downright perplexing, such as when the Russian Writer’s Union decided to make their love and support for Putin known in a very Soviet style open letter, a sloppy wet kiss to power. Craven though they can sometimes be, one can hardly imagine the British or American press joining together as one to praise and defend the Cameron or Obama foreign policies.

At other times, however, particularly in the case of artists responsible for institutions that depend on government support, the situation is not so clear-cut and such acts of public sycophancy may be part of the inevitable cost of doing business. The Financial Times picks up on this point:

There is little doubt [Gergiev’s] position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.

This is perhaps a distinction worth making, though it could equally be argued that the brave and moral thing to do would be to speak out against government malfeasance, consequences be damned. US country music group The Dixie Chicks tried this approach in 2003 when they spoke out against their president and their country’s imminent invasion of Iraq.

The aftermath was not pleasant, and it is a brave person who now does what the Dixie Chicks did – and this was in the United States, where the rule of law still means something. One can only imagine what might befall the likes of Gergiev if they actively spoke out against their government, when even maintaining a diplomatic silence would invite negative repercussions.

But of course Valery Gergiev would not speak out against Vladimir Putin’s policy of bullying and undermining Ukraine; he actively supports it, his signature to the open letter was enthusiastically given. So the question then becomes one of whether artists with differing political or world views should continue to be welcomed in foreign concert halls, or be else ostracised and made artistic pariahs?

A significant weight of critical opinion seems to be coming down on the side of ostracisation and intolerance. Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already made headlines by protesting Valery Gergiev’s continued association with a top-flight British artistic institution, going so far as to hijack the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz season in November 2013 and later issuing an open letter to the LSO, effectively demanding Gergiev’s dismissal. The letter concludes:

It is our view that Mr Gergiev’s current position is untenable and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry’s website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.

If he decides he is not prepared to do this, his employment should be terminated as he is not an appropriate person to be in receipt of UK public funding. He supports discriminatory legislation which goes against the UK values of equality and diversity, and he supports Russian military action which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned.

Ironically, the open letter sent by the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute uses the same basis of government-policy-as-justification that we see in the Russian Ministry of Culture’s letter of support from Russian artists. Tatchell’s letter demands that Gergiev be fired because he supports a policy “which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned”. Does this then mean that any artist or artistic institution not in complete accordance with the current views of the British government should be denied funding and actively picketed?

As is so often the case with campaigners from the political left, it is never enough to let the people vote with their feet on matters of moral principle. Rather, they instinctively turn to the government to invoke its power to make people fall into line. If it transpired that Valery Gergiev was jetting off between concerts to personally help foment unrest in eastern Ukrainian cities, people would be outraged and his situation would immediately become untenable. But he has not, and would never do this. Ultimately, Gergiev is guilty of little more than supporting the overwhelming view – however wrong it may be – among his own countrymen, something that most of us would likely do ourselves.

The Washington Post also picks up on this point, noting that famous Soviet artists were welcomed when they performed in the West even at the height of the Cold War, at a time when diplomatic relations were far more precarious than they are now:

If a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government).

For those in the West who watch Russia’s bullying and takeover of parts of Ukraine with mounting concern and anger, it may well provide a moment of catharsis and sweet justice to send the likes of Valery Gergiev packing prematurely from the London Symphony Orchestra, and to see other prominent Russian artists who do not disavow their country similarly exiled.

But it is precisely at times like these – when passions are high and tempers flared – that humanity most needs to remain in touch with the few common threads that unite us all. Music is perhaps the most precious of these unifying threads. After all, while the West may have a legitimate quarrel with the Russian government, the Russian people are largely innocent, as much victims of Putin’s repressive regime as the people of Ukraine and Crimea.

And even when prominent artists such as Valery Gergiev weigh in on the “wrong” side of an international dispute or a political debate, how can it be right to sever an important international cultural tie, a key reminder (to quote John F. Kennedy) that whatever our many differences, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal”?

In the end, it was Valery Gergiev together with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who answered the conundrum most eloquently, with their recent concert performance of Alexander Scriabin’s First Symphony, part of Gergiev’s ongoing promotion of the Russian classical repertoire and a concert attended by Semi-Partisan Sam.

Sitting in London’s iconic Barbican concert hall, the rich sound of the LSO’s strings and peerless brass section enveloping the audience as the symphony drew toward its noble conclusion, hearing the chorus intone “Slava isskustvu vo veki slava!” – Britain’s finest musicians conducted by a Russian maestro – it hit home that if anything is truly transcendental, if anything must be held sacred and kept apart from our cynical, self-serving and sometimes hypocritical geopolitics, it should be music.

From the text of the choral finale to Scriabin’s first symphony, in praise of art’s unifying gift to humanity:

You are an exalted vision of life,
you are celebration, you are peace,
you bring your enchanted visions
as a gift to humankind.
In those cold, dark moments
when our souls are troubled,
mankind can discover in you
life’s joys, consolation and forgetfulness.

Gather here, all nations of the earth,
let us sing the praises of art!
Glory, eternal glory to art!

 

 

More on Scriabin‘s first symphony hereMore on the London Symphony Orchestra here.

 

Nigel Farage vs The Politically Correct Line On Russia

Attempts to sink Nigel Farage tend to fail

Attempts to sink Nigel Farage tend to fail

 

In the aftermath of last week’s debate on Britain’s place in the European Union, UKIP leader Nigel Farage had gall to say that he admired the tactics of the despotic Russian president Vladimir Putin. Not that he admired Putin as a person, agreed with his annexation of Crimea or supported his policies in any way, mind you – just that he thought Vladimir Putin had played a good hand and used methods both conventional and shady to advance the national interest of his country.

To hear Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s subsequent shrieks of outrage, quickly repeated and parroted thoughtlessly by numerous political commentators and talking heads, you would think that Nigel Farage had whipped a large Soviet flag out from behind his podium and paraded up and down with it during the debate, singing  the State Anthem of the USSR at the top of his lungs (incidentally, it’s a cracking piece of music).

The second live televised Leader’s Debate on the EU will take place tonight, and given the establishment media’s heroic efforts last week to spin the results of the first as a victory for the hapless Nick Clegg – until overwhelming reality and the results of a YouGov poll made their position indefensible and forced a sudden reassessment of Farage’s performance – this blog aims to clear the fog of war which still threatens to obscure what Nigel Farage actually said (eminently reasonable) and what he has subsequently been accused of saying (treachery).

Here is what Nigel Farage actually said, when asked by Alastair Campbell which world leader he most admired:

“As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?”

 The recognition of Putin’s moral failings and outrage at Russia’s insidious suppression of free speech was not enough to save Farage from what followed. The point was clearly that Russia has been running rings around a hopelessly divided (and in some cases, morally equivalent) international community, not that Russia pursued a just or worthy course of action.

Nick Clegg chose to see it somewhat differently:

“It shows quite how extreme people can be like Nigel Farage when their loathing of the European Union becomes so all-consuming that they even end up siding with Vladimir Putin in order to make their point.

The only reason we are able to seek to exert any influence – and it is difficult enough as it is – on Vladimir Putin is because we can act with the clout of being part of the economic superpower that is the European Union, upon which Russia depends a lot.”

A heady mix of deliberate misrepresentation and the sadly typical denigration and talking down of Britain’s capacity to act in it’s own interests on the world stage such as this would be remarkable coming from anyone other than the Liberal Democrat leader and our Deputy Prime Minister.

Clegg and Farage

 

Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind also loses the plot over Farage’s comments, railing against the UKIP leader in his uniquely blustering, pompous style:

How very revealing. When asked which world politician he most admires, Nigel Farage chooses, of all people, Vladimir Putin. While others might have sought a successor to Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela, Farage fawns over an autocrat who has made Russia the least free country in Europe – a man who locks up his political opponents and has just invaded his neighbour, annexing part of its territory.

Rifkind also chooses to go with the trusty trick of blatant misrepresentation. Nigel Farage was clear to add the caveat “as an operator, but not as a human being” before making his comments about Russia’s effective foreign policy. Those key words by Farage, which place his remarks in context and which came literally right before the ones that Rifkind quoted to support his diatribe, seemed to sail past his ears unnoticed.

Rifkind then goes on to miss the point entirely:

[Farage’s] irresponsibility has not just been restricted to Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine. He described Putin’s policy on Syria as “brilliant”. Does he not realise that Russia has vetoed every resolution in the UN Security Council that was aimed at pressing Assad to end his murderous violence – which has led to the deaths of over 140,000 Syrian men, women and children? Does he not know that without Russian arms supplies, the Assad regime would have been forced to negotiate an end to the civil war two years ago?

Again, we see the deliberate, false equating of Farage’s admiration of the brilliant execution of an terrible policy with actual support for that policy. But the two are clearly not one and the same, no matter how much the prevailing climate of political correctness may insist that because something is judged by the collective to be bad, all aspects of it must be denounced as equally terrible and any positive aspects be purged from discussion and memory.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is outrageous and terrible – on that much, nearly everyone aside from Russia agrees. But to stop at saying that is not enough for the politically correct pundits of today. In this world, because Russia has done this terrible thing and made itself persona non grata in the international community, we all must now say that everything about Russia is bad, and never acknowledge any good until we are told by our superiors that it is safe to do so.

To be fair, Russia makes this task quite simple. Through their domestic and foreign policies on any number of issues, that country has placed itself on the wrong side of human rights, freedom of speech and even the arc of history. The lamentable implosion of Russia’s nascent democracy is well known, as are the stories about increasing suppression of free speech, the government takeover of the media and Russia’s appalling record on civil rights for gay people. But why must all of these misdeeds be meticulously restated before a British politician can say the truth – that despite Russia being completely wrong on all of these issues, they played their foreign policy hand really well in support of their own national interests?

Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley hits the nail on the head in support of Nigel Farage’s right to say the blindingly obvious:

Farage’s sin was to say that he admires Putin as a political leader, although not as a human being. Why this is controversial, I have literally no idea. Farage made it abundantly clear that he regards the Russian leader as a despot (“How many journalists in jail now?”); he simply thinks that he outwitted Obama on Syria. I think that; you think that; even Obama probably thinks that … Ah, but you can’t say such things out loud because the consensus in Westminster right now is that Putin is Hitler, Ukraine is the Sudetenland and anything less that outright Russophobia is treachery. And probably a little bit homophobic.

Precisely. Believing that Putin outwitted other world leaders in terms of the response to the awful situation in Syria does not imply support for Putin’s position, just as believing he is currently one step ahead with regard to Ukraine does not mean that Nigel Farage wants Russia’s gamble to succeed.

Tim Stanley continues, giving a brilliant summation of the current problem with British political discourse:

And that’s Farage’s real sin: he dares to be different. Contemporary British politics works by an unusual degree of consensus. All three party leaders want to stay in the EU, all wish to preserve the principle of the welfare state, all back gay marriage, all accept the need to go green, none will challenge the concept of open borders on immigration. Some or all of these positions may well be right – that’s not the issue. The issue is that this homogeneity of opinion is fundamentally undemocratic. In democracies, voters are supposed to be offered real choices rather than one establishment philosophy spun three different ways. To make matters worse, the party leaders now not only sound alike but also lookalike.

This much is true, and scarily so. The sad fact is that the British political elite have imposed a consensus on society that the people themselves have not yet reached. For good or ill (okay, for ill) there is a large rump of opinion within the British population that would bring back the death penalty in a heartbeat, scrap the new legalisation of gay marriage, become Fortress Britain for immigrants seeking the right to work, and undertake any number of other regressive policies. But in Britain the elite went ahead and determined the “correct” answer to all of these issues on behalf of the people but without seeking their input, and so the debate is continually suppressed – except for when it bubbles to the surface manifested as support for the insurgent or extremist parties.

Contrast the situation in Britain with that in the United States. The political debate there is no more enlightened or informed, but there is still the sense that they debate important issues, often from diametrically opposing viewpoints. The US senate hears strident views from such diverse characters as self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, the senior senator from Vermont, as well as the fire-and-brimstone filibusterings of Tea Party darling Ted Cruz. And people with views anywhere within this spectrum are made to feel welcome in the political debate. As a result, though the American process is a lot slower, louder and more contentious, when political unanimity is finally reached (and it takes a long time – civil rights has more or less just crossed the line, with gay rights looking at another 30 years of toil) it is much more strongly reflected in the people, and is consequently much more likely to stick.

The difference could not be clearer – a lively national debate where everyone feels they can speak and be heard, or the stultifying restrictions of an artificial consensus imposed by the political elite.

Now faced with a politician who refuses to follow the approved talking points on Russia, these weasely politicians who came scurrying out of the woodwork to denounce Nigel Farage over his comments are deliberately misleading the public and attempting to change the narrative. Hell, let’s call a spade a spade – they are lying, deliberately lying to the British people in the political establishment’s latest doomed attempt to make Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party and the millions of people who share his viewpoint seem extremist, weird and dangerous.

All of these armchair pundits know what Nigel Farage meant when he said he admired the direct effectiveness of Vladimir Putin’s assertive foreign policy as compared to the dithering and retrenchment which have all too often characterised the governments of David Cameron and Barack Obama. But why let a non-story go to waste when words can be twisted and mischaracterised to falsely make their speaker sound like the CEO of the Vladimir Putin Fan Club?

Of course, all of this kerfuffle could have been avoided if Nigel Farage had chosen his words more carefully. Had Farage prefaced his words with a lengthy (but surely unnecessary) denunciation of Russia’s behaviour and Putin’s morals, he might have escaped censure by the self-appointed moral arbiters of British political debate. That’s exactly what they want to happen, and it is why they are now so furious with the idiosyncratic UKIP leader, resolved once more to try to drive him out of British politics.

In the heavily thought-policed world of Nigel Farage’s critics, no opportunity to say The Correct Thing should ever remain unseized. If you want to make a point about the effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy then that’s okay, but by God you had better utter the cross-party approved talking points before you do so. Only once all of your political pronouncements become entangled in endless disclaimers and footnotes grounding them in established political correctness will these meddling people be satisfied.

Tim Stanley puts it well:

Westminster is going to continue hitting its head against the brick wall of public antipathy towards politics-as-usual. The more that Farage acts up, the more different he seems, the more the establishment will hate him, the more the voters will like him.

And there, right there, is the popularity of Nigel Farage. Political correctness and towing the establishment party line? He will have none of it, thank you very much. Whether you like his political stances or not, he is the only leader of a major political party in Britain who remains willing and able to speak honestly and passionately as though he isn’t reading from a focus group-approved script.

How richly will the voters reward him in May’s elections for daring to talk like a normal human being?

 

The next Leader’s debate on the European Union takes place tonight (Wednesday 2nd April) at 1900 BST, and will be shown on BBC Two.

Ron Paul, The New Russian Apologist

RonPaul

 

Former US congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is nothing if not consistent – an admirable and all too rare quality in a politician. But just sometimes, the unflinching adherence to a particular principle or policy can be a bad thing – witness the Tea Party’s stance on taxation, the National Security Cheerleader Caucus’ enthusiasm for government surveillance, or the legislate-by-Bible-verse preference of the religious right.

Ron Paul has now sadly joined this group of ideologues, not because many of the points that he makes have suddenly stopped being timely, persuasive and correct, but because he now makes them in such a way that they no longer inform or educate, but merely generate material to be used by enemies of the United States and the West as ready-made propaganda pieces.

Indeed, some of Paul’s recent pronouncements on the Ukraine crisis and the Russian usurpation of Crimea are so one-sided and so determined to examine only the faults of the West while negating or ignoring the faults of Russia, that one wonders what his motivation could possibly be. Paul seems to be adopting a one-man Fox News Strategy, whereby he single-handedly attempts to redress what he sees as an inherent bias or gross imbalance by coming down incredibly hard on one side of an argument – whilst proclaiming all the while to be fair and balanced.

The latest fodder for Kremlin-apologists came on Sunday, when Paul penned an op-ed for his own Ron Paul Institute website, the subtitle of which could easily have been ‘I told you so.’ In this piece, he lashes out at the monetary and other forms of assistance given to Ukraine over the past ten years by US-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs):

But what do the US taxpayers get, who were forced to pay for this interventionism? Nothing good. Ukraine is a bankrupt country that will need tens of billions of dollars to survive the year. Already the US-selected prime minister has made a trip to Washington to ask for more money.

And what will the Ukrainians get? Their democracy has been undermined by the US-backed coup in Kiev. In democracies, power is transferred peacefully through elections, not seized by rebels in the streets. At least it used to be.

As with most effective attempts to mislead, there is just enough truth contained in this statement to suggest respectability and provide a stepping stone to reality, but not too much that it might get in the way of the misinformation being delivered.

It is certainly the case that the National Endowment of Democracy, a private and non-profit organisation, is active in Ukraine. But the NED is not secretive about this fact. Indeed, they detail all of their activities and funded initiatives across all of the countries where they work on their own website. Details of their funded work in Ukraine can be read here.

It is certainly possible that organisations such as the Human Rights Training Center or the Ukrainian Catholic University are nothing but shadowy US puppet organisations, greedily taking in American taxpayer money and using it to subvert the will of the Ukrainian people, just as it is possible that Barack Obama became president of the United States for the sole purpose of gathering material to aid in his upcoming romantic comedy about living and working in the White House. Possible, in other words, but eyebrow-raisingly unlikely.

But the narrative sounds very good to anyone predisposed to view any American or Western activity with suspicion, and so by floating unsubstantiated assertions that western-funded NGOs are doing anything other than trying to promote and build the strong institutions required for democracy to flourish, Paul is playing into a harmful narrative which misconstrues the intentions of his own country and those of the West.

In a separate intervention last week, Paul rhetorically asked:

Why does the US care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”

The thought does not seem to occur to Paul that perhaps the United States does not care about the flag – that perhaps it is not the small piece of land that is at stake, but rather the way that it changed hands so rapidly under threat of force that is the problem. And, regrettably, he seems all too willing to recall previous bad actions and mistakes made by the United States to excuse current crimes committed by Russia:

“Where were these people when an election held in an Iraq occupied by US troops was called a ‘triumph of democracy’?

Iraq was certainly very recent, but to make a blasé statement such as this without giving a thought to the many differences between the invasion of Iraq (non-permanent and not for acquisition of land) – however terrible and wrong it may have been – and the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, is propagandist point-scoring at its worst.

No strangers to propagandist point-scoring themselves, the Kremlin-funded Russia Today network predictably seized on Ron Paul’s latest op-ed, and folded it into their continuing efforts to spin the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory as something entirely consistent with international law, recent precedent and human decency.

RT.com wasted no time putting their own helpful gloss on Ron Paul’s words:

According to Paul, high-funded intervention doesn’t equate to spreading democracy. Instead, he wrote, the US has invested in a country where power has been passed along not by the way of a democratic election, but rather the ousting of the country’s presidents by his opponents.

Of course, the regime of Viktor Yanukovych ousted by the supposedly undemocratic popular uprising in Kiev was itself busily trying to subvert the Ukrainian democracy by cracking down on freedom of speech, silencing dissent and dramatically increasing the powers of the president, which rather muddies the waters and exposing the Ron Paul / Russia Today line as the one-sided propaganda that it is.

Ron Paul accuses President Obama of doing many of the things in America that Viktor Yanukovych did in Ukraine, albeit on a slightly smaller scale – certainly, Obama’s war on whistleblowers and the surveillance state that he has tolerated and expanded can be said to chip away at the foundation of democracy. And yet this outrage at the illiberal policies being enacted in America is nowhere to be found when he looks at the former Yanukovych government, who, for all Paul seems to know or care, were benign arbiters of justice and democracy, unjustly pushed from office by a baying mob of anti-democracy fanatics.

If the recent Edward Snowden / NSA / surveillance debate have taught us nothing else, we have at least been reminded that democracy and its institutions are fragile and never more than one generation away from serious damage, subversion or destruction. When countries such as Britain and America – who have traditionally held aloft the flame of liberty and democracy – now suffer under governments that think nothing of secret surveillance of their own citizens, detain people or subject them to indefinite curtailments on their freedom without trial or allow those who permitted torture to take place to avoid justice, how much more fragile and in need of support must be those nations with a much shorter history of democratic government?

And in this context, is NGO money spent to strengthen democratic institutions in countries around the world not one of the best investments that the West could make?

The suggestion is not that Ron Paul has no right to speak out against past US failings – he has a longstanding and admirable track record of doing so. But the problem comes when his zeal to remind people of past US and Western failings leads him not to condemn those same actions by other countries, but rather almost to praise them as a perverse means of restoring parity within the global order.

In his recent speech to the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin ranted, raved and gave the world a stark insight into his paranoia, his sense of inadequacy and the huge chip on his shoulder concerning how his country is perceived by the rest of the world. Railing against the West, he said:

Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

They did it before, so now we can do it, too.

Ron Paul is in many ways a visionary, and is certainly a real American patriot. Which is why it is concerning that he and the dictator from Russia find themselves singing from the same hymn sheet.