Jacob Rees Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group. John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images
Britain has just moved dramatically closer to a no-deal exit from the European Union. If, as expected, Theresa May fails to renegotiate her deal with Brussels, Britain falls out of Europe’s institutions with no trade deal in a matter of weeks.
But what does ‘No Deal’ Brexit actually mean?
It’s usually characterised in one of two ways. For much of the media, it’s a national disaster: medicines running out and food supplies running low. ‘Hard’ Brexit is described as though its advocates are idiots. For others in the press, this is just fear-mongering. ‘No Deal’ is framed as a way to restore 'our' national sovereignty and “trade directly with the world”.
Both of these framings miss the point. Over the last two years, my colleagues and I have traced the dark money and data that drove the campaign to take Britain out of the EU. We’ve followed millions of pounds through Britain’s network of overseas territory tax havens.
As we’ve stalked the cash, we’ve found ourselves treading the very same paths that the world’s oligarchs hike when they wish to hide their money: the web of legal loopholes and constitutional quirks that have turned the UK into the world centre for money laundering.
As we’ve followed the data, we’ve found how it is tied directly to firms – like Cambridge Analytica – which specialise in tightening the grip of the mega rich on politics around the world. As Paul Hilder wrote on openDemocracy this week, the ‘black ops’ deployed by Cambridge Analytica and other secretive influence operations turn voters into “rats in the oligarchs’ maze”.
The same picture emerges from the network of dark-money funded organisations we’ve investigated. When the UK trade secretary Liam Fox founded Atlantic Bridge, funded by the billionaire hedge-fund manager Michael Hintze, proprietor of CQS Cayman Islands Ltd, he did so in order to fight against “European integrationists who would like to pull Britain away from its relationship with the United States”. At the other end of the ‘bridge’ was the American Legislative Exchange Council – a pro-privatisation, pro-gun, anti-environment US corporate lobby group.
The Institute for Economic Affairs – which refuses to reveal its funders but which has never been shy of promoting the interests of the very rich and of American corporations – has poured resources into defending a no-deal Brexit. Writing about it on the IEA website was Ryan Bourne, who holds a chair at the US-based, Koch-brother-funded Cato Institute. Cato supports abolishing minimum wage laws; opposes universal health care; has called for the privatisation of government agencies including Social Security, NASA, and the United States Postal Service; and for the abolition of child labour laws. He wrote “The Prime Minister therefore has a choice. Embrace a free-market outlook, and articulate a vision that will have consumer welfare at its centre, or back the establishment position that no Brexiteers supported and which goes against everything she said she wanted an independent Britain to achieve.”
In a sense, he’s right. What the oligarchs who drove Brexit understand is that the UK has a simple choice. Either it remains within the European-regulated space – with some protections for workers’ rights, consumers and the environment, some regulations of financial services and an elected parliament to mediate them. Or, like a colder Puerto Rico, it steps into the bullies’ playground of the American sphere, with a trade deal stitched up in back-rooms, accepting the US’s poorer standards on everything from food to medicine, as dictated by American businesses accustomed to the freedom to exploit who they please.
For the ‘hard’ Brexiteers, a long-term deal with the EU, maintaining European regulations, defeats the purpose of Brexit. As Daniel Hannan, now an MEP, has said, the goal when he founded the anti-EU European Research Group in 1993 was to turn the UK into an “offshore, low tax haven”. The whole point was to sail Britain into the free-market high seas of the American sphere, extend Britain’s role as money laundry and service-provider to the MAGA-rich, and allow our public services to be flogged off on the global market – the next stage of the Great British Asset Striptease.
The empire delusions of Anglo-Britain helped people like Hannan to convince huge numbers of voters that we could all thrive in that unregulated space, that being British meant being the bully, not the bullied. But the reality is that it’s always the rich and powerful who thrive without regulation – at the expense of everyone else.
If Britain fails to secure a deal with the EU, it won’t be because of idiocy or incompetence. It will be because a powerful, elite network wants to turn Britain into even more of a low-tax, offshore haven than it already is, and make more money from it.
We can all make up our own minds about whether or not that is the future we want. But we should do so armed with all the facts. Britain has laws which are supposed to tell us who bankrolls our politics. But over the past two years, our investigations have repeatedly shown how broken this system is, and how little transparency we have. The UK is riddled with loopholes which allow political donors to remain anonymous. We have almost no oversight of how voters are targeted online. We have an elections regulator hopelessly ill-equipped to investigate and punish breaches of the law. We have spokespeople from dark-money funded think tanks quoted as “experts” on the BBC. And we have a police force that won’t investigate suspected crimes committed by campaigners because of “political sensitives”.
In the midst of all this, investigative journalism has a vital role to play. Our stories have prompted changes in the law, criminal investigations and supported a small but growing network of reporters and researchers committed to uncovering the truth. And if Britain does sail off into the low-tax, low-oversight future that no-deal Brexiters seek, this work will become more important than ever.
Please support our work today – and if you already are, thank you, and please encourage others too as well.