Written by Nick Busvine
This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish here with kind permission.
This is Part 2. You can read Part 1 here on Independence Daily.
It is not, in any event, correct to suggest that there has been a failure on the part of the authorities to investigate allegations of abuse of electoral process by Leave supporters. The Electoral Commission instigated a number of investigations into Brexit (but not Remain) referendum funding, including a high-profile case looking into possible Russian funding of the Leave campaign via the businessman Arron Banks. The National Crime Agency (NCA) found that there was no case to answer and, in April 2020, the Electoral Commission finally issued a joint statement with Banks, accepting the NCA’s conclusions that it ‘had not received any evidence to suggest that Mr. Banks or his companies received funding from any third party to fund the loans, or that he acted as an agent on behalf of a third party.’
The lack of faith on the part of the Remainer ‘undead’ in our democratic system is profoundly concerning. If we are worried about the subversion of our right to hold politicians to account and have a say on how we are governed, perhaps we should be looking closer to home than Moscow. After all, it wasn’t just the 2016 referendum that saw the Leave cause prevail; the EU and General elections last year were both decisive. Were the Russians manipulating those outcomes as well?
I am completely comfortable with the appropriate HMG agencies keeping a weather eye on any attempt by the Russians to interfere with our democratic process. The same scrutiny should apply to any other foreign power seeking to do the same, Brussels included. The report was right to highlight the risk of attempts to suborn politicians or officials. The vulnerability of MPs and members of the House of Lords to nakedly improper consultancy arrangements has been well documented in the media. Even Malcom Rifkind, a former Chair of the ISC, was caught out in 2015 offering access in return for cash from a fictitious Chinese company.
The ISC is absolutely right to draw attention [para. 54 of the report] to the fact that under current arrangements, while MPs are required to declare any payments over £100 for any employment outside the House, members of the House of Lords are not. This is clearly worrying and should be urgently addressed. The ISC is also right to recommend that the UK should introduce arrangements similar to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) [see paras. 54, 114 and 115]. The ISC report notes that ‘The US, in 1938, introduced the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires anyone other than accredited diplomats – including both US and non-US citizens – who represents the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to register with the Department of Justice, disclosing their relationship with the foreign government and information about related activities and finances. Additionally, US legislation requires agents, other than diplomats, performing non-political activities under the control of foreign governments or foreign officials, to notify the Attorney General (registration under FARA serves as the requisite notification). Anyone who should have registered but who has not done so can be prosecuted and, in the case of non-US citizens, deported.’ If legislation of this kind were in place, HMG law enforcement and intelligence agencies would – as the ISC report suggests – be in a much better position to mount meaningful investigations.
The ISC was also right to draw attention to the London ‘laundromat’ and to the investment of illicit Russian funds in ‘extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions’ [para. 50]. But the problem goes wider than Russia. As a Brexiteer I would like, for example, to have a much clearer understanding of the legitimacy of sources – as well as the use – of funding for the Remain campaign, which outspent Leave by some considerable margin. At the very least, we should have much more transparency here too.
More generally, the line between a properly and an improperly constituted financing deal (such as the facilitation of money laundering) can be a fine one. At least the ISC has tried to ask the question about easy money from dubious private sources. Too often, private sector entities deliberately avoid doing so. The temptation to take the money is incredibly strong. I have lost count of the number of senior businessmen and lawyers who have told me over the years that they or their clients are simply unwilling to conduct meaningful due diligence on the legitimacy of origins of wealth of an individual or entity from a corrupt or opaque or otherwise high risk jurisdiction. Some will even admit privately that the fear is that asking too many questions will risk losing the cash. Ignorance, by contrast, is bliss – at least until you get caught out. As lawyers should understand rather better than the rest of us, ignorance in such circumstances is no defence under the law.
Mr Nick Busvine OBE is formerly of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, recently mayor of Sevenoaks, and is a partner at Herminius a Corporate Advisory firm