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Defending democracy in an era of state threats

Policy Exchange, 13 December 2022

I’d like to talk about an evolving threat that we are seeing, an emerging threat, which is of course state threats to our democracy and indeed others.

I think we should start by recognising what a remarkable achievement the United Kingdom is. It’s not just four nations come together but actually a patchwork of many more nations than that under a single flag.

It wasn’t that long ago in historical terms, just over a thousand years ago that people owed allegiance to kings in Kent and Fife, in Ulster and Strathclyde. But those kingdoms have intertwined and through a combination of stories and law we’ve made ourselves into one of the most extraordinary countries in the world. We’ve exported stability, we’ve exported principles and the regulations that have constructed a world of free trade and freedom that has made so many prosperous and enabled so much happiness.

Now this unity was built on shared stories of our past, creating what has become a firm foundation for our future. And it was only possible because the stories that we were able to tell each other, the stories, the myths, the histories turned around to bind the people together. To give us a common foundation. A common root. But those stories that unite can also divide, and today we are seeing that shared understanding fray, we are seeing stories twisted and corrupted deliberately to sow confusion and division.

We’re seeing threats to our politics and, because of that, to our nation.

And, I’m not saying this just because I happen to be a very strong unionist, and I believe that our union is one of the pillars of liberty in the world. I don’t need to make that argument – our role in the United Nations, in NATO, in the Commonwealth, in the World Trade Organisation and many, many other organisations besides points to the essential role that our union has had in creating a safer and more prosperous world. I make the argument because we’re not just dealing with just competing narratives today, we’re dealing with false ones.

Disinformation matters. It can shape debate and it can change outcomes.

Now this is because democracy isn’t just an event, it’s a process. It’s how we talk to each other, not just how we decide the future in a ballot box. But how we shape that future through discussion. It’s as much about journalists, lawyers, businesses and civic activists as it is about politicians.

Fundamentally, it’s about citizens. How we participate, what we do, in every community, is just as important as what is done to us.

That’s why joining political parties, getting together with friends and neighbours, championing ideas and choosing candidates, is the bedrock of our democracy and the heart of our freedom.

Because democracy can no more be reduced to an election than an economy can be reduced to a market.

Defending it demands us to understand what matters throughout our society, not just on polling day.

Now, some have understood this better than many in free countries. They see the source of our strength and have understood the levers that can be used to weaken us.

Spreading division and lies, challenging the narratives that enable our national conversation and debate, make us less resilient, more brittle and at greater risk.

And our response must be about more than just protecting politicians or elections.

I don’t want to confuse however debate for division. It’s entirely right for us to debate our constitution and our laws. It is essential for our freedom that we do.

We should argue and disagree. A 99% approval rating may sound wonderful if you’re North Korean, but it is truly the sign of a dictatorship not of a democracy.

What is critical is that we should know where the arguments are coming from. We should know that these debates are triggered by the interests of our nation and our communities. By the peoples who we should rightly be representing.

We shouldn’t be having them triggered by outside forces and a hidden hand. For too long, foreign interference has been slowly creeping into British democracy.

And as Security Minister, much of what comes across my desk is acute threats. Quite obviously those are the ones that we respond to immediately.

But it is the strategic threats to our democracy – because the acts are part of a systematic campaign over a long period of time, to degrade our sovereignty – that concern me most.

They are threats not just to life; they are threats to our way of life.

This emerging era of state-based threats isn’t just Le Carré – it’s not the silent battle of shadows – but a challenge to our future and to our society.

And it’s not a secret that state-based threats are growing and coming from many different sources as competition intensifies, impacting countries across the world including the United Kingdom and our allies.

Now we’ve seen Russia’s abhorrent and illegal invasion of Ukraine. We’ve seen the attacks around Europe, indeed, the Estonian Ambassador is here and who can talk about the attacks we’ve seen on his great country over the last decade or so. We’ve even seen attacks here in London and in Salisbury, that have sadly cost the life of one British individual and one Russian.

Now from China we’ve seen increased militarisation, and the growing tension over Taiwan.

And Iran’s malign behaviour in the Middle East directly threatens our partners and our interests, they are brutally suppressing courageous people in the streets who are calling for an end to the control of a corrupt and corrupted religious and security elite claiming authority from God.

All of this is clear, much of it has been clear for some time.

What’s new is that we’re seeing this grow at home.

During the Covid pandemic, we saw Moscow try to sow disinformation. We saw fake news bots, trying to promote different arguments, false arguments on social media.

In our universities we’ve seen debate silenced by voices controlled by Beijing, and now, we’re seeing Tehran try to exploit similar routes.

As the head of MI5 put it recently, the Iranian regime is projecting its campaign to silence dissent directly to the UK, with at least ten such threats since January, as he said. Now, as recently as last month, I – along with other MPs – were sadly given security guidance because of the Iranian threat.

Since Ken McCallum’s speech just a few weeks ago, we have seen even more out of Iran. This has is not and has not yet finished.

And we’ve seen states including China and their United Front Work Department try to silence incredibly courageous academics, who are trying to exercise the freedom that every academic in the United Kingdom should enjoy.

All those are attempts to silence our national debate and to shape our democracies.

All of those demand responses.

There is a deeper layer. The activity that hides itself in online platforms and undermines our democratic discourse is like a poison seeping through the body politic. It’s degrading the media environment and attacking our free speech.

Russian disinformation on Twitter is increasingly obvious. And the bots that we’re seeing attack Ukrainian voices or try to silence those calling out the Kremlin’s human rights abuses in Syria are now often, thank goodness, written about.

And as the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I was privileged to chair, reported in 2019, Chinese-encouraged smothering of dissent, even beyond its borders, is another.

That’s why we need to look beyond the sources of disinformation and to its channels.

As Ofcom reported, only recently, the reach of newspapers and online sources has fallen from roughly a half in 2020, to below 40 percent in just two years. Over that same period, TikTok has gone as a news source, from having 1 percent to 7 percent take up.

Now that may not sound like a lot, but when you look at the group of younger people, 16-24 year olds, you’ll see that the figure is much higher. Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are all about a third of the news sources young people turn to, outstripping their reliance on the ITV or BBC networks.

The influence of social media platforms on our younger generations here in the United Kingdom and around the world is pervasive. The content on these platforms will, of course, influence minds. Yet it’s worth noting that foreign states hold considerable sway over the algorithms that are the editor on these sources.

The challenge for a free country like ours is how we manage this debate. How we keep a society free and open as the last Integrated Review committed us to, quite rightly, while defending ourselves from the dishonesty that could tear us apart.

The same challenge applies to the platforms themselves. They profit from the liberty that allows the trade in ideas and goods. Ensuring they defend that liberty is not asking them to be altruistic, it’s asking them to invest in their own futures.

We believe in the liberty of shared views, we believe in the liberty of ideas, we also believe in the liberty of cat videos. But we also need to balance all of this with the reality of the world that we live in.

To update to the Integrated Review, we are going to have to consider many of these issues in the round and the challenges that they pose to us all.

And when it comes to tackling foreign influence and malign activity, our National Security Bill, currently in the House of Lords, will modernise our outdated laws and provide the foundations for being better able to protect our people and our institutions from state-based threats.

Specifically, our Foreign Influence Registration Scheme has been created to tackle covert influence in the United Kingdom.

The scheme’s aims are twofold, to strengthen the resilience of the United Kingdom political system against covert foreign influence and to provide greater assurance around the activities of specified foreign powers or entities.

Those who are working on covert political interference will I’m afraid face a simple choice: they will have to register and highlight the activities they seek to hide, or not – and risk prosecution.

The scheme will not impose restrictions on legitimate activities of people or businesses – it is here to encourage openness and transparency – and it is necessary precisely because we know that those who wish to do us harm are using the shadows to evolve new techniques.

Together, these threats challenge our democracy. Some are state threats, others are from groups trying to distort us for other reasons.

This government – is taking them all extremely seriously.

The Prime Minister has demonstrated he’s serious about it and about tackling state threats, and the specific threat to our democratic resilience, by asking me to lead the Defending Democracy Taskforce.

Now, this is not just about guarding ministers or protecting technology. Nor even about MPs and those elected across our country to serve our communities in the parliaments and assemblies and councils. Despite the tragedies that all of us have seen in recent years, despite the recognition that is so important, that is not only what this is about. It’s about making sure that all of us, as citizens, are free and able to debate the ideas and choose the future that makes us strong.

Its primary focus will be to protect the democratic integrity of the United Kingdom from threats of foreign influence.

We will work across government and with Parliament, the United Kingdom’s intelligence community, the devolved administrations, local authorities, the private sector and civil society on the full range of threats facing our democratic institutions.

It will be looking at foreign interference in our elections and electoral process; disinformation; physical and cyber threats to the democratic institutions and those who represent them; foreign interference in public office, political parties and universities; and what we call transnational repression. What we mean by that is the activity of those who seek to stifle free expression in diaspora communities in the UK, those who try to silence the debate that they, as anyone else in the United Kingdom, should be able to enjoy. We have seen the most recent example of this in the so-called overseas police stations that China has set up around the country, and indeed around the world.

I’ve reached out to Five Eyes partners and I am keen to work closely with European and other international friends to tackle state threats together. This is not just a British problem. This is a problem that all democracies face and sadly too many autocracies are trying to use.

Over the past decade we have seen the evolving threat to our national life and begun to understand the form it is truly taking.

The challenges we face to our democracy and national security from state-based foreign threats, now and in the years to come, are serious, complex and abundant.

They will not be solved quickly. They will not be solved by government acting alone.

All of us, individuals and organisations, have a role in defending our freedoms, and we best start by understanding and debating the threats that we face.

For all of our achievements as a country – from innovation and scientific discovery, to economic prosperity, cultural wealth and the cohesion that has made this country so extraordinarily rich and strong – it is our freedom that enables it all.

As we look to the challenges of the future – and yes, there are many – the essential lesson of the past is that dictatorships may look solid in the short term, but they can’t manage change. Real stability, real resilience, comes from debate, from discussion and the democracy that flows from it.

Protecting democracy is essential to us all.

Source: GOV.UK