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Opinion | UK cancel culture: Banks stifle free speech of British people

By Grenville Cross

The French philosopher, Voltaire, said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In like vein, the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, declared, on July 3, after eight arrest warrants were issued in Hong Kong for national security suspects living abroad who were believed to have endangered national security in various ways including by colluding with foreign forces to harm China, "The UK will always defend the universal right to freedom of expression and stand up for those who are targeted", which sounded nice enough.

Anybody listening to Cleverly would imagine that Britons are free to express themselves, but not so, particularly if they challenge mainstream thinking.

In the UK, freedom of speech has always been cherished, although reasonable restrictions are legitimate, in the interests, for example, of public order. Whereas the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Britain is a party, provides for the holding of "opinions without interference" (Article 19), the Human Rights Act (1998) stipulates "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression", including "freedom to hold opinions" (Article 10). Such freedoms, however, can no longer be taken for granted, as the world now knows.

Love him or loathe him, Nigel Farage is one of Britain's most significant post-war politicians. In 2015, he led the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to victory in Britain's elections for the European Parliament, a monumental achievement that prompted the then-prime minister, David Cameron, to call a referendum on European Union membership in 2016.

Once Farage and his allies won that referendum, the withdrawal process became bogged down in Parliament until 2019, when his newly-formed Brexit Party triumphed in the European parliamentary elections, paving the way for Boris Johnson's Brexiter victory at the ensuing general election in December 2019.

With Brexit done, Farage has campaigned on other issues, often controversial, and his service as a GB News anchor saw him, on June 27, win the prestigious TRICS award for best news presenter.

On June 30, however, Farage made an astonishing revelation. His bank Coutts (whose parent company is the NatWest Group), with which he had dealt since 1980, had told him it was closing his business and personal accounts, for which no reason was given (beyond claiming it was a "commercial decision"). When he tried to open an account elsewhere, seven other banks turned him down, suggesting a collective decision had been taken to "cancel" this iconic figure.

It is, of course, impossible to lead a normal life without access to banking facilities, let alone operate a political party. As Farage explained, "Without a bank account, you become a non-person, unable to operate within the law." It appears clear, therefore, that powerful individuals have conspired to silence him, and he is now seeking legal advice over the implications of this.

After Farage's announcement, the BBC reported he did not meet the threshold for holding a Coutts account, although he has now discovered this was a smokescreen of the bank's creation. After he obtained, following a disclosure request, the bank's subject access report, which he called "a personal hit job", he discovered that it stated his "economic contribution" was sound, and his funds were "sufficient to retain on a personal basis". It even acknowledged he was a positive net financial contributor to the bank, and its reasons for "de-banking" him are chilling.

The Coutts report stated that Farage's views "do not align with our values", and it is clear he was "de-banked" for political, not commercial, reasons. These included advocating Brexit (mentioned 86 times), fraternizing with Donald Trump, and being friendly with the tennis star Novak Djokovic, who thought he should have the right to choose whether to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Also cited against him was his belief that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights, and his views were stigmatized as "racist and xenophobic".

As if this was not bad enough, Farage said the "most extraordinary comments" were those suggesting he should be barred from Coutts because he did not support the diversity, policies and "purpose" of the bank, "as though Britain is a political regime and I am a dissident". In response to these revelations, the chief executive of CMC Markets, Lord (Peter) Cruddas, said the "idea of companies' 'purpose' is, I think, very sinister. It opens the door to the creation by businesses of an Orwellian dystopian environment… and the [creation of] thought police where everyone has to be on 'message'."

It was, therefore, little wonder that, on July 20, The Daily Telegraph denounced what had happened as "an outrageous infringement of the right to freedom of expression, and its exercise does not appear to be confined to Coutts", a reference to the other banks complicit in the conspiracy to "cancel" Farage.

Although the chief executive of the NatWest Group, Dame Alison Rose, has now apologized to Farage for the bank's "deeply inappropriate comments" and offered him alternative banking arrangements with NatWest, his ordeal is by no means unique. While Farage welcomed Rose's apology, he told GB News she had been forced into it by the UK Treasury, which operates as the government's finance ministry and comes under the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), Jeremy Hunt.

Although this is a positive development for Farage, he has revealed that the bank accounts of three of his family members have also been closed, and that a number of former pro-Brexit members of the European Parliament had been targeted by their own banks.

He described, for example, how, after Christina Jordan, a former nurse, was elected a member of the European Parliament (MEP) in 2019, representing his Brexit Party, "the bank she had used for 31 years summarily closed her account and those of her husband and daughter."

One ex-MEP, Henrik Overgaard Nielsen, whose account was closed, said, in a Twitter post, that he had a stable income, had never owed the bank any money, and was not in any financial difficulty.

Another ex-MEP, Baroness (Claire) Fox, director of the think tank Academy of Ideas, has also revealed she underwent the same experience and "suspected political" motivation.

The leader of Reform UK (the Brexit Party's successor), Richard Tice (another ex-MEP), has disclosed how he was told in 2021 that the party's bank account would be closed within 60 days, for which he received no explanation.

Also in 2021, the Reclaim Party, a right-wing grouping, suffered a similar fate, whereupon its co-founder, Jeremy Hosking, who said this could kill the party off, complained to the Cabinet Office (a ministerial department).

On July 2, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Anthony Browne, a former chief executive of the British Bankers' Association, told the BBC that people were increasingly having their accounts shut down for saying something the lender disagreed with, and said "It's a major concern – it will have a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of belief."

It is, moreover, not only politicians who are being targeted for their opinions.

On July 1, Reverend Richard Fothergill, an Anglican vicar, who had been a customer of the Yorkshire Building Society (YBS) for 17 years, disclosed how his internet account was shut just days after he wrote to complain about its public messaging during Pride month.

He explained, "I wrote to them on their feedback portal making two points: one was 'Is this really a good use of your time, you're not here for social engineering,' and said I have serious ethical problems with the transsexual element, and the implications of broadcasting that to young children."

In reply, YBS said their relationship had "irrevocably broken down", and it held a "zero tolerance approach to discrimination".

Attempts like these to punish individuals because of their political, religious and social views are not only offensive to British notions of fair play, but also a denial of due process, yet they are now common. As the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young, who has himself been targeted, has explained, the withdrawal of banking services from people for purely political reasons is "a new and sinister form of cancel culture", and not something associated with "a supposedly free country like ours".

He added, "The Treasury urgently needs to change the financial regulations so this kind of thing cannot continue to happen," and the ball is firmly in the government's court. As the Treasury is ultimately responsible for banking and financial services regulation, it must, together with the Financial Conduct Authority, act to end these assaults on free speech.

The responsible minister, Jeremy Hunt, who has ordered an investigation, said he was "deeply concerned" over the situation. Quite clearly, his government cannot escape responsibility for what has happened to so many people on its watch, and he should now put his money where his mouth is. He must end these abuses by giving people a statutory right to have a bank account, as in Germany, by requiring that full reasons are given if an account is closed, and by providing victims with ample time to appeal to the Financial Services Ombudsman (or find a replacement bank).

If the banks try to stifle freedom of expression, they must also be made to understand their licenses will be liable to cancellation. One unfortunate consequence of their actions is that people with unconventional views may be deterred from entering public life. There is a real danger that Britons have to self-censor in the UK, including ordinary people who may be penalized for their opinions on the issues of the day.

This situation is clearly a national disgrace, not least because it undermines free speech and raises serious questions about why the government has tolerated it for so long. It has never happened in Hong Kong, where the banks, like the government, respect freedom of expression and concentrate on their core financial functions. Since, moreover, the British state has a 38.6 percent stake in Coutts and its owner, the NatWest Group, it is incredible that the government has allowed this situation to develop unchecked in recent times and is now only mobilizing because Farage has courageously taken a public stand.

Despite this, when James Cleverly, on May 25, issued the UK's six-monthly report on Hong Kong, he had the effrontery to complain that "Hong Kong's freedoms have been curtailed" with "critical voices silenced".

This echoed his earlier allegation of January 12, when he claimed that the National Security Law for Hong Kong was being used to "harass and stifle voices critical of China's policies".

It is often said that "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones", and somebody will hopefully remind Cleverly of this. Given the shocking experiences of independently-minded Britons like Farage, Tice and Fothergill, his hypocritical soundbites obviously cannot be taken seriously, least of all by himself. Until the government he serves has put its own house in order and protected its citizens from political victimization, Cleverly is in no position to lecture Hong Kong on freedom of speech, let alone the silencing of critics.


The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The article was first published in China Daily.


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