The Bad Boys of Brexit
Arron Banks, London: Biteback, 2016, hb., £18.99
Arron Banks looks out proudly and pugnaciously from the cover of Bad Boys of Brexit like a character in a Hogarth engraving, flanking the equally Hogarthian Nigel Farage, in a photo taken as Farage faced the globe’s agog media on the auspicious morning of 24th June 2016. The four men pictured – Banks, Farage, Richard Tice and Andrew Wigmore – look rumpled, tired and unshaven, but deeply happy – a natural reaction from the adrenalised, unexpected victors of one of the bitterest battles in recent British political history. For Farage, it was the culmination of 25 years unstinting campaigning, years filled with controversy and contumely – but he would probably never have had that moment’s supreme satisfaction had it not been for the men around him, perhaps especially the stocky, dark-haired man to his right who appears to be trying to suppress a gargantuan laugh.
Banks, 51, is John Bullishly English – class-conscious, combative, commonsensical, generous, impatient, opinionated, slightly philistine, sturdily patriotic, tough, and vigorous, of just the phenotype Hogarth envisioned living in Beer Street. He had only known Farage for two years, and their first meeting did not go very smoothly – but from the outset he recognised Farage’s special qualities, and realised that working with him would be mutually beneficial, and maybe even world-altering. A youthful Thatcherite, when not engaged in building up his insurance empire Banks had observed despondingly the drift of European policy, and rued Conservative Eurosceptics’ inability or unwillingness to engage. So when Farage asked him to donate £100,000, he was happy to oblige. When he saw Foreign Secretary William Hague on TV dismissing the donation as being from “someone we haven’t heard of”, he rang Farage back to increase the amount to £1 million. Battle had been joined – against ineffective Tories as much as ideological Eurocrats.
He became closely involved with UKIP, but was dismayed to find it “hopelessly dysfunctional and ill-prepared for campaigning”, with more than its fair quotient of eccentric supporters, like John Mappin of Mappin & Webb, who once regaled Banks with a description of his “super-powered brain control system” which would swing the referendum their way. And there were others he thought much worse, especially Douglas Carswell, the ex-Tory who was then UKIP’s only M.P. (Often, Banks prefers principled leftists to Conservatives.) Banks became fiercely protective of Farage, likening himself and Andrew Wigmore to
…loyal guard dogs that are more than a little feral and unpredictable when we’re off the lead. [Farage] loves us and we love him, but occasionally we bite him on the backside and he responds with a sharp kick.
Farage was fortunate indeed to have found such deep-pocketed stalwarts to found and lead the Brexit umbrella group which was founded in July 2015 as “The Know”, then relaunched as Leave E.U. the following September. Banks loaned £6m and helped raise a further £11m, Wigmore was director of communications, and Tice (“Mr. Collegiate”) also gave generously and soothed egos bruised by his brusquer colleagues. Provoked by an anti-Brexit intervention by the I.M.F.’s Christine Lagarde, Banks growls “it’s time to audit the elites” – and this is just what Leave E.U. did. Big politics, big business, big institutions and big opinion were all fair game, targeted eventually by a campaign staff of ninety using big data, with a sixty-strong call-centre signing up supporters and donors, all from an industrial estate off the M5 motorway, beside a Premier Inn – an unlikely HQ for a nationalist resistance movement.
If BBC producers aren’t spluttering organic muesli over their breakfast tables every morning we won’t be doing our job
he notes – revealing much about his personality and Leave E.U’s tactics, not to mention the neoliberal Right’s fondness for cliché, and perverse prejudice against environmental responsibility.
The American political campaign consultancy Goddard Gunter were taken on as advisers, and the campaign even enlisted the TV hypnotist Paul McKenna as a consultant. On the eve of the referendum, Banks calculated that Leave E.U. had issued twenty million leaflets and nineteen million letters, amassed millions of video views and one million social media followers, and reached some fifteen million people every week – many of whom would have been ignored or unmoved by Vote Leave, the more anodyne, officially-designated Brexit campaign group fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Banks was brought up partly in South Africa, which gave him a taste for frontier pastimes like diamond-mining, drinking, fishing, off-roading, and shooting. He was sent to a private school in England, and beguiled these obviously duller times through sundry “high-spirited activities”, eventually being expelled for antics including selling stolen lead. He calmed down sufficiently to move into the British insurance industry, first at Lloyds, then setting up his own vastly lucrative enterprises – not to mention a bank, a diamond mining firm and a leisure business. He is married to a Russian, has five children, and owns two Gloucestershire mansions. His combativeness and purse pride are meliorated by charitable commitments, honesty, and wistful tastes – If is a “great poem”, while To The Manor Born is his idea of ideal viewing.
Bad Boys of Brexit was pieced together after the campaign from Banks’ e-mails, texts and daily jottings, and his own “fallible memory”. It took just six weeks to assemble the text with the help of Isabel Oakeshott, and although they did an excellent job sometimes their speed shows; a few individuals are mentioned without the reader being told who they are, while there are references to arguments Leave E.U. had with N.A.S.A. and the sports journalist Gary Lineker without any background being sketched in. Irritatingly, there is no index – just a characteristic note, “If you’re looking for the index, there isn’t one. Deliberately. Read the bloody book!” This decision may have been made partly to save production time, but is mostly designed to prevent politicos index-surfing for mentions of themselves and skipping the rest of the text, as some are wont to do. This is a nuisance for a reviewer who wants to cross-check some fact, and it will hinder academic use. Nonetheless, Bad Boys rings true, and when Banks claims he was “careful to avoid hindsight”, generally we can believe him. His memory may well be “fallible” and selective, but whose is not? In any event, the result is engrossing, funny, insightful, and revealing of how modern British politics works (or doesn’t work).
He uses sniper rounds as well as grapeshot, alternately hitting marks precisely and peppering the enemy. Politicos who do read Bad Boys searching for their names will usually wish they had not bothered, because his opinion of them is usually withering. But then they probably know already, because Banks always fought out in the open, to the chagrin not just of the consensual Tice, but even the combative Farage. Douglas Carswell is “autistic with a touch of mental illness”; Tory M.P. Peter Bone resembles “a lost extra from The Addams Family”; as for another Tory M.P., Teresa Coffey, “let’s just say they didn’t invent the phrase ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ with this lady in mind”. On the Left, Neil Kinnock is the “bellend of all bellends”, while François Hollande “has the expression of a man who’s been presented with a cassoulet when he ordered duck à l’orange”.
Elephant gun ammunition is reserved for Vote Leave’s principals, Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott. Banks dislikes them personally – he calls Cummings a “shyster”, and issues Elliott with a writ for defamation after he hears Elliott has been calling him a racist and homophobe – but most of all he despairs of their messaging. Their expensively produced, eminently forgettable Brexit: The Movie is “a free-market wet dream” framed with “weirdo, dead-eyed academics”, and he labels their eye-catching claim of how an independent UK would save £350 million every week “a blatant lie” which undermines the Brexit case. Their over-reliance on Eighties figures like Nigel Lawson and David Owen reminds him of “grave robbing”. He feels they are too close to the S.W.1 elite, too set in their tactics, to be reliable –
The stars of the Vote Leave show have been dining out on Euroscepticism for years, preaching to a congregation of pinstriped bores who will lap up any glib Shakespeare quote thrown their way with a chorus of smug guffaws.
He is unfair to Vote Leave, who did deliver a more middle-class, middle-of-the-road demographic less amenable to Leave E.U.’s emphases. A Brexit campaign fronted by Nigel Farage would probably not have succeeded; the charisma of Boris Johnson, the intelligence of Michael Gove, and the prestige of their high offices were vital assurances for many. But there were unnecessary tensions between the groups, and they were chiefly caused by Vote Leave (who also snubbed several attempts at truces).
Seen in retrospect, these “friendly fire” incidents seem amusing, like the predictable media smears – Banks and Wigmore as supposed tax dodgers because of links with the British Virgin Islands and Belize, the resurfacing of 25 year old tabloid tales about Wigmore’s supposed sex life, not to mention endless allegations of the usual ‘phobias’. Of course at the time they were anything but amusing, and any could have derailed the whole endeavour. Nevertheless, Banks clearly enjoyed the bare-knuckle sport, such as when he responded to Vatican comments about Brexit erecting barriers by tweeting a picture of the forbiddingly circumvallated Vatican. When David Beckham spoke against Brexit, Leave E.U. relishingly published anti-E.U. comments made in 1996 by his wife Victoria, and laughed off threats to sue. When Farage was omitted from a BBC television debate, Leave E.U. published the e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers of the leaders of Vote Leave, Douglas Carswell, the producer, and the e-mail of the BBC director general. A House of Commons select committee before which Leave E.U. leaders testified descended into a shambles when it mixed up Richard Tice with an unrelated namesake who had died in 1910. Banks was half-amused, half-infuriated when Unionists hesitated to sign the Ulster cross-party Brexit declaration because the ink looked green (i.e., “Irish”), only agreeing when shown that it looked golden in certain lights. Whatever was thrown at them, Banks and the others threw it back with added interest, fuelled by testosterone and lubricated by copious quantities of alcohol.
Banks’ pleasure was (and is) basically boyish, shocking sensitivities simply because they were (and are) sensitivities. After Leave E.U. issued a video about migrant violence, he rubbed his hands together metaphorically –
We’ve got our biggest gasp of outrage yet from the leftie media, and we’re savouring it.
Those gasps grew life-threatening on 16th June; in the morning Leave E.U. unveiled a poster showing a column of refugees tramping along a European road under the heading “Breaking Point”. There were frantic denunciations, and Farage was already on edge – then in the afternoon Labour M.P. Jo Cox, a Remainer and refugee settlement advocate, was murdered by a man shouting “Britain first!” Leave E.U. suspended campaigning immediately but this did not stop Remainers from making cheap conceptual connections.
The highly charged offensive came to its end under suitable skies as a vast electrical storm flashed across Britain, and flooding in the south, with almost every expert assuming the Brexit cause was lost. At lunch on the day, Farage said “We’re going to lose. I can feel it in my waters”, and he conceded defeat to a Sky journalist. Banks empathised
Years of political disappointment had conditioned him…he didn’t dare to believe it could be different this time
But he for one believed the thing would be won, based on a Leave E.U. poll. As the night wore on, the drinks went down and the results came in, everything of course altered, and Banks and Wigmore floated out of the wake-turned-party at dawn, half-drunk and clutching yet more champagne – to see the Thames and Westminster in fragile light, in a celebratory cacophony of taxi and truck horns, and an elderly man trying to get as much money as he could out of a cash machine because he feared a run on the banks. “We’ve done it! It has actually f***ing happened. Independence Day.” – and then they were all on College Green, S.W.1, blinking at the first day of a new era, grouped around Farage in proprietorial hope as similar auxiliaries once clustered around Hereward the Wake, Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, or John Wilkes.
That day is already passing into folklore, becoming part of an insular mythos, and now…now what indeed, for Britain, and especially this energised man? “I’ve got a feeling my time in politics has only just begun”, he writes. The Brexit vote was only a “halfhearted revolution”, and he does not trust the May government to deliver the controlled-border “Singapore on steroids” he seeks. He keeps a watching brief on UKIP although his heart departed when Farage left as leader. In July, he was asking himself “We can’t let all the energy just fade away…we’ve got this great movement for change…so what do we do with it?” For now, Banks has contented himself with launching Westmonster.com, a Breitbart-inspired news site described as “pro-Brexit, pro-Farage, pro-Trump, anti-establishment, anti-open borders, anti-corporatism” – but can this most boisterous of businessmen sustain interest in this abstracter kind of politicking? The only thing certain is, as Donald Trump joked to Farage when they all met him, “Those boys look like trouble. I’d keep an eye on them.”
This review first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission