Ugh, here we go again!
It is sad to have to begin this by explaining that I am not a great fan of Nigel Farage. I happen to agree with him on the narrow question of whether we should have left the EU or not, but our reasons for landing in the same place are diametrically opposed at points (see here and here). I won’t rehash here the many ways we disagree on how I – as a Socialist – would like Brexit to play out and he, a hard right libertarian kind, would view it differently. But save for that single question, he and I are not natural bedfellows. I cannot say enough, I am not a big fan. But I really object to having to open posts with these sorts of denials simply because of what is coming next.
As has been widely reported, Nigel Farage recently had his bank account pulled. Coutts bank have basically pulled the plug on him. Speculation in the media was rife. Farage was convinced it was politically motivated; most people who didn’t like him were ready to find almost any seemingly more reasonable explanation. Perhaps he had fallen below the requisite investment amount? Maybe it was because he is a “politically exposed person”? Other suggestions did the rounds. However, Farage has now published documents from the bank that show his bank account was closed because his views were deemed not to align with the values of the bank. One doesn’t need to be a genius to see how troubling this is.
Ironically, Farage himself has historically made the case that businesses ought to be able to operate however they please. He has, in the past, railed against anti-discrimination laws that meant Christian B&B owners would have to give gay couples a double bed in their establishment. He was similarly in favour of the Asher’s Bakery having ‘protection in law to those expressing a religious conscience in the workplace’ as UKIP made it a centrepiece of their 2015 manifesto. He has long been an advocate for businesses having freedom of conscience and being legitimately able to discriminate in these matters. Now, it seems, his bank is taking the same line. Their conscience will not bend to serving those with Faragist political mores.
Now, I happen to agree with him that conscience clauses should have applied in the two cases I just cited. But I disagree with him as to why. In the Asher’s case, it strikes me – just as was the ruling of the court – that nobody should be forced to write political messages with which they disagree. It is not legitimate for bakers to disagree with serving particular people, even if those people wanted to buy a wedding cake for a wedding with which you are less than comfortable. If you would make a cake – even a wedding cake – for one person, you should be willing to make it for any person. But it is perfectly reasonable to say you would refuse to make a cake with a particular message on it for anyone, so you will not make it for this particular someone. Similarly, in a B&B, it is reasonable to either refuse to ever give out double rooms to anyone or to have a particular policy about married couples (or whatever). There are ways these things can be done. The issue is whether you are denying a specific service you provide freely to anyone else because you discriminate against this particular person.
Farage’s previous arguments undercut his current unhappiness at Coutts. They are operating in line with cases he has made in the past. Fun as it may be to see him hoist by his own petard, I think Coutts are wrong to do this in line with the arguments I make above. I think they are perfectly within their rights to have their minimum investment policy. This necessarily discriminates against poor people – like me – who simply don’t meet the criteria. This is no different to a shop discriminating against me by not selling me an item because I don’t have enough money to buy it. They would only sell the item for the amount of money requested and to nobody for anything less. I don’t think it is unlawful discrimination to only provide a service that necessitates such investment. However, it clearly is discriminatory (and should be unlawfully so) not to provide this service to someone who meets the eligibility criteria but whose political views you do not like. If you would provide this service for others who can stump up the reddies, you should provide it to everyone else who has the dosh to access it too. Internal policies of operation are perfectly legitimate, but discriminating based on colour, religion, politics or any other ground that is in no way pertinent to the service is evidently and rightly unlawful.
The reason this matters is the same reason most free speech issues matter. You don’t have to be a Farage fanboy – just as I certainly am not – to see the seriousness of the matter. The same thing happened some while back to Israel Folau, and you can see the case I made there. It is in essence the same. Just as some will remember Farage’s earlier stance and sneer, I noted in Folau’s case:
[M]any of those cheering on this decision by GoFundMe are the selfsame people who had no problem when a couple running a Bed & Breakfast were told they must offer rooms to homosexual couples against their deeply held beliefs. They are the same people who supported cases against Christian florists who did not want to use their creative skills for a gay wedding (even though they would serve the same individual on any other occasion). They were often the same people who argued that bakers who did not want to make a cake that affirmed the message ‘support gay marriage’ should have been made to do so. How would they determine the difference in these particular cases other than their agreement with the particular sentiment being expressed?
Now, there is a case to be made for saying that one should not be permitted to discriminate against a person whilst allowing room to discriminate against ideas. So, as I argued in the Asher’s case here, the law was rightly on the side of the bakers because they were clearly against expressing an idea with which they disagreed whilst being quite happy to serve the customer any other cake. They would not make that cake for anyone, but they would serve that customer any cake that any other customer could buy. In the end, this was the decision reached in the supreme Court and it is, in my honest opinion, the correct one.
In this case with GoFundMe, one might argue that they object to the messaging of the campaign. The problem with this line of argument is that Folau’s campaign was not one in which he was asking for funds to promote a particular view. If this were the case, I think GoFundMe would be entirely within their rights to pull the page and say that the promotion of that view runs contrary to their values (such as there really is any such thing). But Folau is not asking for that. He is asking to crowdsource the funds to legally challenge the termination of his contract. If GoFundMe would provide their service for anyone else raising legal fees to fight a contract termination, it is hard to see how this isn’t straight up discrimination against Folau.
But the ramifications of such a decision go well beyond a GoFundMe page. If GoFundMe can refuse to provide their service because of Folau’s views, even though his views are not directly pertinent to the service being provided, what is to stop other companies refusing him their service because they don’t like his views either? What is to stop his bank from closing down his account, for example, on exactly the same grounds? Can a supermarket refuse to serve him food because they don’t like his views? What about a taxi company or just about any business you might think of? Where does that end if it is upheld that he might be denied this GoFundMe service because they don’t like his wider views, the promotion or affirmation of which are not the grounds of his using their service?
And here is the nub of it. If we are allowed to withdraw services based on disagreement with people’s political views, where does that ever end?
It is my view that Coutts would be entitled to withdraw services from Farage if he were asking them, and linking their business directly, to the promotion of views they deeply disagree with. But, of course, he wasn’t doing that. His was simply banking with them and met their eligibility criteria for doing so. They are removing their service from him because it is him. He is not asking them or causing them to promote things they would not promote. He is simply asking for the service they provide to others to be provided to him, and I struggle to see any ground why they should not have to do so.
The reason this matters is because – as Farage himself as rightly said – if they are allowed to do this, tomorrow it could be you. And it may sound alarmist, but he is nevertheless right. If banks can simply stop people accessing their services because they do not like some of the views they hold, what is to stop them refusing service to any number of people based on their race or religion or any number of other protected characteristics? The answer is, ultimately, nothing.
It became a long running refrain for quite a while on this blog, the only guarantee you have that you will be able to say what you want is if you defend the right of others to say what they want even if you deeply disagree and find it offensive. The same is without doubt true when it comes to provision of services too. The only guarantee that you will be free to access basic services required of all of us in the modern age is if we defend others right to access those services too. That doesn’t make every policy that discriminates in some way entirely wrong (like ones that put investment criteria on them, for instance). That is the very service they provide. But it is to say that if they would provide this service to that person, then they ought to provide the same service on the same terms to every person. If you don’t want your services pulled because of what you think and believe, you necessarily need to defend others right to access them too. That includes the Nigel Farage’s of this world, no matter how much we may dislike their politics.