“I’m not racist, but…” Things we learnt from Ukip donor Arron Banks’ diary
PUBLISHED: 18:12 22 November 2016 | UPDATED: 10:58 30 November 2016
Vile, boring, ludicrous and very predictable: Steve Anglesey reviews the inside story of Ukip & the chaotic Leave.EU campaign
You might have seen Arron Banks photographed celebrating with the President-elect in Trump Tower; in his new book on the referendum campaign we encounter him at another victory party, in the early hours of June 24. “Wiggy and I left the cleaners tidying up and stumbled out into the dawn sunshine, clutching a couple of bottles of champagne,” he writes. “We came across an old bloke at a cash machine trying to get out as much money as he could. He told us there was going to be a run on the banks. We… cracked open the bubbly before making our way to Westminster.”
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Both the image and the anecdote reveal plenty about the multi-millionaire who is reckoned to have poured £7million of his own fortune into anti-EU projects since 2014, but almost certainly not what he would hope.
Banks, architect of the repulsive Breaking Point poster campaign, is keen to portray himself as a kind of Wolf Of Build-A-Wall Street, leading a coterie of hard-drinking mavericks and misfits who stand up for the little guy against “the global elite”, of which there are 14 mentions here. Instead, he’s a very rich man celebrating with an even richer man in a gold-plated elevator at the top of a skyscraper just off Central Park, both having won at the ballot box by convincing one group of poor people to turn on another group of poor people. He’s a very rich man who clutches his Moet that little bit tighter as he scurries past an ordinary bloke so bewildered by the fear and confusion Banks has sowed that he tries to draw his savings out of an ATM at dawn.
Does Arron Banks not see the contradictions here, or does he just refuse to acknowledge them? Does he suffer from a lack of self-awareness or just a lack of shame? At one point in this narrative he greenlights an advert caricaturing a “money-grubbing, Tory-looking banker smoking a cigar”. Banks, of course, is far different, being a former broker and Tory donor with a fondness for cigars.
His diaries are alternately boring, ludicrous, predictable and vile. You’ll unsurprised to discover that there is very little here about what Banks thinks should happen post-Brexit. In fact, his thoughts on the future are mostly covered in a single entry on August 25 2016, although later on he generously hopes to see Britain welcome immigrant workers provided they have £5,000 in their pockets.
Oddly, there’s scant detail too about what Banks actually found so objectionable about the EU in the first place. He blathers that he always felt the Maastricht treaty “would inevitably lead to lower standards in public life”, as if political corruption was invented in 1992. He mainly seems to dislike being governed by rules made by others, a theme common among other Leavers depicted here, who struggle to comprehend why they cannot light up in London’s historic RAC gentlemen’s club, or open and drink bottles of red wine in a McDonald’s.
It’s genuinely disappointing that Banks offers us little on the methodology of the slick campaign he bankrolled, led by American referendum strategist Gerry Gunster and backed up by data experts Cambridge Analytica. Perhaps this is reluctance to show his workings, perhaps it’s a victim of the diary format. Whatever the reason, it feels like a failure on the part of ghostwriter Isabel Oakeshott, who has achieved the remarkable feat of coming from a book detailing allegations about David Cameron inserting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig and still managing to head downmarket from there.
Instead of reasoning and insight, there is much dull stuff about the battle to be named the official Leave campaign, which can’t be enlivened by the ‘characters’ in Banks’ camp - the aforementioned Wiggy, Posh George, The Happy Hippy and Bullets Wheeler, so called as he once accidentally shot himself in the face. Nor can it be saved by a travelogue of the glamorous places Banks operates in. We may go to The Hamptons, Belize, Pretoria, Lesotho, Trieste, Bermuda, Kenya, Tanzania, Switzerland, Meribel, the Virgin Islands and Washington DC, but this is the dullest work involving trade and taxation disputes in exotic locations since The Phantom Menace.
When Banks is not obsessing at length about Leave.org, he is plotting the kind of stunts which Alan Patridge might have blanched at, most notably the doomed and derided BPop concert. He believes he can legitimise the dismal UKIP calypso sung in patois by former Radio One DJ Mike Read by getting a friend in Jamaica to pay a random “very stoned… Rastafarian on a decrepit deckchair” $10 to re-record it. He marvels at “some fancy choreographer who claimed to have worked with celebrities like Danny Dyer” and dreams the climax of BPop will feature “Kate Hoey driving Michael Caine onto the stage on a specially designed mini while The Who blasts ‘We’re not going to take it any more’”. Later, he can’t understand why Soul II Soul refuse to share a stage with Nigel Farage.
The dialogue is so full of Clarksonian bluster it’s almost possible to enjoy this book through the medium of Banksy Bingo. You can cross the use of military cliche off your cards, as several grenades are lobbed and Banks says of Farage “he needed backup and we were his special forces… the provisional wing of the Brexit campaign”. Public school jargon makes its expected appearance, with Leave.eu’s dog-whistling stunts explained away as “larks” and “high-jinks”. Do you mention if need Luvvies, Guardianistas and Commies to complete a line? They’re all here. Want patronising references to women for your full house? In Banks’ world we meet various airheads, lipstick lesbians, patronising harpies and schoolmarms. Reading all this guff, it’s hard not to think of the German at the end of the famous Fawlty Towers episode, who looks upon Basil’s xenophobic hysteria and wonders “how ever did they win?” But Banks did win, and it’s not hard to divine why. The Mail found these diaries “rollicking and raucous”, but another R-word comes to mind as Banks fulminates about the prospect that a future Queen’s Speech might one day carry subtitles so immigrants could understand it, annoys even Farage by attempting to link freedom of movement in the EU to the Orlando nightclub massacre and, in March 2016, decides to pep up a flagging campaign by switching focus to a fictional tidal wave of Turkish migrants about to swamp the UK. His job, he tells us, is “doing and saying the things Nigel can’t”. Just imagine what kind of poison that might be - the kind of material that Nigel Farage, who recently joked about preventing Donald Trump from groping Theresa May and who called Barack Obama a “creature”, might find a little beyond the pale.
Yet Banks is not a racist. We know because he tells us so. How can he be, in any case, when “I fund multiple charities in South Africa”? And how can the question even be asked when, in April 2016, we find him appalled when the rival Leavers tell a potential volunteer Banks is “only interested in immigration and is basically a racist”? (This passage, incidentally, comes just a few pages away from Banks throwing a wobbler when he’s shown a video he’s funded to the tune of £130,000 and finds “there is literally no mention of immigration… or ISIS infiltration through the migrant influx.”) Like many Leave voters, he tells us, he merely has “legitimate concerns about uncontrolled immigration”, which is fast becoming the 2016 reboot of “I’m not racist, but…”
If the passages on race and immigration here make for uncomfortable and disturbing reading, even worse is to come in the section dealing with the unveiling of the Breaking Point poster and the death of Jo Cox on the same day. While Banks naturally expresses genuine sympathy for Cox and her family, it’s followed with uncomfortable speed by thoughts of the negative effect her killing might have on Leave’s prospects. He moans that “the timing of the Breaking Point poster could hardly have been worse”. He gets angry that Remainers are “accusing the Leave campaigns of stoking up hatred and fear”,while “zealots… are desperate to depict Jo as a martyr to the cause”. Later he is “annoyed” when Farage goes to lay flowers for Cox in Parliament Square but gives “a long interview about her straight afterwards. I thought it was unnecessary.” Perhaps this is the kind of dispassion you need at the heart of a successful campaign, but it does come off as callous. Elsewhere in the book, after a minor medical scare, Banks tells us his doctor has assured him there is “nothing physically wrong with my heart.” Well not physically, no.
The book’s coda is a breathless fanboy account of a visit with Farage to an American election rally for Trump, which as a piece of writing is up there with a 12-year-old’s account of the day they met One Direction. But now Trump has won, as did Banks. What will happen next? What is plain from this book, as it is from Trump’s first days as President-elect, is that neither of them have a clue. They led campaigns of fear and negativity, lighting fires under the disenchanted. Now they can retreat to the gold lift and watch the people beneath them trying to fight the flames.
Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of mischief, mayhem and guerilla warfare in the EU referendum campaign. By Arron Banks, edited by Isabel Oakeshott. Biteback Publishing, £18.99