The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign
London: Biteback Publishing, 2017
When I was asked last year by the German-language weekly Junge Freiheit to contribute to their “portrait” series with a piece on Arron Banks, I was in the embarrassing position of having to admit that I had never heard of him. My reaction was much the same as that of William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party, who, on hearing that said Arron Banks had agreed to contribute one hundred thousand pounds to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), dismissed Banks as “somebody we haven’t heard of.” Banks describes his reaction to Hague’s dismissal of him in these words:
. . . I was sitting in bed eating toast and honey and flicked on Sky News to see William Hague snootily dismissing me as a nobody.
A few minutes later, Farage was on the phone. ‘The Foreign Secretary is all over the television saying he doesn’t know who you are, and nobody he knows has ever heard of you,’ he reported.
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘What a cheek! Let’s up the donation to £1 million!’
The Bad Boys of Brexit is an entertaining and uplifting account from his private diaries of Arron Banks’ involvement in the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union. It is Banks’ personal account through diary notes of what he calls “one of the most exhausting twelve month periods of my life.” The Bad Boys of Brexit is, according to Banks, a reconstruction through e-mails, diary entries, and his own unreliable memory, without, he says, the wisdom that comes of hindsight or corrections in the light of subsequent events, of those twelve months that led up to June 23, 2016.
Who were the “bad boys”? They were the four most prominent leaders of the “Leave.EU” campaign. Leave.EU was one of the two major umbrella groups which campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in the referendum debate (the other, and rival, organization, which became the officially designated one, had a confusingly similar name: Vote Leave). They were Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, Andrew Wigmore, and George Cottrell, a.k.a. “posh George,” who was detained by the FBI on charges of money laundering and wire fraud while accompanying the other three “bad boys” on a visit to the Donald Trump campaign. All four “bad boys” are extremely wealthy gentlemen, and in the case of Banks and Cottrell at least, millionaires.
It is common knowledge that the result of the British referendum on June 23, 2016 confounded both the hopes and the expectations of EU politicians, world leaders, Trades Union and business leaders, media pundits, and most of the media itself. Even the Pope and the Presidents of the United States and China voiced their wish that Britain remain in the European Union. The Pope noted that he did not see Britain’s withdrawal from the EU as being something that could make for a stronger Europe. (Why the Holy Father should wish Europe to become “stronger” was never made clear.)
From his self-portrait, Banks emerges as someone who was always political as an adult, but not strongly so. For many years, he was a paid-up member of the Conservative Party. At the age of twenty-one, he had been Vice Chairman of his local Conservative Party Association and had stood (and lost) for a seat on Basingstoke City Council. After this brief foray into party politics, Banks decided to concentrate his considerable energy on making money for himself, at which he was more fortunate than as a Tory candidate; indeed, he was staggeringly successful. He became CEO of a highly successful insurance company and has profitable diamond holdings in South Africa. But while he pursued a business career, his interest in politics continued, and he writes:
I never lost interest in politics, however, and watched with dismay as John Major blithely signed away our control of our borders via the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. (p. xxii)
The expression “control of borders” was to play a pivotal role in Leave.EU’s referendum campaign. When David Cameron honored his election pledge and announced that there would be a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, it did not seem that this subject would play a significant role in the ensuing debate. Most commentators agree that the announcement was made by the Prime Minister with the confidence that his recommendation to remain would be followed by a majority of voters. The decision to hold a referendum was seen as a gamble, but not one which carried inordinate risk. Cameron had comfortably won the General Election of the previous year and had fought off the challenge of Scottish independence in a referendum in 2014, and his party had also convincingly carried its case in the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011. Someone who did not share the Prime Minister’s confidence was his friend and adviser George Osborne, his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Osborne pleaded unsuccessfully with Cameron not to risk their political careers and the country’s prosperity in what he considered an unpredictable and perilous gambit.
The 2016 referendum on British independence was the second of its kind. The first had been held in 1975. This writer recalls that referendum well, and remembers parading through the streets of his university town with the word “NO” taped onto the front of his mortar board! But the independence cause in 1975 was doomed. Few people then realized that the long-time plan of the European Union was to destroy the identity and sovereignty of the member states and amalgamate them into a corporate and undemocratic body governed by a commission and a council in which the European “parliament” enjoyed no legislative competence whatsoever. During the first referendum, there were two pro-“Yes” (remain) campaign groups: the Labour government campaign, and the state-sponsored umbrella group for “Yes” to the Common Market (EU), which opposed the one state-sponsored umbrella group for “No” to the Common Market.
There were few mainstream politicians speaking in favor of leaving the Union, and most of the skeptics were in the Conservative opposition. Most campaigners for Leave were easily branded as extremists. Europe was marketed as “fun” and as “the future,” and opposition to membership as the exact opposite of fun and the future. Anti-marketeers were portrayed as a motley collection of sour-faced and resentful little Englanders, fascists, Stalinists, and Irish terrorists. Then, as later, the establishment weighed in with all the powers of persuasion to enjoin people to remain with the argument, always highly persuasive to an electorate, “Better the devil you know . . .”
However, several key differences between the situation in 1975 and 2016 made it clear to both sides of the argument that the results would be much less certain the second time around and that the race would be much closer. For one thing, the optimism of the early years had evaporated. Debt crisis and mass immigration could not be sold as “fun” by even the most enthusiastic peddler of the Union cause. Europe was racked by crises and skepticism. That its democracy was very inadequate, if not downright fraudulent, even its supporters had difficulty in disputing. Close union involved the sacrifice of the right to control borders and to control finances. Britain had held back from close union when other member states had plunged in. Britain had not signed the Schengen Agreement abolishing national border controls and had not joined the eurozone, which would have involved the sacrifice of financial control.
What had earlier seemed reactionary recalcitrance, if not sheer bloody-mindedness, on the part of the United Kingdom had begun to look like worldly-wise prudence. The Greek debt crisis showed what could happen to a nation which was not able to pursue an independent fiscal policy – namely misery, unemployment on a massive scale, deprivation, ruin, and a drastic slump in living standards. Then there was the decision by Berlin to welcome undocumented migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere, and the Schengen Agreement was cited to compel other nations to accept them. Millions of Britons had come to see through this to the ultimate supranational ambitions of the proponents of “greater unity.” They could also see EU democracy at work. The Berlin Chancellor had invited close to a million migrants into Europe without even bothering with the formalities of consulting with either party, parliament, or other EU states. Never had democracy been so openly and insolently dismissed by an EU leader. The only critics of this and other policies were those Europeans skeptical of or hostile to the European Unity project. Another, but less evident, difference between 1976 and 2016 was the effort in 2016 of a small group of “bad boys” willing to bankroll a massive campaign of opposition. This difference is the one Arron Banks presents in his book.
Bad Boys is an account of their endeavors, the work of wealthy rogue patriots putting their money and their voice at the disposal of those who had neither. Arron Banks’ account is a moving one. The divide between “Remain” and “Leave” was to a significant extent a divide between the wealthier and poorer sections of society. The humbler folk who were most opposed to the EU needed “attorneys” to state their case, and this is the role which these “bad boys” consciously undertook on their behalf. They saw their role as speaking for those who were not as articulate as the educated spokesmen of the Remain campaign, not as wealthy, and who did not have the level of access to the media which the Remain side enjoyed.
This is not say that there were few Conservative “euroskeptics.” There were millions of them, and it was in the knowledge that the skeptic wing of his party would probably cause a split that probably finally convinced David Cameron that he should call a referendum. Disillusionment with the EU, caused by major financial dislocations and the EU’s wholesale capitulation to migration both legal and illegal, had created growing dissatisfaction in the Conservative Party, especially in the face of Brussels’ insistence that European nations should be moving towards not less, but rather ever more political and social integration. There was a sufficiently large section of the Conservative Party in Parliament to provide respectability for those Conservative voters to vote Leave. A majority of Conservative voters, according to opinion polls, would vote Leave, but a majority of Conservative voters was not enough for the referendum to succeed. All the polls and assessments told the same story.
Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party such as the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, or the former Minister, Michael Gove, provided hesitant Conservative loyalists with the reassurance to vote Leave, but with their talk of expanding markets and fresh competition, they made little or no impression on Labour voters. In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour Party in Parliament was overwhelmingly in favor of remaining, and so were nearly all the Trades Unions, which provided the Party’s main source of revenue. On the basis of this calculation and the forecasts which accompanied it, Cameron imagined that he would soon be able to brag of overseeing as Prime Minister three referenda whose results he had all publicly favored.
Arron Banks was skeptical that a Conservative-dominated anti-EU campaign would carry enough support to win the referendum. He had decided to support the Leave cause when the referendum was called, but he was not convinced that the mainly VoteLeave campaign appealed to a sufficiently broad political spectrum. As he saw it, VoteLeave was too closely affiliated with the political elite, too Conservative, and too London-based. Nigel Farage, whose outbursts in the European Parliament and as leader of UKIP had made him a household name, agreed with him.
Another factor reinforced the improbability that Right-wing Conservative euroskeptic votes alone could carry the day. Scotland, which had furnished proportionately more anti-EU votes in the first referendum than England or Wales, had become increasingly favorable to European unification over the years and could be expected to vote majority Remain in the upcoming second referendum. So not only had Leave campaigners to reach Labour voters, they had to make up for the increasingly pro-EU London and Scotland.
Farage was convinced that the key to success was converting millions of socialist voters, especially those from the North of England, England’s “rust belt,” to vote in alliance with the relatively prosperous and conservative “middle England” for independence. He insisted that this could not be achieved without facing two major issues head-on: immigration and border control. These were the two issues that Tory skeptics avoided. Banks was convinced by Farage’s argument. It was the beginning of a strong partnership and friendship.
Banks’ lively account begins with a meeting between Nigel Farage and Mathew Elliott in a pub in Staint Peter Port, Guernsey. Mathew Elliott had successfully led a previous indirectly anti-EU referendum campaign, namely that against the European-style alternative vote system. He had already set up a euroskeptic pressure group called Business for Britain. Elliott subsequently became the main organizer of the euroskeptic VoteLeave campaign. Banks notes that on their first encounter, Farage and Elliot profoundly disagreed on the nature of the campaign which was needed to win the argument for the nation’s withdrawal from the Union. “I think you should leave it to the experts,” Elliott advised Farage.
Farage told Banks he thought that Elliott’s elitist attitude and reluctance to talk about immigration might cause Leave to lose the referendum. In the view of Banks and Farage, it was exactly a distrust of elites and “experts” which was feeding growing hostility to the EU in the first place. Farage and Banks therefore decided that an alternative message would be needed to convince Labour voters to vote Leave – not one based on financial arguments or talk of free markets, but a nationalist argument. Leave.EU was born. As Banks put it:
Years of grassroots campaigning all over Britain had taught [Farage] that immigration was a massive issue among working-class and lower middle-class voters. When it came to Britain’s relationship with Brussels, he knew that the EU’s sacred open border policy was the issue that most rankled with these groups, however queasy it made the bien pensants in London. (p. xx)
It is words like “expert” which denoted the superiority of defenders of the status quo to those voters who felt disempowered in a system in which the Labour Party, the party which claimed to represent the weaker members of society, had made its peace with the status quo, at least so far as the European Union was concerned, and whose main concern was not issues of identity and survival, but such “London” issues as “gay marriage” and fighting sexism. In the context of Brexit, the times had passed when Conservative politicians like Enoch Powell had addressed the immigration issue in emotive language. Latter-day Tory skeptics like Boris Johnson or Paul Hammond were principally concerned with economics.
What I found moving about this account was the writers’ evident path of self-discovery, his genuine affection for the disgruntled Labour vote, and his appreciation of the few Labour politicians who helped the “bad boys” on the Leave.EU campaign – politicians like Kate Hoy, who shared platforms with Banks and Farage. Indeed, it becomes obvious that Banks came to prefer such people at a human level as well as the political level to the Tory euroskeptics of the rival VoteLeave campaign. When it comes to empathy or lack of it, the writer pulls no punches in his personal account. His deep admiration and affection for Nigel Farage, of whom it could be said he “loved this man, this side idolatry,” shines through. Here is Banks describing an early encounter with Farage:
Farage, who had stopped drinking only a little earlier and can have had only a few hours’ sleep, emerged from the house bright as a button and found me in a crumpled heap on the gravel, having rolled off the car with an ungainly thud and fallen asleep where I landed. It marked the beginning of what has become a firm friendship. (p. xxiv)
Here is Banks on a member of the VoteLeave campaign:
That little greaseball Steve Baker double-crossed us last night. Told Wiggy he was trying to work ‘behind the scenes’ for a peace deal after the attempted coup against Elliott and Cummings, then went parading on Newsnight an hour later that there won’t be any deal because of a ‘genuine disagreement about strategy and tactics’ and that Farage is toxic. (p. 160)
Banks does not complain about the effort and sacrifice which these bad boys put into their campaign, and indeed, it all seems to him to be something of a schoolboy romp, an element of the entire Leave campaign which particularly incensed and incenses those who want to remain in the European Union. Banks does not attempt to hide his enjoyment of the perks of wealth, nor the usefulness, not to say necessity, of money in pursuing a massive nationwide campaign, even in such a relatively small country as the United Kingdom. The power of money softened the strain of those long nights and relativized the earnestness of the endeavor without diminishing the degree of commitment which the four “bad boys” undoubtedly felt. Without money and a great deal of it, these “bad boys” could not have achieved what they did, and without this quartet, it is doubtful that the country would have voted to leave the EU. That is obviously Banks’ belief.
It might be fairly objected “Banks would say that,” but the analysis is widely accepted by his enemies, too. The Left-wing New Statesman described Banks as “the man who bought Brexit” (October 2016), and the fact that he deployed his fortune to back his own Leave campaign has been cited to denounce the private financing of political campaigns. Americans who insist on the importance of the right to bear arms in shielding themselves from an absolutist government tyranny might like to consider the importance of financial self-sufficiency as a shield against government-steered narratives as well. Tyranny can only thrive under the mask of an apparently functioning democracy when the citizens do not have adequate financial resources to combat an issue which rulers deem “out of bounds” to legitimate political organizations, immigration or racialism being obvious examples of subjects which “progressive” governments might wish to close to debate.
Banks could have spent more time describing the viciousness of his opponents, but out of a kind of (misplaced?) pride, declines to do so, although he does go so far as to mention what was almost certainly an attempt on Farage’s life: all the nuts on Farage’s four car wheels, according to French police, had been loosened, causing a wheel to roll off his car while he was driving on the motorway near Dunkirk. In a talk with Rachel Johnson (the sister of Boris) which took place on the BBC Election Blind Dates in May 2017, Farage revealed that it was impossible for him to go out without being concerned about the possibility that he might be physically abused or assaulted.
Banks, unlike Farage, was an optimist throughout the campaign. There was one dark moment: the murder of Jo Cox. Jo Cox, a prominent young Remain Labour MP, was murdered on June 16, 2016 by a man who apparently cried out “Britain First” during the attack. Here is part of Banks’ diary entry for the day:
Yesterday was a mad bright day on the river. Today it all went dark. The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox has shaken us all to the core . . . The morning news bulletins were dominated by the ‘punishment budget’, until Nigel unveiled a UKIP billboard designed to switch the agenda back to immigration. It showed a tidal wave of refugees tramping along a road across Europe, until the words ‘Breaking Point’ . . . Entirely as predicted, it all kicked off, with sanctimonious lefties and establishment types piling in to accuse Nigel of ‘vile xenophobia’. A handful of Kippers joined in as did the the leftie writer Bonnie Greer, who made a fool of herself by likening Nigel to the Nazi Hermann Göring . . . A few hours later news of the murder of Jo Cox gave credence to those who argued that any talk of immigration fired xenophobia and would ‘push people over the brink’. (pp. 290-291)
The murder of Jo Cox was an astonishing, and for British politics wholly uncharacteristic, event. Leaving Irish-related murders aside, Britain has no history of political assassination. The murder bore marked similarities to the assassination of the strongly pro-EU Swedish politician Anna Lindh in the days before Sweden’s referendum on the single currency. Without imputing the darkest of motives to the Remain cause, it can be said cynically, but quite truthfully, that the murder came at a fortuitous time for the Remain camp. At the time of the murder, polls were showing striking advances in favor of Leave. The Remain side exploited the murder of Jo Cox for all it was worth. This writer remembers the big demonstration in Trafalgar Square in Jo Cox’s memory on the Saturday before the referendum, and appeals by loudspeaker to “mourners” to “oppose division and hatred” and “remember Jo” and her “love of humanity.” Banks is generous to his opponents in making no mention of this.
What the “bad boys” did is difficult to summarize, and opinions will differ as to the importance of their achievement, but can anyone seriously question that achievement it was? The keynote of their campaign, which these rich and well-connected bad boys conducted for those without a voice, was to put two words back on the political agenda, two words that Mathew Elliott hoped the Leave campaign could dispense with: “control” and “identity.” Leavers should be watchful. There has been much talk about overturning the result, and many Remainers are intent upon reverting or suppressing it, or else attenuating the significance of leaving the EU to the point that Brexit is reduced to an insubstantial gesture. This vote will not be forgiven or forgotten by the proponents of internationalism and those forces whose aim for humanity is a New World Order populated by a rootless mass of world citizens. They will not rest until the Brexit mutiny is overturned, and they would rather perish in the attempt to stop Brexit than see an independent Britain flourish.
Some might want to argue that the choice for Britain to remain in or to leave the European Union was a local dispute about constitutional matters and an array of more or less important treaties – some seven or eight hundred in number, as it happens. Much of the referendum debate, especially with the VoteLeave campaigners, seems to give credence to this view. After all, it might be argued that massive immigration, not even white immigration, had come to Britain even before Britain joined the European Union. But beyond the issue of sovereignty lies the deeper issue of identity and race; issues, however, which cannot themselves be discussed outside the context of sovereignty, and cannot be discussed in a country which no longer manages its own affairs. Arron Banks did not discuss race. Race was not an issue, either for him or for any major player on either side of the debate. But without self-determination, it will not even be possible to debate race at all. Nobody put it better than the unquestionably anti-racist, pro-Islamic George Galloway, who spoke for the Grassroots Out campaign, a grouping which was also financed by Arron Banks:
In this hall, as in this country, all of us will have different visions of what our country Britain could be, should be, but the fundamental point is none of us here in this hall, none of us here in this country, are in a position to decide which vision of Britain should come to pass because that power has been given away to a lavishly-funded, eurocratic state, to a toothless, fantastically-financed pseudo-parliament . . .
Banks concludes, “Our movement achieved something truly historic, which is just the beginning of something much bigger.” What does he mean by “something much bigger”? He leaves the reader guessing. What the reader does learn from this fast-moving, hard-hitting, entertaining account is that people count, money counts, connections count, energy counts, dedication counts, and last but not least, comradeship counts – you and I count. These four men climbed their personal Everest. If something matters in our lives, we should not abandon it out of fear that we do not make a difference. Banks’ conclusion about what he believes Leave.Eu achieved is that it is something so worthy that “I wouldn’t trade that for all the diamonds in South Africa.” This from a man who well knows the value of diamonds!