Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics

Peter Geoghegan

Head of Zeus, £9.99

Review by Fiona Rintoul

ON reaching chapter four of Peter Geoghegan’s meticulously researched and highly readable new book Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, I emitted a small scream of “No!”. I’d just learnt that “the most blatant example of dark money in recent electoral politics” can be traced to the south Glasgow suburb of Clarkston.

The £400k-plus that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) spent on pro-Brexit advertising in the run up to the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union – not in Northern Ireland but Great Britain – was donated by an obscure body named the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). Its only named director was Richard Cook, a multiply-failed Tory candidate of Clarkston parish.

This incident is totemic of the tawdry tale of secretive donors and anonymous propaganda that Geoghegan, investigations editor at independent media platform openDemocracy and founder of the award-winning investigative website The Ferret, painstakingly weaves in Democracy for Sale. There are a few diamond mines and Russian ambassadors, it’s true, but in the main this story unfolds in unstimulating locales and features compromised mediocrities such as Cook.

His business interests are nearly as convoluted as those of Arron Banks, one of the self-proclaimed “Bad Boys of Brexit”. Drawing on the resources of a miasma of offshore companies, Banks bankrolled the belligerent, anti-immigration Leave.EU campaign with the “biggest donation in British political history”.

The National Crime Agency investigated Banks’ £8.4m donation to anti-EU causes amid mounting speculation about the source of the funds, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Banks hailed the ruling as vindication of his Brexit campaign, but others saw it as “tacit acceptance that companies in offshore jurisdictions could underwrite political donations”.

The campaign for Brexit mingled such offshore money with obscure onshore funding. The CRC’s donation to the DUP encapsulates the problem. The CRC is an unincorporated association, not subject to the normal disclosure requirements that an incorporated company must meet. According to Geoghegan, unincorporated associations are “black boxes that can be set up for the sole purpose of funnelling money to political campaigns, with little or no transparency”.

The influential European Research Group (ERG) is also an unincorporated association. Geoghegan shows how the ERG, a party within a party that “brought down a Conservative prime minister” and called the tune on Brexit, was able to trouser around £340,000 in taxpayer money between 2010 and 2018 “thanks to a little-used Westminster convention”. Another scream moment.

The tale of how dark money reshaped the political agenda in the UK and beyond pullulates with such dim-lit legal entities. The same people and companies – Cambridge Analytica, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage – keep reappearing from the mists of an opaque complex of vested interests.

Geoghegan clarifies that he does not believe Brexit was “some grand conspiracy”. The British state and the political and business establishment were behind Remain. Instead, he says, the referendum and its aftermath reveal something more fundamental and systemic: “a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation”.

Arguably, the groundwork for Brexit – and for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s victories at the ballot box – was laid by another brand of unaccountable entity: the think tank. In theory, think tanks do research and publish research papers; in practice, says Geoghegan, “Words like ‘institute’ and ‘centre’ give an appearance of academic rigour to what is essentially paid-for lobbying.”

In the book, Geoghegan illuminates a network of libertarian think tanks that have sought to shunt the political agenda to the right in the UK and the US. Of course, there are left-leaning think tanks too, but, as Geoghegan notes, they are generally more transparent about their funding, as they rely on public money and donations from trusts.

Anonymous funding makes think tanks the ideal vehicle for business interests to influence government policy beneath the radar. Geoghegan shows how a “tiny group of American plutocrats” invested billions in think tanks, universities and election campaigns over the last four decades. “Before this methodical and precisely targeted spending spree, libertarians had been largely thought of as cranks,” he writes. “Afterwards, the limited space within which policies are created and publicly discussed was filled with proposals that they wanted.”

The “grande dame” of libertarian think tanks is the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London. Geoghegan reveals how the IEA’s “sunny analysis about Brexit” and unprecedented access to ministers helped determine the UK government’s course after the referendum. The IEA also worked to promote the idea of the Anglosphere in the UK – a union of English-speaking people as a bulwark against Brussels bureaucrats first mooted by Margaret Thatcher in 1999.

The IEA and others “reimagined the UK as ‘Global Britain’ striking deals around the Anglophone world. At the root of this shared vision was a heavily deregulated economic model with low taxes and minimal state intervention.” Right-wing think tanks have found ample opportunity to push this vision in the mainstream media.

Democracy for Sale appears just as the UK government publishes its long-awaited report into alleged Russian interference in UK politics. Geoghegan touches on Russian influence in the UK and beyond, but the bulk of the dark money and misinformation that he documents sits much closer to home.

“Hiding in plain sight” is a phrase that recurs throughout this book. The ultimate source of the money donated to the DUP by the CRC in the run-up to the EU referendum was protected not by cloak-and-dagger Brexiteers but by Northern Irish legislation. Subsequent Electoral Commission inquiries into the donation proved toothless. “The system is broken, and nobody intends to fix it,” transparency activist Tamasin Cave tells Geoghegan.

In “the digital Wild West”, accountability is in even shorter supply. Geoghegan conjures a blizzard of examples of the disturbing ways in which digital campaigning can be used to undermine democratic mechanisms, from targeted messaging to voter suppression.

In this shadowy world, truth is the first casualty. During the 2019 general election campaign, the Conservative Party rebranded its Twitter account as FactcheckUK with no consequences. However, all the blame for the increasing role of unregulated digital campaigning in our politics cannot be laid at the door of right-wing parties. Barack Obama was one of the first to harness its power.

Written in crisp, vivid prose, Democracy for Sale is a dense but compelling narrative that takes us from the backstreets of Washington DC to Viktor Orbàn’s Hungary. Above all, it is a call to arms, and everyone who is concerned about our democracy should read it.

While Geoghegan remains an optimist, he does not hide the scale or urgency of the challenge. “Like the climate, democracy is fast reaching a tipping point,” he warns.