What do people mean when they say Arron Banks ‘bought Brexit’? That phrase is everywhere. It’s a New Statesman headline: ‘The man who bought Brexit.’ He ‘bought Brexit’, the Observer informs us, with his ‘funding of the populist, social media driven Leave.EU campaign’. OpenDemocracy, like many others, wants to know where Banks’ money comes from, so that we can finally answer the question: how could he ‘afford Brexit’?
This vision of Banks ‘buying’ one of the largest democratic votes in British history, as if it were a second-hand car or something, is weird. And very revealing.
What it reveals is the alarmingly low esteem in which voters are held by the Remain-leaning section of the chattering classes. For make no mistake: when these people bash Banks for ‘buying’ Brexit, what they’re really saying is that the little people, us, we pesky plebs who were foolishly given the right to vote, can be easily bought off. In order to believe that Banks ‘bought’ Brexit, you would need to have an extraordinarily contemptible view of the electorate as a thoughtless throng whose ballots are up for sale to the biggest or loudest or shiniest bidder.
The idea that Banks bought Brexit utterly erases the 17.4m who voted for Brexit. It denies our role, our agency, in this vast political upset that has so rattled both the British and Brussels establishments. Pinning the blame for Brexit on Banks is an outrage — not against him but against us! You want to blame someone? Blame me. And the millions of other Brexit voters. We did this. Intentionally, purposefully, thoughtfully, and with no care whatsoever for what a Bristolian millionaire might have wanted us to do.
The Banks-bashing of certain Remainers is spinning out of control. They talk about Banks as if he were some dastardly and amazing mastermind, the pied piper to dim Brits. He’s the Voldemort of their moral universe. Even media people who think it is acceptable, and potentially interesting, to interview Banks are getting it in the neck. Witness the Twitter meltdown over his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday morning. Lord Adonis, Caroline Lucas, AC Grayling and others lined up to denounce the Beeb for ‘giving a platform’ to Banks, like modern-day McCarthyites chastising the media for consorting with political undesirables.
Of course the BBC did not ‘give a platform’ to Banks. It didn’t provide him with a soapbox or stage from which he might make a speech. Rather, it subjected him to a decent grilling. Though that didn’t stop irate tweeters from branding Rob Burley, editor of BBC live political programmes, as ‘Goebbels’ and a ‘scumbag’ and declaring him unfit for his role. Such a bizarre overreaction. The BBC’s decision to interview Banks was media freedom in operation: a broadcaster taking an editorial decision to interrogate a man whose affairs are currently matters of great public interest. The hostility to Marr and his editors and producers speaks to an ugly, arrogant desire to dictate to the broadcast media about who they may speak to, and fundamentally what they may say. That threatens press freedom.
The question, though, is what lies behind this rash and utterly disproportionate fury with Arron Banks. He is a minor businessman. He wasn’t central to the Brexit victory (though Remainers have certainly flattered his conviction that he was by obsessing so madly over him for the past year). Leave.EU wasn’t even the official Leave group.
Yes, Banks has been referred to the National Crime Agency over the origins of the £8m he loaned or gave to the group Better for the Country, £2.9m of which was used to fund referendum spending for Leave.EU. But anyone who thinks £2.9m swung the referendum needs to have their head examined.
That’s the thing: in order to believe that a few million quid of questionable provenance ‘bought’ Brexit and sealed Britain’s fate, you would need to view voters as mere vessels of rich people’s plans, as the playthings of the better-off, as the dutiful, slavish obeyers of what influential people say. The idea seems to be that we saw some ads or memes and thought to ourselves: ‘Must… Destroy…. Britain.’
This is gross and demeaning. It is underpinned by the same prejudice that has motored every single reaction against the idea of democracy throughout history — the prejudice that says ordinary people, being fickle and unreasoned, are easily hoodwinked by factions or demagogues and therefore might unwittingly plunge their nations into mayhem by making stupid choices. Get this nasty pre-modern view of voters out of public life, please.
It’s time we saw Banks-bashing for what it really is: not a progressive, anti-big-business stance, but the cover for a very old-fashioned contempt for the demos that just refuses to go away. It isn’t really Banks they hate — it’s you and me.