Dark Money Investigations

Dark money investigations: what we’ve found out, and why we’re looking

For the past two years openDemocracy has been tracking down the secretive, wealthy donors trying to influence British politics unseen.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
3 December 2018
Arron Banks Nigel Farage_0.jpg

Arron Banks with Nigel Farage: two of "the bad boys of Brexit". Image, Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images

It started with the Democratic Unionist Party. We forced them to confess that a huge Brexit donation had come via a secretive group in Glasgow. We showed that the chair of that group was connected to the former head of Saudi intelligence and to a Danish man involved in gun-running in India.

We travelled round Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland, banging on doors and meeting sources, but were blocked at every turn. BBC Northern Ireland picked up the story and followed it to Kiev. We still don’t know for sure where this cash came from, but we did help force a change in the law, so this could never happen again.

Then there were the Scottish Tories. We showed that a huge portion of their surge in 2016 was funded by money from secretive sources, and eventually got one of those groups fined. An independent Scottish media organisation, The Ferret, followed our story, and forced an Electoral Commission investigation. And it’s not just the Scottish Tories. We exposed one of the key loopholes allowing dark money to flood into the Labour Party, UKIP and the Lib Dems too.

And then there was “the man who bought Brexit”, Arron Banks. Did the millions he poured into the Leave campaigns really come from his own pockets? We showed that he didn’t appear to be nearly as rich as he claimed: it was hard to understand how he could have afforded his lavish donations. We worked with accountants to show his insurance businesses were verging on bankruptcy at the time of the referendum, and with a reporter in Lesotho to show that his diamond mines didn’t have many diamonds.

The Bannon emails

We got our hands on emails from Banks showing that he’d asked Steve Bannon – advisor to Donald Trump, founder of Breitbart News and vice-president of Cambridge Analytica – for help fundraising in the US. We met sources who showed that he’d lied to Parliament, and then, when asked about our story on the BBC, that he’d lied again.

We looked at how the Brexit money was spent, showing how several supposedly independent campaigns used the same obscure merchandise company based at the end of a terraced row in Ely (and yes, we went to Ely). We explained how Cambridge Analytica itself is the result of the privatisation of military propaganda, and we examined the terrifying connections between the Brexit campaign and Britain’s growing role as the global hub of mercenary firms.

Our story on Darren Grimes, the 22-year-old given a £675,000 donation by Vote Leave, triggered the court case which led to the conclusion that Vote Leave broke the law and to the campaign being referred to the police. We then revealed that the police waited months before bothering to collect the key documents relating to the case.

We investigated a group called Veterans for Britain, who had also taken a large donation from Vote Leave, and exposed connections to the expanding network of privatised military and intelligence contractors – including the mercenary military propaganda firm SCL, and its subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica.

We were one of the first outlets to seriously investigate the European Research Group. We showed how they were set up to turn the UK into “a low-tax, offshore haven”, that they were funded from the public purse and that they had members who were ministers – in breach of the ministerial code. We were the first outlet to disclose their membership, and that they’ve had an office in the Houses of Parliament since the 1990s. And that they got a donation via the same secret group who funnelled cash to the DUP.

Weird interests

As Brexit ministers came and went, we investigated them, too. We showed Steve Baker’s web of weird interests, including that he took thousands of pounds from an arms company whilst sitting as vice-chair of the group lobbying for the arms industry in Parliament, and how he’s got longstanding links to the American radical right. When he stood down, we showed how his replacement, Dominic Raab, was moulded as a politician by the dark-money ‘think tank’ the Institute for Economic Affairs.

Which takes us to Britain’s dark-money-funded think tanks. We showed how a staff member for a group called the Legatum Institute, connected to a hedge fund in Dubai and owned by a disaster capitalist who made a fortune from the collapsing Soviet Union, had unprecedented access to government ministers during the Brexit process, despite the fact that no one is sure who is paying his wages. And when he took a job with a private lobbying agency despite sitting on Liam Fox’s committee of advisors, our story forced him to resign from that committee.

Our work has run in parallel to – and often intersected with – that of others: Carole Cadwalladr is, of course, the icon.

But here’s the bottom line. People have different interests and ideas, and politics is a negotiation between them. We are not investigating the dark money in British politics either because we are for Brexit or because we are against it. We are investigating dark money because the rich and powerful will always hide selfish demands behind the language of ideology and policy wonkery. They hide their political donations because they don’t want us to know that what their representatives say is paid-for propaganda. If we are to have an open and honest conversation about the future of the country, we first need to understand where everyone is really coming from, what people’s interests really are.

And that means we need to keep shining a light into the dark money poisoning our democracy.

So please, contribute to our appeal, so we can keep striving for an open democracy.

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