Defence against the dark arts
“There’s something enticing about a belief that great men are in command of history. It is easier, perhaps, to deal with that than to deal with the more alarming possibility that the norms which underpinned post-war liberalism are fraying”
The trouble with writing about dark money—meaning money of uncertain origin funnelled into electoral systems with shady intent—is that it’s, well, dark. Obscure. Hard to pick out the details. Peter Geoghegan’s book aims to give an overview of all the ways in which democracy is imperilled, principally in the UK but with a view that extends across Europe and over to the US. But while many of the details here are alarming, the overall effect is slippery. We are trapped in the middle act of a conspiracy thriller, knowing something is terribly wrong, but not who’s doing it.
Many of the details are also familiar, though that is no argument against pulling them together in a new shape if that new shape can be illuminating. Geoghegan starts with a story that readers will know well by now: the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, the work of now-defunct tech firm Cambridge Analytica in data mining and influencing voters, and the role of the DUP in pushing spending limits by buying up advertising beyond Northern Ireland. (Sadly, Geoghegan’s outline of the DUP’s “cash for ash” scandal fails to include the words “horse solarium”, which is surely the greatest phrase in modern political malfeasance.)
There is an immediate problem, though: it is impossible to say whether these actions actually served to sway the outcome. Geoghegan knows this, of course, and is careful to manoeuvre his thesis on to defensible ground. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not.” This caution does not stop him from hinting at superpowers of wickedness among the Leave campaign and its backers. Dominic Cummings is a “Machiavelli” and a “mastermind”. Arron Banks is a “comic-book villain”. Steve Bannon is the spider at the centre of an international reactionary movement.
But if journalism is what somebody else doesn’t want you to print, it’s hard to argue that Geoghegan’s sketches pass the test. It’s in his subjects’ interests to cultivate these brands: the disruptor, the bad boy, the alt-right kingmaker. It’s also in the interests of their critics to reflect these personae back. After all, you cannot have a James Bond without an Auric Goldfinger. It takes a villain to make a hero. And so left-wing political coverage falls into a strange process of symbiotic myth-making. Cummings boasts of his genius, and Banks plays up his bullishness, and Bannon monologues freely about his plots—and their critics take them at their word.
The alternative interpretation, which is that all three are grifters who’ve won a few and lost a few but been sure to make the most of their wins, is too mundane to bother with. Yet strip out the more grandiose plot details, and there is something here worth hearing. Electoral watchdogs do need stronger powers to control electoral spending; the role of social media in politics has outstripped the ability of voters to parse messages or ombudsmen to factcheck them; democracy is weakened, growing less and less valuable to electorates with no conception of the alternative.
But there’s no smoking gun that can trace all this to nefarious forces. Instead, Geoghegan runs around setting off squibs. So what if Liz Truss had “a personal photographer at the taxpayer’s expense” as international trade secretary? (If the taxpayer stumped up, at least it’s not dark money.) Is it really proof of collusion if several campaign groups use the same branding agency? Honestly, can “red wall” Labour voters’ antipathy to Corbyn be put down to Facebook attack ads playing up his IRA connections—or might the electorate have just not liked his IRA connections, which by 2019 had received a belated airing in the press?
There’s something enticing about a belief that great men are in command of history, whether they’re goodies or baddies (or even sometimes women). It is easier, perhaps, to deal with that than to deal with the more alarming possibility that the call is coming from inside the house: the norms which underpinned post-war liberalism are fraying, and that is what gives purchase to carnival barkers like Farage, rather than it being the case that the Farages of the world are seducing an innocent public.
As for what can be done to clean this all up, Geoghegan professes himself an optimist, but his recommendations run to a weary half-page at the end. The problem is pointed out by Stephen Kinnock earlier in the book: all electoral reform relies on people who have figured out how to profit from the status quo to change it. This is not a hopeful book, and perhaps it has no reason to be, but without some measure of hope it’s hard to take on such an overwhelmingly grim subject as the demise of democracy.
Democracy for Sale: Dark Money
and Dirty Politics
By Peter Geoghegan
Head of Zeus, 240pp, £14.99