We are a year away from formally leaving the European Union, entering an indefinite period of limbo in which we will follow EU rules but will no longer shape them.
We are 21 months on from the referendum itself, and it’s a year since the Prime Minister formally notified the EU of Britain’s intention to leave under Article 50, during which we have seen most difficult problems left for later. It has been 45 years since the UK joined the EEC (precursor to EU), and 72 years from the time when European statesmen and women hatched the plan to create ‘a sort of United States of Europe’ to bind Europe together with an aim of preventing future conflicts. Winston Churchill was one those statesmen, and he wanted Britain to be a founder of the EU. From those early days of the European movement emerged the European Coal and Steel Community (in 1951), and the Council of Europe (1949).
The Council of Europe (47 member countries) was designed as a talking shop for “jaw-jaw, not war-war”; it gave us the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Importantly, it provides a forum that, amongst other advances, helped Eastern European states transition from communist rule to democracy, and thus into the European Union. Today it remains an important forum for many continent wide problems.
Meanwhile, the Coal and Steel Association expanded, and became the European Economic Community, which Britain finally joined in 1973, and for which 67% of people voted in the 1975 referendum on membership. Closer political and economic ties were always part of its remit.
Importantly, our closest friends and allies are there now. Just look at the quick reaction of our European Union partners to the alleged attack on British soil by Russia. Quicker, and with less qualification than from our erstwhile American ally, which is currently unreliable and increasingly looking to its Pacific rather than its Atlantic links.
Meanwhile, in Britain we are finding that an unattractive campaign that was, at the time, somewhere between uninspiring (Remain politicians) and misinforming (Leave politicians) may have been influenced by outside forces, notably Russia, as well as wealthy entities who disdain bodies like the EU because it is able to crack down on tax havens and tax avoidance, which smaller governments (the UK included) cannot. These people and corporate bodies don’t want transnational controls on how exactly they keep their money untaxed.
Enter Cambridge Analytica, a recently spotlighted architect behind Brexit, and its partner Aggregate IQ and parent company, SCL – a British military and intelligence company.
Unless you’re a very dedicated follower of the more obscure sections of newspapers and online news sites they may seem have become news overnight, but they have actually been the focus of research for months. They did, and in some cases now deny, doing work for the various Leave campaigns, and have done the same for Donald Trump in the US. They are linked to a cancelled election in Kenya because of electoral fraud, and are now accused of having tried to swing an election in Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean.
A recent undercover investigation by Channel 4 News – “Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm” – caught their now suspended CEO, Alexander Nix, boasting of his company’s subversions of democracy. A UK parliamentary enquiry has heard detailed evidence relating to their possible role in influencing or attempting to influence our EU referendum, including alleged collusion in the leave campaigns’ abuse of of spending limits.
In a nutshell, one of the things the company was aiming to do (by way of using Facebook data allegedly acquired illegally or under false pretences) is to target online political adverts at users in such a way as to lock them in a bubble, reinforcing existing ideas and preconceptions and hiding alternative viewpoints from social media users. By using detailed information harvested from social media accounts, the company was able to target a number of voters it felt it could influence referendum voting towards Leave.
Cambridge Analytica were recently served with a warrant by the Information Commissioner’s Office to seek data and documents (although the warrant and search of their headquarters were revealed by the press several days before the warrant was issued).
Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato has summed up the problem: that data was gathered from Facebook profiles, which were then targeted very precisely using ‘fear based messages’ and military type psychological operations techniques as well as breaches of campaign spending limits.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal links back to many prominent leave supporters, some of whom now sit at the government table, yet Prime Minister Theresa May has dismissed the claims and refuses to call for action or further investigation . However, the revelations recently suggest links, and even collusion, between people who have previously denied such links and co-operation.
When the Ferrero company, which owns local employer Thornton’s, is issuing warnings about supply problems if Britain leaves the single market and customs union, Derbyshire voters on both sides of the referendum should be calling for MPs to call the government to account and provide guarantees, and to demand that MPs protect our present standard of life and restore our faith in our institutions. With local elections looming, we can all also do worse than ask our councils and councillors what they have done to prepare for Brexit and the future, protecting employment and investment as well as health and education.
Disillusion with democracy was a powerful force in the anti-establishment and anti-elite focus of many leave voters. But another elite may have had its own dirty hands on the vote. For the sake of democracy, we need to clean it up and we need to ensure that no vote is bought, whether we agree with the outcome or not. This is the crux of the argument by whistle-blowers from the Leave side, who support Brexit but suggest that a result bought on cheating cannot stand.
European Movement Derbyshire will be out campaigning on April 14th in Derby for people to be trusted with the final decision.
By Simon Ferrigno, European Movement Derbyshire