Brendan O’Neill

Can we finally put the Russia-Brexit conspiracy to bed?

Can we finally put the Russia-Brexit conspiracy to bed?
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So there you go. There is still no hard evidence that Russia interfered in the EU referendum. What’s more, it would be ‘difficult — if not impossible — to prove’ the existence of Russian meddling. Can we now, please, put the Russia-Brexit conspiracy theory to bed?

The quote above comes from the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-awaited Russia report, published this morning. Some people, especially hard-line Remainers, have been waiting for this report with bated breath. They hoped it would back up their conviction that the mass vote for Brexit in 2016 was essentially the handiwork of pesky Ruskies who infiltrated our public life and brainwashed the electorate into voting Leave.

This ‘Russia Did Brexit’ lobby is likely to be disappointed by the report. Sure, the report makes many criticisms of UK governments and is stinging in its critique of Russia. It slams UK officials for failing to take seriously the threat of Russian interference in Western political life. And it chastises ‘paranoid’ Russia for meddling in various political processes around the West. It raises the distinct possibility that Russia sought to influence the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. All of this should be publicly, frankly discussed.

But Brexit? The idea that bots and trolls and possibly even spies from Russia helped to sway the referendum vote by planting stories and twisting minds? The evidence just isn’t there.

The report discusses ‘attempts to influence the referendum using RT [Russia Today] and Sputnik or social media campaigns’, but all of that could just as easily be viewed as fair, if biased, comment. On the key charge made by some Remainers — that the Russian regime consciously and thoroughly sought to sway the referendum result in favour of Brexit, as part of a dastardly scheme to weaken the EU — there is still a dearth of proof. And proving this claim, as the report says, is likely to be ‘impossible’.

People really need to let it go. It will drive them mad otherwise. The Russia-Brexit thing always struck me as a chattering-class conspiracy theory. Among those sections of the political and media establishments that felt rattled and even alarmed by the vote for Brexit, it became the go-to explanation for what happened on 23 June 2016. It wasn’t that a majority of British voters consciously, happily stated their desire to leave the EU; it was that wicked Russia got into our political system and into people’s heads and plunged Britain into ‘Brexit mayhem’.

This obsession with alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum has had a terrible impact on political life in the UK. It has sowed doubt about the largest act of free and fair democracy in the history of this country, irritating millions of voters in the process. It has demeaned Leave voters, reducing us to putty-minded plebs who were probably hoodwinked into being ‘Europhobic’ by an external power. And it has stymied the process of Britain moving on from the referendum itself and into a new era of post-EU independence and positivity.

The Russia-Brexit belief was the comfort blanket that some rattled Remainers wrapped themselves in as a way of avoiding the truth of our new political world. It’s time for them to ditch the blanket and face up to this reality: it wasn’t Russia that made Brexit happen — it was the British people. We want to leave the EU. We really do. Is that so hard to believe?

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked, the online magazine.

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