In a world polarised by social media, far too much of our political discourse seems to organise itself along tribal dividing lines that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. So it is with the fallout from Coutts’ decision to close Nigel Farage’s accounts.

I abhor Farage’s brand of far-right populist politics. But he’s right that there’s a serious issue when a bank decides to drop a customer because their political views aren’t “compatible” with their own view of themselves as an “inclusive” organisation (an ironic self-description, given Coutts reserves itself as a bank for the wealthy). Coutts did not initially give Farage a reason for closing his accounts, but after he submitted a subject access request they were legally obliged to disclose a 40-page dossier which made clear their decision was not just about whether he continued to meet their financial thresholds, but also about his political beliefs. The dossier had amassed a huge amount of information on his views and concluded rather chillingly that continuing to do business with him would be off the table, a decision justified as an issue of “inclusivity and purpose”.

While I disagree profoundly with Farage’s views, I don’t want to live in a society where it’s considered fair game for a provider of essential services like bank accounts or broadband to refuse a customer because of their politics – even if some of their views are considered offensive. That is incompatible with one of liberal democracy’s founding tenets, the right to free expression.

On a human level, it is regrettable that Alison Rose – who by all accounts was a good CEO of Coutts’ parent company NatWest – had to resign over the affair. But her position had become untenable after she admitted to giving an off-the-record briefing to a BBC journalist in which she disclosed confidential and misleading information about a customer; she also gave the journalist the wrong impression that the decision to close Farage’s accounts was “purely commercial”. Rose said she was given this information by Coutts, but it was such an egregious misstep for a senior banking executive that, extraordinarily, some of Farage’s political foes leaped to defend him even after Rose had conceded her serious error of judgment.

The irony is that in wrong-headedly priding itself on its “inclusivity”, Coutts and NatWest have handed Farage the moral high ground; it’s a massive PR victory that he will use to further his agenda.

The lesson from this is that banks and other corporations should stay out of politics. Their job is to provide bank accounts, not to pick and choose their customers according to who aligns with the morally correct orthodoxies of the day. In a world where identity politics is an increasingly contested space and many people have lost jobs, received unlawful police warnings and been kicked off degree courses – for the widely-shared view that gender identity can’t replace sex as a category in society, and that women have a right to single-sex spaces, services and sports – it’s clear where this could end up. People will be denied access to important services because they stand accused of “wrongthink”.

The irony is that in priding itself on its “inclusivity”, Coutts and NatWest have handed Farage the moral high ground

Farage had the platform and skills to ensure his treatment by Coutts was pasted across the British media. Others are not in a position to extract information and apologies from their banks. At the time of writing, the online financial provider PayPal stands accused of discriminating against people and organisations perceived to have gender-critical views, after it closed several accounts without giving specific explanations.

Such actions demonstrate the danger of corporate organisations adopting controversial agendas that go beyond the remit of anti-discrimination law. Unless checked, they could end up actively discriminating against people with protected beliefs, such as that sex and gender identity are distinctly different concepts.

The stench of gutter politics

One of the most depressing signs of how social media has corrupted our discourse is the extent to which politicians are not rising above the fray, but enthusiastically joining in. Last month Rishi Sunak tweeted that Labour was on the side of “criminal gangs” in “propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.” It’s a preposterous claim that is the very opposite of prime ministerial.

But it’s not just the Conservatives. In April, the Labour party made an advert claiming Rishi Sunak didn’t believe adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison. That jibe was on a par with Boris Johnson wrongly claiming last year that Starmer personally failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile for child sexual abuse when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.

This is the stuff of gutter politics. There’s no evidence that such mud-slinging wins votes with the public. On the contrary, it’s perceived as politicians and their strategists resorting to unjustified personal attacks, using vulnerable people such as survivors of child sexual abuse and those fleeing conflict and torture as collateral damage. It is deeply unedifying and the very opposite of what we should expect from our leaders. Their job is to find effective ways of safeguarding the public from criminal activity by challenging the other side’s ideas – not to attack politicians across the aisle with gross insinuations.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

August / September 2023, Columns, Home Front

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.