To some ears, the head of MI5’s warning that the Russian Government is engaged in “malign activity intended to undermine our free, open and democratic societies” may have sounded almost apocalyptically gloomy.
One of the most powerful countries on the planet is putting our way of life at risk by trying to wreck liberal democracy.
But Andrew Parker also sounded an optimistic note in his speech to fellow security chiefs in Berlin, saying he was confident in the “strength and resilience of our democratic systems, the resilience of our societies and the values we share with our European partners”. So Vladimir Putin might be trying, but he will fail.
However, it is important for every supporter of liberal democracy to be alert to the signs of its ‘Putinisation’. After all, the Russian President has successfully turned his country’s elections into coronations with no serious opposition to his rule and his success seems to have spawned a number of imitators. Illiberal and undemocratic tactics have been used effectively by leading elected politicians in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey.
Refusing to consider any criticism – dismissing it as “fake news” to quote one of Donald Trump’s favourite phrases – and attacking the critic instead is one method. That journalist is biased, those judges are “enemies of the people”, political opponents are just traitors.
And the actual causes of social problems can be ignored with blame apportioned instead to the ‘liberal elite’, immigrants or minority religious groups.
Disinformation is also used to convince the gullible and spread confusion about what is actually real.
In such ways, democracy is transformed from what should be a clash of ideas into a battle between warring factions which demand loyalty and regard rivals as hardly worth speaking to, people to be “no platformed”, shouted down or intimidated out of public life entirely.
Politics has, of course, always had an element of tribalism. It was not invented, merely exploited, by Putin and his followers.
But we should all do what we can – which could be something as simple as being polite to a political opponent – to ensure it does not gain a significant foothold in British politics because, ultimately, it is public opinion which sets the “values” that MI5, among others, is relying upon to maintain the strength of democracy in the UK.