Banks has gone from Ukip donor to Trump tower. Now he wants to use his money to turn the rage of voters on to British politicians of all stripesby Sam Macrory / December 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
When it was announced, in September 2014, that Arron Banks was donating £100,000 to Ukip, William Hague dismissed the former Tory donor as “somebody we haven’t heard of.” Furious, Banks upped his donation to £1,000,000. “Now he knows who I am,” the Bristol-based businessman declared. And two years later, Banks was one of the very first Brits to meet President-Elect Donald Trump after his victory. Banks’s political influence and profile have come a long way. Perhaps inspired by Trump’s victory, he intends to go further still.
But his future plans are unlikely to include Nigel Farage, the kindred spirit with whom he shares a deep loathing of the European Union, whose political path he has—until now—followed, and all the way to Trump Tower. Today, however, Banks’s support for Ukip is “probably” over and, he said, Farage is “not a massive fan” of his plans for some novel form of disruptive movement.
Why not? “In many ways Nigel is quite cautious; as a politician I don’t think he quite sees the disconnect.” So he won’t be leading Banks’s new movement? “I think he’s done his bit,” Banks replies, laughing. “I shouldn’t think Nigel should assume he’s got the job. We all need a break. It’s been a hell of a 2016.”
Speaking ahead of Paul Nuttall’s recent election as Ukip leader, Banks sounded anything but enthusiastic. “They’re not Nigel, are they?” he dismissively replied when asked to weigh up the merits of Nuttall and the rival he defeated, Suzanne Evans. Ukip “needs inspirational leadership,” Banks said, “and I doubt it is going to get it.” This despite the fact he “quite likes” Nuttall; his loathing for Evans, by contrast, is such that he warns that if she assumed any senior role in the party, that would “hasten its demise.”
Banks, who has also talked of his hatred of David Cameron, finds Theresa May “uninspiring.” He is capable of enthusiasm, however. He founded and chaired the Leave.EU referendum group, pumping millions into a social media-driven campaign whose unabashed focus on immigration targeted disgruntled blue-collar voters. Banks’s “facts don’t work” approach was much-criticised, not least by the official Vote Leave campaign. But it played a considerable, perhaps decisive, role in Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
Nearly six months later, however, Banks is not happy, complaining that, since the referendum, there has been only “half a revolution—if that.” His new mission is to complete it, and his critics discerned sinister signs of what that could mean when he responded on Twitter to Austria’s failure in December to elect Norbert Hofer as President, the candidate of a party founded by former Nazis. Perhaps, Banks suggested—echoing Trump at his most nakedly anti-immigrant moments—the Austrians “haven’t suffered enough rape and murder yet.”
But—again like Trump—hostility to immigration is only one element of the mix. Another great aim is to bring about the destruction of career politicians and the entire parliamentary system. Or, as he puts it, to “drain the swamp.”
It’s a familiar refrain. Banks had joined Farage on Trump’s campaign, spent over four hours inside Trump Tower for the victory party and returned to the UK inspired by the President-Elect’s “Brexit plus plus plus” success.
The avowed role model for Banks’s latest venture is, however, an earlier presidential candidate—and one who failed. Ross Perot’s independent run at the White House in 1992 drew on dissatisfaction with the American political system and a call for direct democracy. Perot, an extremely rich man, mobilised grassroots support and posed as the insurgent-reformer, in a manner that clearly appeals to Banks. “His phrase was ‘I’m Ross, and you’re the boss.’ That’s what’s behind this,” Banks explains of his latest initiative. “It’s direct democracy with an element of changing the system so that it actually limits the role of government.”
Banks’s conversational style is—by contrast with his more strident Tweets—disarmingly laid-back. But there’s a restless energy which, despite his business interests (he holds majority stakes in a number of insurance-related companies and owns several diamond mines in South Africa) is increasingly focused on politics.
At the next general election, Banks hopes to stand 200 candidates, who will be selected through open primaries, to trigger “a breaking away from the tribal nature” of politics and to “bring all sorts of interesting people” into parliament. “It’s a one off, a resetting of the system. You’re basically electing people to do a specific job,” Banks says. “You’d have 300 people there, not paid a fortune, but all people that have done something with their lives and, therefore, not career politicians.”
Once the “appalling standard of the MPs” has been raised, the newcomers—who would be term-limited—would rebuild the way parliament works. The Commons would be reduced to around 300 MPs and the Lords to nearer 100, while the number of days parliament sits would also fall to around 100 “because the longer it sits the more damage it does.” New bills could only be introduced if another two were removed so that “you don’t legislate at the drop of a hat on all sorts of spurious things—a studied indifference would be actually quite good,” while direct democracy would give the public a vote on “big issues.”
While Banks’s backing of Ukip makes his leanings clear, he protests that his movement criss-crosses the spectrum, transcending all the parties, in favour of a “radical” alternative. And he insists he is as “a hybrid,” a “libertarian” who also accepts that “there are things government have to do.” Such as? “Nationalising railways, big infrastructure, schools, hospitals, defence. But it should get itself out of the rest of life. Do a few things and do them well.”
If Brexit proved that many people feel that politics, and politicians, aren’t working for them, why should they listen to a man who wields influence through his considerable wealth? A man indeed, with links to complex offshore companies which the Guardian revealed were named in papers at the same Panamanian law firm as David Cameron’s father’s tax-avoiding fund. “You can say it’s a rich guy that’s doing it, but I don’t want to control it,” Banks—who has defended himself as being a UK taxpayer with international business interests—insists of his plans: “I just want to enable people to take control of the democratic process. If people like the idea, then they can create their own groups in their own areas to take forward the idea.”
With social media, Banks believes “things can happen much quicker now than they ever could in the past.” He points to Italy, where the “Five Star movement swept the country,” as Beppe Grillo, formerly a comedian, turned his protest movement into the force which has crushed Matteo Renzi, the Italian premier, in a referendum (see Bill Emmott’s piece from Prospect‘s January issue).
This year should see the unveiling of the Banks blueprint. It may sound far-fetched, but after the Brexit vote and Trump’s election his enemies may well feel cause for alarm. The Bad Boys of Brexit is the title of his free-wheeling account of the referendum, but I wonder if Banks is looking for a different legacy? “We’re not politicians and we don’t act like them,” he replies. “But with this idea of draining the swamp, we could hopefully be the good boys of Westminster. Something can take off like wildfire if it works.” If he turns this vision into reality, then everyone will know who Arron Banks is.