The SNP’s defence spokesperson has established himself as parliament’s most voluble and zealous advocate for Kiev by some margin, in turn also cementing a position as a prominent and pugnacious critic of the Kremlin, his Russophobic conspiracy theorising on social media being an almost daily staple.
Strangely, it wasn’t always this way – in fact, in the three years after he was first elected MP 8th May 2015, he exhibited little interest in Russia and literally none in Ukraine.
— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) August 24, 2019
Holidays in the Sun
The catalyst for McDonald’s damascene conversion appears to be a trip he and fellow SNP MPs Douglas Chapman and Chris Law undertook to Ukraine in May 2018, which included a visit to Avdiivka, one of the “hotspots” in the ongoing war in Donbass.
The expedition evidently stirred something in him, for prior to the visit he’d mentioned Russia in parliament four times over the course of his Commons career, and Ukraine not once – in the year since returning, he’s mentioned Russia on 13 occasions (even inexplicably crowbarring a reference to the Kremlin into a Commons debate on the death of Jamal Khashoggi), Ukraine on 19.
Puzzlingly, while widely publicised at the time, the pilgrimage doesn’t appear in any of the MPs’ registers of members’ interests. The trio could’ve bankrolled the voyage themselves of course, but Scottish media reports suggest the trip was a “parliamentary fact-finding mission” undertaken at the invitation of Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK, lending it an official character - the Commons also wasn’t in recess at the time, suggesting it wasn’t a mere vacation either.
My requests for clarity on who or what funded the visit submitted to McDonald, Chapman and Law have been ignored – SNP frontbench adviser Neal Stewart, who accompanied the lawmakers, has likewise declined to illuminate me. He’s also refused to explain the nature of his relationship with Integrity Initiative, a secret UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office military intelligence operation – but while his name appears in just one of the organisation’s internal documents, the content suggests it could be intimate.
The file in question is a report documenting the activities of organisation staffer – and potential MI5 operative - Euan Grant, 9th - 15th July 2018. At some point that week, he writes that he “attended the Neal Stewart event” at Two Temple Place, the secret London offices of the Institute for Statecraft, the Initiative’s shadowy parent organisation.
“It is clear from NS [Neal Stewart’s] warnings there is still widespread lack of interest in Russian influence among significant political groups in Scotland, with considerable sympathy for Russia. Highlighted to NS academic sympathies were also strong and the significant Russian speaking presence in private schools and in the Universities could fuel such attitudes,” Grant states.
I’ve repeatedly submitted a number of questions about Neal Stewart to the SNP, including whether party chiefs were even aware of the event - which could of course be one of several he’s hosted at Two Temple Place. Party press apparatchiks I spoke to certainly seemed unaware, and indeed it seems a strange thing for the SNP to permit, given the Initiative’s apparent hostility to Scottish nationalism - in March 2018 the organisation solicited an extensive briefing on the SNP’s internal dynamics and key figures and groups within the wider independence movement from David Leask, chief reporter at The Herald. The resultant document dubs independence movements in other countries “separatist loons”.
It is interesting to see Deborah Haynes of The Times amplifying David Leask's tweets in defence of "Integrity Initiative" and his smear that a Scottish newspaper is "channeling Kremlin messaging".— Tim Hayward (@Tim_Hayward_) December 12, 2018
It will also be interesting to see how well these statements age. https://t.co/vh4Xf2lNQe
Then again, Stewart McDonald often seems rather hostile to the very movement he apparently represents. In January, at a time of rising support for Scottish independence, he publicly argued against holding a second referendum on the question at any point in the near future, claiming doing so before the SNP “[renewed] its case” for seceding from the UK would be “the height of irresponsibility”. Fittingly, in a Herald article reporting his comments, Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins was quoted heartily endorsing McDonald’s stance, and attacking “the rest of his party” for not sharing his views.
Moreover, in May he launched an extraordinarily vicious broadside against ‘cybernats’ – Scottish independence supporters on social media – accusing a "hardcore fringe" of being “creepy” and “vile”, “spreading poison and cynicism”, and behaving like “obnoxious thugs”.
I see Integrity Initiative/Atlantic Council Dr Jennifer Jones who called us all bots has a new business to f*ck over— Mr Malky (@MrMalky) March 17, 2019
Is this business number 4 or 5
Deputy Editor no lesshttps://t.co/G62AOSl1EY
Intriguingly, there were echoes in McDonald’s incendiary indictment of an article written in August 2018 by his good friend Jennifer Jones, which also appeared in The Herald. In it, she outlined alleged activities and characteristics of pro-independence 'bots' and 'sock puppets' on Twitter, dubiously suggesting any user with a "non-identifying profile picture" and "quote about wanting a better future for Scotland" in their bio was almost certainly "semi-automated", documenting how she'd recently posted a thread on the social network "breaking down how to spot a bot" and naming a number of accounts in the process.
"The majority of their feed [is] made up retweets of other similar accounts…until something happens. Like being accused of being a bot. Once they realised I was looking and discussing [them], the responses were picked up by the humans behind the account. I am now in the middle my own Twitter pile-on…I imagine their anonymity allows them to use their account as a harassment tool for what [sic] I am now experiencing first hand. These types of online interactions are designed to muddy the water, and attempt to discredit an individual," she wrote.
Evidently not seeing anything remotely hypocritical or ironic about claiming the reactions she'd directly provoked were a concerted campaign of "harassment" intended to "discredit" her, Jones went on to allege there was a wider tendency among Scottish independence supporters online to “attack women”. The ‘analysis’ was widely derided at the time, both by the very real people falsely fingered as bots, and users who knew the individuals baselessly accused.
Jones represents another connection between McDonald and Integrity Initiative. By her own admission, she had a meeting with representatives of the organisation, which she’s described as "super interesting". What came of the consultation isn’t certain, but in what may be a pure coincidence, as I predicted in January, she’s beginning to gain some traction in the mainstream media as an ‘expert’ commentator on social, digital and news media issues, despite lacking the professional or educational credentials that would qualify her as a specialist pundit on any topic.
Beyond the provable connections between McDonald’s close associates and the Initiative, many of his parliamentary statements are eerily familiar too.
For example, on 11th June 2018, just after returning from Ukraine, he asked then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson what action the government was taking “with NATO allies” to reform Scottish Limited Partnerships.
Exposing alleged Russian financial crime - in particular the ‘abuse’ of Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs) - is a key Integrity Initiative objective, featuring prominently in various documents authored by the aforementioned Euan Grant.
There’s little doubt SLPs can be and are used for nefarious purposes - in April 2018 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy stated there was "growing evidence SLPs have been exploited in complex money laundering schemes” and “abused to carry out all manner of crimes abroad – from foreign money laundering to arms dealing".
— ScotlandisBeingRobbed.com (@1GKh) December 21, 2018
However, the briefing David Leask gave to the Initiative ironically states Ukraine is the “most common abuser” of SLPs, “for asset protection as much as criminal activities” - to the extent they’re actively advertised in the country as “a way to move money in secret”. One particular case noted by Leask saw a Ukrainian group “exporting bullets to [the] Middle East at a time of conflict” using an SLP “based in [the] Scottish countryside”.
More ironically still, Institute for Statecraft founders and co-heads Christopher Donnelly and Dan Lafayeedney have set up a number of dubious SLPs in their time - rendered all the more dubious by Lafayeedney’s business dealings being investigated by the Inland Revenue in 2004, and landing him in the High Court in 2006. In the latter case's ruling, the judge savagely indicted his “lack of credibility”, and stated “there were certain specific matters…where I am bound to conclude Mr. Lafayeedney was not telling me the truth”.
In another striking instance of McDonald appearing to sing from the Initiative hymn sheet, on 17th July 2018 he spoke during a debate on Nord Stream 2, an extension of the offshore natural gas pipeline running from Vyborg, Russia to Greifswald, Germany.
— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) October 28, 2018
Calling the pipeline an “instrument of hybrid war” - a phrase and concept beloved of the Initiative and its many operatives, although even founder Chris Donnelly has trouble defining what the term actually means - he rather tenuously associated the pipeline with the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster three years earlier, and claimed the project was very much Westminster’s concern despite being “many hundreds of miles away” due to the “clear and obvious danger” presented to the UK by the Kremlin.
Stopping the extension in its tracks has long-been an aim of Washington and its various international satellites - while publicly claimed the pipeline will undermine Europe's energy security and independence, critics suggest attempts to torpedo the project stem from a desire to promote US gas in Europe at Moscow’s expense, and German officials have expressed immense disquiet with US-led opposition efforts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, derailing Nord Stream 2 is another key Initiative objective. Criticism of the project - and paranoid suggestions German figures involved, such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, are somehow Kremlin assets - runs rampant in the organisation’s internal files, and they’re obviously keen to jump at any opportunity to derail the project.
— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) July 11, 2018
For instance, a briefing document - presumably distributed to journalists - dated 11th March 2018 states Whitehall’s response to the apparent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia a week prior has been “far too weak”, and sets out “possible, realistic, first actions” the British government should be pressured to take. The bullet-pointed suggestions include banning RT and Sputnik from operating in the UK, boycotting the 2018 World Cup, withdrawing the UK ambassador from Moscow, expelling the Russian ambassador to the UK, and starting a campaign to “prevent construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline”.
Another - Ideas for Ramping up IfS Contributions to the Cause - authored five days later notes “the Danes have just said ‘no’ to NordStream 2 running through their waters, but Copenhagen needs clear international support if we [emphasis added] are to succeed in stopping NS2”.
Agents of Influence?
To be fair to McDonald, parliamentary contributions by other SNP frontbenchers seem even more suspect. For example, on 3rd April Stephen Gethins, MP for North East Fife, submitted a written question to then-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alan Duncan asking “what steps he is taking with his overseas counterparts to tackle the distribution of disinformation in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States?”.
In response, Duncan listed a number of programmes his department was funding, including the “new Open Information Partnership” (OIP). In my first report on OIP, I exposed how far from fighting disinformation, the endeavour is in fact an avowed pan-European “disinformation factory” intimately connected to Integrity Initiative – furthermore, I noted Duncan’s low-key response was the only official announcement of OIP’s existence, and it appeared Whitehall seemed bizarrely keen to sweep the new venture under the rug.
This wall of silence is rendered all the more suspicious in light of Gethins’ Commons career – for in the four years since being elected MP he’s displayed little to no interest in any of the countries mentioned, or indeed the concept of ‘disinformation’. While it may have been just curiosity on his part, to my - admittedly cynical - mind the query bears clear hallmarks of a planted question, seemingly serving no purpose other than specifically providing Duncan an opportunity to quietly but formally herald the Partnership’s inauguration.
Even more peculiarly, the only other occasion Gethins has mentioned ‘disinformation’ in parliament was during an emergency debate on Integrity Initiative 12th December 2018, demanded by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry after it was publicly revealed the organisation’s Twitter account had published a number of posts hostile to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, potentially breaching rules relating to state funding and charity activity in the process.
— Socialist Voice 🌐 (@SocialistVoice) December 9, 2018
In the ministerial firing line was none other than Alan Duncan - he vehemently dismissed as "wholly untrue" and "utterly unfounded" suggestions Whitehall had supported domestic party political activity by financing the Institute for Statecraft, claiming to have seen no evidence the organisation had breached its obligation "[not] to influence, or attempt to influence, parliament, government or political parties".
The Minister would subsequently stonewall concerns about the organisation’s activities raised by MPs of every party, along the way determinedly shifting the focus of discussion to the source of the leaked files, which he alleged was being officially investigated - although the Kremlin was repeatedly blamed without corroboration.
This theme struck a chord with a number of parliamentarians, including Gethins and SNP spokesperson for ‘Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies’ Martin Docherty.
While Gethins did say “there should be no undermining of politicians, be they Labour, Scottish National party or Conservative”, and steps must be taken “to ensure impartiality and integrity goes to the very heart of all funding that comes from the Foreign Office”, he nonetheless by strong implication defended the Initiative, saying he “[wished] to put on record” that “FCO-funded non-governmental organisations do extraordinary work in the most difficult circumstances”, and hailing the “many people who work in very difficult circumstances and find themselves at the hard edge of Russian disinformation campaigns”.
It wasn’t the first time he’d hailed the work of FCO-funded individuals in this manner – on 21st December 2017, during a debate on ‘Russian Interference in UK Politics’, Gethins singled out Craig Oliphant – former head of the FCO’s Eastern Research Group, and a member of the Initiative’s UK cluster - as an “extraordinary person” doing “extraordinary work”.
Docherty’s contribution was even more incongruous – in fact, every aspect strikes me as acutely suspect.
“The fact remains the Integrity Initiative has criticised all political parties, including my own, when they’ve fallen foul—inadvertently or not— of the Russian disinformation narrative trap. I’m a wee bit concerned we fall into a trap where we are exposing the plethora of, some would say, Putinversteher in grey suits in all political parties. I understand the origin of much of the information discussed today emerged as a result of a hack perpetrated by actors of dubious origin. Will the Minister enlighten the House further on the circumstances of that hack, and bring a report back to the Floor of the House?” he asked.
For one, it’s entirely untrue the Initiative “criticised all political parties” - although several individuals directly and indirectly connected to the body, most prominently The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr, have also sought to spin this exculpatory fiction.
His invocation of the term “Putinversteher” is likewise sinisterly resonant - a pejorative German neologism meaning ‘Putin sympathiser’, it’s extremely uncommon in UK political discourse (Docherty’s mention marks the one and only occasion it’s ever been uttered in parliament), but conversely features very prominently in Initiative files related to Germany.
📽️The UK’s inability to meet the upcoming strategic challenges that the Russian Government poses should cause us all concern.— Martin Docherty-Hughes MP 🏴🏳️🌈 (@MartinJDocherty) March 27, 2018
Read my full contribution to the debate on Russia and National Security here: https://t.co/6EySGTVP6Z pic.twitter.com/sg04iveE7u
Moreover, that the Institute was the victim of “a hack perpetrated by actors of dubious origin” has been the organisation’s core message in all its public statements on the leaks since day one - despite its own co-founder and chief himself conceding he possesses no "forensic proof" of who carried out the alleged hack and why.
No River Too Deep
Such misgivings could of course be the product of pattern recognition on my part, or worse. It may be pure coincidence that Gateside Mills, the crumbling, remote building the Institute for Statecraft fraudulently claimed as its address to the Scottish Charity Regulator, is situated in Gethins’ constituency – and the pair certainly weren’t alone that night in accepting evidence-free accusations of foreign hacking.
There’s nothing to indicate other MPs present who swallowed the organisation’s obfuscatory spin have any connection, direct or otherwise, with the Institute or its Initiative subsidiary - apart from Conservative Julian Lewis, chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee.
— Ian Fraser (@Ian_Fraser) February 3, 2019
Lewis - who asked Duncan “how sure are we the Russians were behind this hack [and] what are we going to do by way of response?”, in the manner of someone enquiring when exactly an individual stopped beating their wife - appears in a number of the organisation’s internal files, including lists of potential invitees to Institute events, and a programme for the visit of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence’s Strategic Communications team to the UK 17th - 21st October 2016.
The latter, which seems to have been specifically arranged by the Institute on Whitehall’s behalf - in the manner of the Ukranian assassins flown into London by the organisation in July that year - schedules a private meeting between Lewis and the group 19th October.
Lewis’ contact details include his personal email address, which could indicate he has more than just a professional relationship with the Institute and its operatives. Given the regularity with which they’re invited to contribute to Defence Select Committee hearings, this may represent a potential conflict of interest.
— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) January 4, 2019
In a particularly astounding example of this phenomenon, a Committee investigation (‘Russia: implications for UK defence and security’) convened at the start of 2016 received evidence from Institute founder Donnelly and ‘Senior Fellows’ Ben Nimmo, Victor Madeira and David Clark, and two members of the Initiative’s UK cluster - Peter Pomerantsev and Igor Sutyagin (who came to the UK in 2010 as part of the same ‘spy swap' as Sergei Skripal). What impact this ‘expert’ sextet’s testimony may have had on UK defence and security policy isn’t clear, but that it could’ve had any is troubling in the absolute extreme.
Fascinatingly, in one invitee list Lewis is listed alongside Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw and Ruth Smeeth, and Conservatives Damian Collins and Richard Benyon, who recently came to my attention when he used his summer break to launch a series of attacks on the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, an academic collective that published an extensive and highly illuminating briefing document on the Institute for Statecraft in December 2018.
Bradshaw was somewhat infamously the first mainstream voice to allege the Kremlin interfered in the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s European Union membership, claiming in December that year Russian hackers “probably swayed the Brexit vote”. Despite failing to offer supporting evidence of any kind, his charges were taken up by Collins in his role as parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chair.
At his request, Facebook investigated whether pages and accounts associated with St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency purchased any advertisements on the social network before or during the referendum campaign – three ads, not explicitly related to the EU referendum but to immigration, which the cost the alleged IRA assets $0.97 to promote, were identified. Evidently disappointed, Collins merely asked Facebook to look harder.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 25, 2018
Smeeth – outed in Washington diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks as a “strictly protect” US embassy informant – has no history of making such allegations, but nonetheless played a prominent role in smearing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters as anti-Semites. In June 2016, she very publicly resigned her low-level position in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as Parliamentary Private Secretary for the shadow Northern Ireland and Scotland teams, as part of a wave of coordinated resignations specifically intended to precipitate a no-confidence vote in Corbyn and force his resignation.
While the plot failed, she's repeatedly claimed since Labour is not a "safe space" for British Jews under Corbyn’s leadership, and called for him to stand down. Despite this, after being elected vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party in July 2017, Smeeth now has private weekly meetings with Corbyn, the contents of which would surely be of immense interest to the US embassy and Integrity Initiative alike, given the latter has engaged in a number of covert and overt efforts to undermine and discredit the Labour leader. The organisation even went to the extent in February 2018 of soliciting a presentation from Glen O'Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History Oxford Brookes University — Who Are the Corbynites, and What Do They Believe? – for reasons quite blatantly other than mere idle curiosity.
Still, as with McDonald, Gethins and Docherty, it’s unknown the extent to which any of this quartet’s activities are associated with Integrity Initiative, if at all. They may well have been nominated as guests because of their past statements and actions – although the question of which of their statements and actions since have been influenced by the organisation directly or indirectly is an open one, as is which other MPs are surreptitiously ensconced in the Initiative’s mephitic web.
I’ll delve far deeper into the activities of all public figures named in the Initiative files in future reports. In the meantime, it behooves all readers to ask themselves who or what their elected representatives are truly working for, and which interests they ultimately serve – or better yet, pose these queries to parliamentarians directly.