Leavers, too, should worry about dark money

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - Matthew d’An­cona

The mod­ern mind re­coils from nu­ance, de­tail and re­flec­tion. Bom­barded with dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion, we seek in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, con­fuse good pub­lic pol­icy with in­stant cus­tomer ser­vice, and re­serve spe­cial con­tempt for those who would de­lay the De­liv­eroo of democ­racy. So it was no sur­prise that Ar­ron Banks, the Leave.EU donor now un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Na­tional Crime Agency, framed his in­ter­view with the BBC’s An­drew Marr as just an­other pesky metropoli­tan at­tempt to con­fuse and ob­struct the sup­pos­edly sim­ple mat­ter of Brexit. The harder Marr pressed him on the ul­ti­mate source of his £8m loan to the cam­paign, the more ir­ri­tated Banks be­came (“I don’t want to get heated with you”). Any author­ity or source of in­for­ma­tion that the pre­sen­ter cited – the Fi­nan­cial Times, the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, the Com­mons dig­i­tal, cul­ture, me­dia and sport (DCMS) se­lect com­mit­tee – was in­stantly dis­missed as bi­ased or oth­er­wise tar­nished. The most telling re­mark of the in­ter­view was Banks’s dis­dain for “the num­ber of cor­rupt MPs who have sat in this seat over the years”.

As usual, he pos­tured as the straight-talk­ing tri­bune of the peo­ple, whose will was yet again be­ing chal­lenged by whinge­ing re­moaner lib­er­als. His whole coun­te­nance screamed a sin­gle com­plaint: why do you lot have to make things so com­pli­cated? Quite how com­pli­cated Banks’s fi­nan­cial af­fairs are, and have been, is now the sub­ject of a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Its out­come ought to be awaited with fret­ful con­cern by the West­min­ster class, with less than five months to go un­til the UK’s sched­uled de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union.

Which is why it has been so de­press­ing to be­hold the pa­rade of politi­cians of left and right in­sist­ing that the al­le­ga­tions should have no bear­ing at all upon the way in which we per­ceive the re­sult of the 2016 ref­er­en­dum. Most lu­di­crous of all has been the claim of the Cor­bynite left that so­cial me­dia – the dig­i­tal cam­paign­ing paid for by Banks – played no sig­nif­i­cant part in the vote for leave. Really? This seems an odd ar­gu­ment, given that the Labour party made ex­ten­sive use of a spe­cially cre­ated so­cial me­dia tar­get­ing tool called Pro­mote in the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion, and that Jeremy Cor­byn him­self joined Snapchat. Was he wast­ing his time, too?

You don’t have to be a re­mainer – or you shouldn’t have to be – to be alarmed. For more than two years we have been told with blud­geon­ing cer­tainty that the peo­ple have spo­ken, the ver­dict is in, the de­ci­sion is fi­nal. But what if the process by which that de­ci­sion was reached was se­ri­ously cor­rupted?

Thanks to the epic work of Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr and other jour­nal­ists, a mass of ev­i­dence has now ac­crued that the two main pro-Brexit cam­paigns were en­gaged in elec­toral van­dal­ism, as­ton­ish­ing lev­els of dis­in­for­ma­tion and breaches of the law gov­ern­ing ref­er­en­dums. Yes, that ev­i­dence is of­ten tech­ni­cal. But is com­plex­ity now ex­cluded from the po­lit­i­cal process and the pur­suit of jus­tice? Are we meant to shrug our shoul­ders and wil­fully con­fuse de­tail with trivia?

The great con­flict at the heart of the Brexit process has been the ten­sion be­tween sim­plic­ity of feel­ing and rhetoric on the one hand, and com­plex­ity of fact and ne­go­ti­a­tion on the other. Ac­cord­ing to the Sun­day Times, Theresa May is close to fi­nal­is­ing “a se­cret Brexit deal”. And it is cer­tainly true that a mood of cau­tious op­ti­mism has set­tled upon the talks. But much still de­pends upon po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic is­sues that are both ex­tremely com­pli­cated and im­mensely sig­nif­i­cant. How, pre­cisely, would the UK’s con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion in the EU cus­toms union af­fect its re­la­tion­ship with the Euro­pean court of jus­tice? And what sort of “exit clause” do the ne­go­tia­tors have in mind? Yes, these are tech­ni­cal­i­ties. But so are the work­ing parts of jet en­gines and the nan­otech­nol­ogy in­side an iPhone: and no­body dis­putes that they’re quite im­por­tant.

But – if you in­sist, and just for the sake of ar­gu­ment – set Brexit aside. When Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS se­lect com­mit­tee, met the FBI in Wash­ing­ton DC to dis­cuss its in­quiry into fake news and elec­toral ma­nip­u­la­tion, he was struck by the ex­tent to which the Feds’ fo­cus had al­ready shifted from the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race to fu­ture elec­tions, in­clud­ing this week’s midterm con­tests. Its mes­sage was: de­fend your democ­racy against even more ag­gres­sive at­tacks upon its elec­toral pro­cesses. Think of the next gen­eral elec­tion, which could come at any time. Or con­cen­trate on the elec­tions in 270 English lo­cal au­thor­i­ties that will be held in May. How safe are those con­tests from sab­o­tage sub­sidised by dark money?

Banks is the John Gotti of pop­ulist cam­paign­ing, a dap­per don who rel­ishes his pub­lic pro­file. But there are plenty of oth­ers – state ac­tors and pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als – who stay out of the lime­light and pre­fer se­cret power to bois­ter­ous pub­lic­ity.

Are we really OK with this? And, to re­turn to Brexit, is our im­pa­tience to get on with this to­tal trans­for­ma­tion in our in­sti­tu­tional and com­mer­cial ar­range­ments so all-con­sum­ing that we can­not even con­tem­plate a pause for thought? Call me a re­moaner. Call me a cen­trist.

Call me an “en­emy of the peo­ple”. But don’t in­sult my in­tel­li­gence by pre­tend­ing that there is not a nox­ious stink em­a­nat­ing from the 2016 ref­er­en­dum cam­paign.

And yes: I know that 17.4 mil­lion peo­ple voted leave. But 16.1 mil­lion voted re­main, too. When the mar­gin is that slen­der, lit­tle things mean a lot. And the Banks crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion is more than a lit­tle thing. In­deed, we long ago reached the crit­i­cal mass of ev­i­dence where a po­lit­i­cal class of any states­man­ship would have had the courage to sus­pend the Brexit process and es­tab­lish be­yond ques­tion that the orig­i­nal 2016 cam­paign was con­ducted fairly. If the sat­nav is lead­ing you off a cliff, and you think it might have been tam­pered with, is it really an act of treach­ery to ap­ply the brakes?

Ar­ron Banks is the John Gotti of pop­ulist cam­paign­ing, who rel­ishes his pub­lic pro­file. Oth­ers stay out of the lime­light


Ar­ron Banks on the BBC’s An­drew Marr Show yes­ter­day

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