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When news broke of alleged Chinese spying at Westminster earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told the Commons that it was “an absolute priority for the Government to take all necessary steps to protect the United Kingdom from any foreign state activity which seeks to undermine our national security, prosperity and democratic values”.
The record does not bear out that claim, as the Government has resisted calls for transparency measures to tackle foreign influence, even when they come from former senior national security figures.
In 2021, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made a number of recommendations to address the risk of foreign money influencing UK elections. These included a new rule that corporate donations should only be made from profits generated in the UK, and tighter regulation of unincorporated associations, which can be used as pass-through organisations to conceal the original source of donations.
During the passage of the new National Security Act, the commission’s chair, former MI5 Director General, Lord Evans, reported that “the Government accepted almost none of the recommendations made at that point”.
In May, Evans and his MI5 predecessor, Baroness Manningham-Buller, were among more than 40 crossbenchers who voted for an amendment to the National Security Bill requiring political parties to report on foreign donations. The Government defeated the amendment in the Commons, where Security Minister Tom Tugendhat stated that “any person accepting a donation from a foreign power, whether made directly or indirectly, is already breaking the law”.
Following the latest allegations, Lord Evans told The Times that there was “very strong resistance” to reform. The former head of MI6, Alex Younger, told the BBC that “the significance of influence – undisclosed attempts to change the way in which people behave – is underestimated within our system. It’s not something we’re familiar with”.
Perhaps the problem is that Westminster politicians are unfamiliar with influence in the way that fish are unfamiliar with water. It goes unnoticed because it is ubiquitous.
The case of Christine Lee illustrates the issue. Last year, MI5 took the unusual step of issuing an alert stating that Lee was working covertly with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Works Department and was “involved in political interference in the UK”.
Lee has since taken legal action against MI5 at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and it has been questioned how covert her role really was. The University of Exeter’s Martin Thorley told the BBC that “if you could read Chinese, you could probably see the linkages on the Chinese side”.
Much of Lee’s work reflected the stock methods of the UK lobbying industry – such as the creation of an all-party parliamentary group for which her British-Chinese Project provided the secretariat.
Now seen as subversive, such activities might have been tolerated, perhaps even welcomed, during the ‘Golden Age’ of Sino-British relations a decade ago. Even Lee’s link to a foreign ruling party is not unusual in international terms. Governing parties in democracies such as the United States and Germany have overseas political foundations.
China, however, is a one-party authoritarian state, with which Britain is increasingly at odds. The National Security Act provides for such situations through the enhanced tier of its Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, which allows tougher rules to be applied to states seen as a particular threat.
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Determined lobbying from Conservative hawks may yet see the enhanced tier imposed on China, but the Government has so far been reluctant to accept the further deterioration in relations this would mean.
An approach to foreign influence that relies on identifying particular state threats risks shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
During the passage of the Act, Lord Evans stated that “it is important to recognise that the threat of foreign interference does not come from just one country. We have seen a variety of foreign threats from several countries over… [the last 20 years], including a number of countries one would have viewed as a friend or ally in any other circumstances. Therefore, we need to have the ability to push back against foreign interference that is a threat to us, from whichever country it originates”.
Raising basic standards of political transparency is one way of doing that, perhaps the only one that avoids the risk of discrimination inherent in the alternatives. Yet the cleanest weapon in its armoury seems to be the one the Government is most reluctant to take up.