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Democracy for Sale: A plunge into murky waters

Book review: We are only beginning to understand how our democracy has become frayed

Democracy for Sale
Democracy for Sale
Author: Peter Geoghegan
ISBN-13: 978-1789546033
Publisher: Apollo
Guideline Price: £14.99

You don’t need to be sensitive to have detected a whiff coming off politics in certain countries in recent years. Brexit is the thing that brought the odour to immediate attention in this part of western Europe, but it didn’t begin with the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, and after reading Peter Geoghegan’s unsparing account of shady money in politics, you would be naive to believe it will end there.

Geoghegan’s book, Democracy for Sale, is a plunge into waters we all knew were murky but had chosen not to spend too long gazing at. The book is not about Brexit alone, and indeed its focus moves beyond the continent of Europe, but the Leave campaign and its broader financial and philosophical ecosystem is certainly the animating core of the book.

As in other areas, Brexit has exposed existing problems as well as creating new ones. For a very long time, gaping holes in the regulation of political funding have existed in the UK. One of these gaps is in the ability of self-declared think tanks to receive unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its source. Another was the remarkable opacity of the regulations in relation to Northern Ireland, where until recently all donations to political parties were entirely anonymous.

There were many lacunae such as these in the governance of British politics, and each on their own prompted its own mini-scandal at one time or another. But it was the campaign to leave the European Union, and the ensuing campaign to interpret that victory, which exposed a confluence of these vulnerabilities in British democracy, a set of co-morbidities made all the more damaging by the extraordinary power of digital communication.


If Dominic Cummings has styled himself as the savant at the centre of the Brexit movement, at the sticky-floored margins is Arron Banks, an unlovable chancer and insurance “mogul” of unclear means who rose to extraordinary prominence bankrolling Nigel Farage and the provisional wing of the Brexit movement, Leave.EU.

Wealth management

The subtitle of this book, Dark Money and Dirty Politics, could almost have been written to describe Banks, whose wealth management habits are, to put it diplomatically, on the Byzantine side, and whose campaigning style would make Richard Nixon blush.

It is, as Geoghegan concludes, practically impossible to say how much Banks ultimately spent on the Brexit referendum – or indeed the provenance of that money. Banks has also alternately made light of, and angrily rejected, reports of his links to the Putin regime. What is certainly clear is that he was responsible for some of the most noxious campaign content – particularly focused on images of migrants and refugees – and was cavalier about legal distinctions between his insurance business and Leave.EU and the various other Brexit campaigns he funded.

Perhaps more than any other character in this book, Banks embodies its distilled twin concerns: the presence of opaque money in politics, and the opportunity afforded by modern digital media to spend that money to extremely unseemly ends.

The trollish Banks and his Farage-led Leave.EU campaign detested the mainstream Vote Leave cohort, most of which now comprises the most senior adviser team inside Downing Street. But what both Brexit campaigns had in common were their links to the Democratic Unionist Party. Banks was – and presumably remains – an ally of Ian Paisley Jr and Sammy Wilson, the Brexit ultras among the DUP MPs who experienced two years of unprecedented power after the 2017 general election in the UK.

Geoghegan recounts the lurid account of Banks, Farage and their gofer Andy Wigmore attending a DUP fundraiser in Ballymena at which Paisley presented his guests – the Bad Boys of Brexit, as they liked to be known – with a blackthorn stick. “When you’re out walking the dog, you need to slap the kids about, whatever, you have a wee bit of Ulster in your hand.”

Brexit campaigning

Hair-raising though that tale is, much more important is the money that was given to some of the same Ulstermen to spend on Brexit campaigning. And it was more than a wee bit. I still remember picking up a copy of the Metro newspaper on the London Underground a few days before the 2016 EU referendum, wrapped in a Leave campaign advertisement paid for by the DUP, despite the fact that the Metro does not circulate in Northern Ireland, the only place where the party stands candidates.

Once the party became a registered participant in the referendum, it was entitled to spend up to £700,000 on campaigning – a fact that was noted by Vote Leave’s chief executive in an email two months before the date of the vote. A large bulk of that spending ended up being funded by a donation from a dimly lit group named the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), led by a former Tory election candidate with a background in international waste management deals.

The CRC itself is an unincorporated association, ie an informal entity with the same faint legal character as a residents’ association – and no obligation to disclose where the £435,000 it gave to the DUP came from. And it didn’t.

Corruption of democracy is as old as democratic politics, as is the use of money to influence democratic politics. What is new, as this book demonstrates, is the extent of opportunity for malign influence presented by the digital revolution. It may be true that modern populist movements are a reaction against decades of globalisation, but they are themselves often global in scope.

Victor Orban

Many of the same unpleasant tropes and tendencies pop up in central as well as western Europe – though as the book makes clear, Hungary’s Victor Orban is in his own appalling league when it comes to European authoritarianism. The new means are usually the same: remorseless and amoral use of social media prime among them. And, to an alarming extent, the money often comes from the same places: not least the unspeakably wealthy and right-wing Koch brothers, who have either directly or indirectly funded populist movements across the globe.

We are only at the beginning of understanding how the 21st-century confluence of opaque money, extreme politics and digital technology has frayed our democracy. This book is an important part of that process. We are a long way from having viable solutions, but we owe a debt to relentless journalists like Geoghegan for starting the work of rooting out the source of stench before it overwhelms us.

Matthew O’Toole is an SDLP MLA for Belfast South. He was chief press officer for Europe and economic affairs in the British prime minister’s office from September 2015 to August 2017