When an investigative journalist asked a British voter in the British town of Sunderland, “Which way will you vote?” the man replied, “I want Brexit.” When asked why, the man said, “Turkey would soon join.” He then talked about how millions of Turkish workers could soon be coming to the UK in search of jobs. In reality, of course, Turkish EU membership is no more than a very distant possibility and that millions of Turkish workers might arrive in the UK legally is pure propaganda. When asked where he had heard about all this? “Facebook,” the man replied. And with this, my dead readers, the murky story of Brexit’s dark money and dirty politics begins.
In Sunderland, a whopping 60% voted to leave the EU in 2016. Many UK voters that year were made to believe that they would take back poltical control from a seemingly monstrous EU, thus rescuing their beloved British homeland from the clutches of a gigantic bureaucracy across the Channel – a monster that simply does not exist. Overall, there maybe four elements that gave Brexit the upper hand:
1. ultra-conservative tabloids favouring Brexit;
2. a well-crafted Internet campaign by the pro-Brexit camp;
3. conservative and, above all, nationalistic Tory politicians; and finally
4. plenty of dark money.
Dark money is a rather new term, an insidious neologism, meaning funds that come from unknown sources but are highly influential in politics. Dark money supposedly gives the cadre of the super-rich and their many surrogates the means to shape politics. In the USA, the Koch Brothers’ “Toxic Empire” remains the most suspected source of dark money manipulating UK politics. Until the death of David Koch, his mysterious empire had spent more than $1.5 billion on Republican political causes.
Dark money also goes hand in hand with right-wing dirty politics and digital disinformation. It signifies a paradigm shift in political communication. Via Facebook and adjacent echo-chambers, political prejudices, xenophobia, chauvinism, nationalism, racism, antisemitism, etc. are confirmed and reinforced daily. Right-wing populists like the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, are swept into office knowing that repeated lying is no barrier to the highest office. Donald J. Trump, the former president of the USA, and many other right-wing populists who circle around him, would agree.
By the time of Brexit, for the first time in UK history, more money was spent on digital communication than on any other form of political advertising. This resulted in an invisible pro-Brexit media blitz. Britain’s right-wing nationalistic and pro-Brexit tabloids barely could keep up with it. Right-wing tabloids do not need dark money but dark money fuelled the pro-Brexit campaign in 2016 and Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” election in 2019. British tabloids are extremely powerful. In 2019, just three companies – the Daily Mail and General Trust, Reach and Murdoch’s News UK – controlled 83% of the British newspaper market. Only the secretive state of North Korea comes close to such numbers!
Crucially, in his early career, Boris Johnson – or BoJo, as his friends call him – featured as a tabloid reporter. He was not much more than story inventor. As such, he was sent to Brussels as a leading Eurosceptic and came back to the UK to peddle his lies. BoJo, the reporter is best known for the Italian condom invention, a story he simply manufactured out of thin air. Yet it fit right into his, the conservative party’s and the tabloid’s right-wing stance directed against government intervention, whether it comes from the UK government or the EU’s faceless bureaucrats. The break-away-from–the EU campaign, however, needed money. Lots and lots of money. Among the many dark and not so dark organizations setup to support Brexit, the “Vote Leave” organization had, at some point, more money than they could legally spend. Yet spend they did. And that’s how dark money fuelled Brexit.
Another Brexit organization called “BeLeave” received (from “somewhere”) an astonishing £675,000, almost a million US dollars. The cap on spending in a UK constituency is £15,000 or $20,000. In other words, BeLeave collected – by British standards – an outrageous amount of cash for its pro-Brexit campaign. From unknown or unstated sources.
When “Vote Leave” was fined £61,000 ($83,000) for breaking the law, the fine was barely a tenth of the money “Vote Leave” had been given. In other words, the fine was no fine at all. One of the most prominent backers of Brexit and organizers of dark money is (the aptly named) Aaron Banks. He was fined £1,800 ($2,500). Banks is estimated to own between $100 and $250 million. One can imagine how shaken he was by a $2,500 fine. His dark money, we presume, went to “Vote Leave.”
Since about six in ten voters in the UK use social media, it paid handsomely for “Vote Leave” to spend 98% of its money on digital advertising. Internet advertising allowed Brexiteers to target those who are known as persuadables, i.e., middle-aged to older people in a particular and often rural and with no university degree. Brexiteers rightly thought that these potential voters were highly susceptible to political ads such as those claiming that millions of Muslims would soon arrive in the UK, a propagandistic falsehood that was broadcast during the final hours of the Brexit campaign.
Simultaneously, the conservative minister Penny Mordaunt told the BBC that Britain could not veto Turkey’s membership of the EU. This was patently not true. The fake news came despite the fact that Turkey’s membership plan has been on ice for many years, if not decades. Something so petty as the truth did not stop Brexiteers like Banks from spreading fear. At the same time, African diamond mining Banks registered donations of at least £8.4 million ($11.5 million) to various anti-EU causes. Banks is a man with pockets deep enough to run an entire political campaign – and in the case of Brexit, he almost did.
Once a reporter asked Banks about his mis- and disinformation campaign on Brexit. Banks snapped back, “It isn’t meant to be informative. It’s propaganda.” With that, BoJo’s Brexiteers ran an astonishingly nasty campaign appealing to voters’ vilest instincts. The Brexit team had access to a great amount of voter data. For its misuse of such sources, “Leave.EU” was fined £120,000 ($165,000) in February 2019 , three years after it had won the Brexit fight in 2016. It was, as George Bush once said,
“we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”.
As for Brexit, Brexiteers had acted, they had indeed created a reality. And while academics, intellectuals, journalists and commentators. studied the reality of the 2016 Brexit Referendum of 2016 which Brexiteers won by a slim margin of just 1.89%, the pro-Brexit team acted again, creating yet another new reality. It created the “Get Brexit Done” myth that came with BoJo’s election in 2020. This new reality was one you can study too, as Bush would say. Bush would continue by saying, that’s how things will sort out itself. Brexiteers became history’s actors! “And you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”
Later Britain’s watchdog also fined “Leave.EU” another £70,000 ($96,000) for a range of other offences. On appeal, however, the fine was reduced to the Mickey Mouse sum of £4,000 ($5,500). The watchdog, too, would be called a traitor and enemy of the people, a classical line of ultra-nationalistic demagogues.
Perhaps the key to all this might not even be dark money and fines that came years too late and are way too small to make any impact. The key is propaganda. When truth and disinformation, lies, and deceptions become so hard to disaggregate, many voters will decide to believe nothing at all. That is the precise moment when propaganda triumphs. Once truth is eliminated, politics becomes reduced to a partisan battle in which anything goes. Dirty politics reigns.
The ultra-nationalistic North-Irish and Eurosceptic Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) chipped into Brexit with the ability to spend up to £700,000 ($960,000) on the Leave EU campaign. Beyond that, a stealthy organization called the “Constitutional Research Council” (CRC) had £435,000 ($600,000) for the Brexit cause.
Dark money flowed generously into the coffers of the Brexit campaign. Just two days before the Brexit referendum, the CRC donated a further £334,993 ($460,000) to the DUP which, by that time, was not much more than a front organization, and that allowed the Leave.EU squadron to exceed any legally prescribed spending limits. Not much later, the DUP supported Britain’s Conservative government. In return, it would get £1bn of concessions, mainly for infrastructure and health spending in one of Western Europe’s poorest regions. Overall, it is pretty safe to say that dark money is a cancer in our political system.
But as the late night commercials say, Wait there is more. It got even better for Brexit when the pugnacious tycoon James Goldsmith put £20 million ($27,5 million) of his own fortune into Eurosceptic politics. His press secretary, no other than Priti Patel, who would later become infamous for a string of scandals. Scandal-prone Patel links up rather nicely to a top contender when it come to scandals inside Britain’s right-wing politics: BoJo’ propaganda ace, Dominic Cummings.
These guys were on the side of still another powerful, stealthy but hardcore anti-EU outfit that is deceptively labeled “European Research Group” (ERG). The ERC quickly became a Brexit sect. Members of the ERG even demanded that British universities list academics who were teaching about Brexit, a move the East German Secret Police, the Stasi would support. Worse, ERG’s henchmen were able to spend £340,000 ($470,000) of taxpayers’ money on anti-EU activates between 2010 and 2018. In short, taxpayer funding was crucial to the ERG’s pro-Brexit success. What else? Dark money also came in via StandUp4Brexit.
Overall, the success of the ERG demonstrates how a fringe and well-disciplined lobbying outfit can pull British politics into a right-wing direction. Anonymous private funding (dark money) enabled the ERG to push their anti-EU agenda very effectively.
Almost self-evidently, when it comes to dark money and dirty politics, right-wing think tanks are never far away. Many of these so-called think tanks are no more than corporate funded lobbying organizations with the double function of influence-peddling and propagandizing or, better yet, public relations (PR) as it is called nowadays. Of course, there are the usual suspects like the Heritage Foundation, as well as the Koch’s Atlantic Bridge. pushing a right-wing anti-EU agenda. Dark money comes from the likes of the Kochs (environmental vandalism), Philip Morris (100 million smoking deaths in the 20th century), ExxonMobile (environmental vandalism again), and the now bankrupt National Rifle Association (NRA)–another link to direct killing.
Much of this came with a hefty dose of ultra-nationalism if not imperialism. It was spiced up – or “sexed up”, as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would say – with romantic hallucinations about Britain’s imperial-colonialist past. This was euphemistically re-framed as “Global Britain.” In this ideology, post-Brexit Britain is riding towards wealth and power. However, the immediate reality of post-Brexit Britain looked rather different.
Undeterred facts or reality, UK’s right-wing clings on to the CANZUK delusion of an alliance between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The idée fixe of an Empire 2.0 was based on the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade. Liam Fox’s phantasy of signing forty trade deals “the second after Brexit”, as he put it. As with so many pro-Brexit lies and deceptions, this too never actually happened. Instead, the Brexit referendum and the “Get Brexit Done!” campaign were well-financed con-jobs that, in the end, delivered no more than a 1.89% majority for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
Worse, BoJo still lives in a private league with corporate financiers who stand to profit handsomely from Brexit. The prime minister’s own sister, Rachel, agreed. Meanwhile BoJo’s father applied for French citizenship days after his son had pushed Brexit through. The rich and powerful get international passports – the poor get Brexit.
Yet, BoJo’s Brexit was supported by British businessmen, like vacuum cleaner tycoon and Leave.EU backer Sir James Dyson, who no longer produces his machines in the UK. Nationalistic Brexit was also strongly supported by the US citizen Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloids.
For the more nationalistically-oriented faction of British capital, Brexit was a golden opportunity to shred EU regulations. Based on the neoliberal ideology of de-regulation which, in reality, means pro-business regulation, they financed Brexit openly and through dark money. In their ideologically shaped world, things like “PlanA+ Creating a Prosperous Post-Brexit UK” meant vacuuming up wealth from the middle-class to the super-rich. Meanwhile, broadcasting the ideology of trickle down economics smoke-screened what is actually being done.
To tilt the UK even more towards the right-wing, the Grand Old Dame of the BBC herself wasn’t immune. Academics who analyzed BBC news and current affairs output found that in 2009, when Labour was in power, left-and right-wing think tanks appeared on the national broadcaster in almost equal measure. By 2015 – one year before the Brexit vote in 2016 – conservative think tanks were twice as likely to be called upon. This is how propaganda works.
Worse, in 2015, the right-wing Murdoch tabloid Telegraph featured a pro-Brexit vision called “Change or Go” on its front page four times in a single week. With dark money, right-wing politicians, Internet echo-chambers of the “Digital Gangsters” as Geoghegan calls them in his book Democracy For Sale, right-wing think tanks as well as right-wing tabloids, the Brexit referendum’s 1.89% success looks rather small. Yet, it was enough to push Britain out of the EU.
David Cameron who was Britain’s prime minister who initially called for the referendum and was shocked by the results, once said, “We know how it works,” implying that dark money and influence peddling, as well as corporate lobbying, “wield tremendous power over UK politics.” Indeed, many inside Britain’ right-wing know all to well how it works. Dark money, right-wing front organizations, and shady Internet outfits like Cambridge Analytica play an increasingly controlling role in politics. Their money, support from tabloids, and free access to Facebook, among other things. can multiply the lies told by BoJo.
Recall that BoJo’s career started with a lie about King Edward II, a fib that cost him his job at the Times. Perhaps as a positive tick on BoJo’s CV, along with his canon of anti-EU lies – such as the alternate fact of Italian condoms – continued for years. All of this led to the big lies he painted on his pro-Brexit bus. In Boris Johnson’s latest incident, he was caught out lying to the Queen when proroguing Parliament in late 2019. Not a good show in class-ridden Britain where the lower classes remain loyal to Her Majesty.
Beyond all that, right-wing politics is aided by the UK’s archaic electoral system. In 2019, under the first-past-the-post counting system, Britain’s Conservatives won 56.2% of Commons seats with just 43.6% of the vote. A shift of just 51,000 voters across forty seats would probably have wiped out Boris Johnson’s “stonking” majority entirely. It would have made BoJo’s “Get Brexit Done!”, engineered during the winter of 2020/2021, impossible.
In other words, the Brexit referendum came with a 1.89% majority (2016) and the Get Brexit Done! (2020/2021) when the UK actually left the EU squeezed through with no more than 51,000 votes. Two rather microscopic wins for which the entire UK will have to pay a bitter price in coming years.
Overall, Brexit shows how dark money and right-wing dirty politics can – on the basis of two very slim electoral margins – shape Britain for years to come. Long before the faithful Brexit referendum, in a fight between right-wing politicians, eager to win parliamentary elections meant to serve the people, played the nationalistic, xenophobic and often racist card. Right-wing tabloids, being corporations themselves, supported the neoliberal ideology of de-regulation via Brexit. In addition, a targeted Facebook campaign of dirty politics followed. In this way, all the forces of greed and fear poured in dark money to finance the entire setup of dirty politics that gave the nation what it most certainly did not need or want: Brexit.
This post was originally published on CounterPunch.org.