'It’s not a chumocracy, it's not cronyism, it's corruption'
The Tory corruption scandal has its roots in our failure to hold Vote Leave to account in 2016, says whistleblower Shahmir Sanni
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“Whistleblowing is a lifelong trauma, you lose everything.” Shahmir Sanni learned this lesson the hard way. In 2018 he came forward with evidence which showed that Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, had breached electoral spending laws.
Carole Cadwalladr interviewed Shahmir, a recent graduate who had been volunteering for Vote Leave in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, for an exclusive story in the Observer. His revelations formed the basis of an investigation by the Electoral Commission which found that Vote Leave had indeed broken the law. Vote Leave were fined £61,000 and Shahmir’s evidence handed over to the police for further investigation.
Three years later and nobody has been held to account for the biggest breach in campaign finance law in modern British history. And the politicians who fronted the Vote Leave campaign are now running the country.
Why does this matter now? Because earlier this month Boris Johnson attempted to rip up the rules on parliamentary standards to let one of his own MPs, who had flouted the rules on lobbying, off the hook.
Meanwhile, the government is pushing an Elections Bill through parliament which seeks to undermine the powers and independence of the Electoral Commission, the same body which found Vote Leave guilty of breaking the law.
It’s a brazen attempt by the government to dismantle the very systems and institutions which are supposed to hold them to account. And they are doing it because they think they can get away with it. Because they got away with it before.
Shahmir paid a high price for his whistleblowing. He was fired from his job and outed as gay by the British press, even though he had not come out to his family, many of whom are based in Pakistan. He took on the British establishment and it tried to destroy him.
Earlier this year he moved back to Pakistan, but we caught up with him on a visit to London last week. Shahmir has seen up close the rot that’s at the heart of our system and he has a stark warning about what lies ahead for Britain if we don’t act soon (spoiler alert: it’s not good).
Q&A with Shahmir Sanni, Vote Leave whistleblower
Do you believe that the corruption scandals we are seeing today are a direct result of the failure to hold those involved in the Vote Leave campaign to account for breaking electoral law?
Despite all the evidence [of illegal campaign spending] that I provided, there has been zero accountability and the people that were involved are now our prime minister and our ministers. I was vindicated when the Electoral Commission found Vote Leave guilty, but that also led to a massive project by the Conservative Party to undermine the Electoral Commission, the institution that's meant to protect us from democratic illegalities or criminality.
And now Michael Gove, who was co-convener of the Vote Leave campaign committee – the very campaign that was being investigated for breaches of electoral law by the Electoral Commission – is leading where the Electoral Commission is going next. So I might have had personal vindication, but I think Britain hasn't been vindicated.
Why are we so reluctant in Britain to call this what it is: corruption?
There is a certain jingoism that is a part and parcel of British culture, which disables the public from seeing their parliament in a way that is actually critical. You know, we’re Britain, we have the mother of all parliaments, we have all these laws and these systems in place that sanctify our democracy. Well, you're dealing with huge cases of corruption and yet there is no accountability. So your systems aren't working, your systems are broken. And the reason why everything is going to shit is because you were not able to hold these people accountable for breaking the law, for cheating during elections, for perverting democracy, for being corrupt, for questions for cash.
It’s not a ‘chumocracy’, it's not cronyism, it's corruption and a deep-rooted institutional corruption that, if not dealt with seriously, will see Britain’s democracy collapse into the hands of men and women who are extremists, precisely because they believe that they can get away with corruption.
As someone who blew the whistle on corruption, at huge personal cost, how does it feel to watch this latest episode playing out?
When I first blew the whistle I was very clear that if we don't nip this in the bud now, they'll do this again and again and again. And there will come a point where there is so much corruption in your parliament and your democratic system that you won't be able to stop it.
It makes me feel vindicated, because I'm like, “Well, I told you so”. But it’s also made me angry because I'm just really disappointed in parliament and the British public and media. You're watching your country fall apart and your opposition is just now starting to call it corruption, when it's been going on for four years. I've been banging the drum for so long that I literally moved out of this country because I was sick and tired of it.
This would not slide in Pakistan. There's a lot of corruption in Pakistan, there is a lot of corruption in all the countries in the global south. But you know what's more corrupt? Western countries that watch the corruption and then don't do anything about it. At least in the rest of the world, everyone is humble enough to [say] our politicians are corrupt, let’s tackle it, let’s fight it.
What needs to happen now to fix this?
What Britain needs are institutions that can hold parliamentarians or politicians to account in a more serious way than a fine. The Electoral Commission, for example, couldn't do anything except fine Vote Leave £61,000. With millionaire donors backing them! If you could get away with changing the course of a country by paying £60,000, if you're a power hungry fanatic or an extremist, then I’m sure you would do it. [The Electoral Commission also referred Vote Leave to the Metropolitan police but it dropped the investigation without bringing charges and with no explanation.]
Why are MPs being paid to change democracy, to change the course of public institutions and decide what is good and bad for the public based on what companies or other rich individuals want? In other countries these people would go to jail. [Following the Owen Paterson scandal], there are barely any calls for a full investigation into MPs and who is lobbying them and which organisations they are working with.
You paid a high price for whistleblowing? Do you regret it?
It was deeply traumatic but I am comfortable with my whistleblowing. I was putting up a mirror to British politics and the media and they destroyed me for it. They outed me, they fired me. The BBC was coordinating interviews with the very people that I had named in my investigation in order to undermine my story and never gave me a right of reply, never gave me an interview.
Whether the prime minister or these ministers are held to account is, frankly, not my problem any more. I have fought very hard to have some sort of semblance of justice, but I think my vindication has come through this, a greater public awareness of Conservative corruption. I feel sad for Britain but personally I am content.
If we don’t change tack now, what lies ahead?
If this corruption is not stopped, then chaos ensues, but more importantly, the destruction of everything that Britain holds dearest – the NHS, public broadcasting, welfare, the very institutions that actually make Britain a great country, that make Britain a country that I love and that I want to blow the whistle for. But the conservative extremists, their plan is to destroy that, and they will. They will.