Nigel Farage managed to turn the closure of his account at the private bank Coutts into a national news story – prompting weeks of coverage, forcing the chief executives of Coutts and NatWest (which owns the former) to resign, and kickstarting a wider discussion on the rights of corporations to “debank” individuals based on their political views.
Exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies reveals the thorny and contradictory way voters view the issue of debanking. The results raise tough questions both for banks and for the politicians who have weighed into the furore.
More than half (52 per cent) of those polled believe Coutts was wrong to close Farage’s account due to reputational concerns over his political views (17 per cent said the decision was right, 17 per cent said neither right nor wrong, and 14 per cent didn’t know). And an overwhelming 70 per cent disagreed that banks should be allowed to decline services to customers based on their political views. (Fifteen per cent said they agreed and 15 per cent didn’t know.)
This would seem to put the public firmly on Farage’s side, and suggests government intervention is warranted to stop banks from making decisions based on whether a customer’s political views align with their values. Indeed, 56 per cent of respondents agreed that Rishi Sunak was right to take a stand on the issue. (The Prime Minister refused to express support for the NatWest chairman Howard Davies and promised to prevent banks from turning away individuals exercising their “lawful free speech”.)
However, when the same sample was asked broader questions about organisations’ adherence to a set of corporate values, 60 per cent thought it was “extremely important” or “fairly important” for brands (such as banks, football teams and supermarket chains) to adopt and promote “values” other than those specific to their business or product. That might include supporting women or being pro-LGBT or anti-racist. (Only 22 per cent said it wasn’t important to them at all.) This presents banks with a dilemma.
How can they align these sentiments? Adopting and promoting the corporate values the public expects while refraining from making decisions that might discriminate against certain customers. Farage’s political views were considered by the bank’s wealth reputational risk committee to be “at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation” (as revealed by a subject access request the former Ukip leader made). It is not clear how banks are expected to handle customers whose publicly stated positions come into conflict with their corporate values, and which risk causing them reputational damage.
In the case of Farage, there were a number of factors at play. Coutts is a private bank rather a high-street bank like its parent company NatWest (where Farage was offered an account), and requires customers to have at least £1m in investments or borrowing, including a mortgage or at least £3m in savings to be eligible for services. The dossier provided by the subject access request reveals that Farage had not met the “commercial criteria” of the bank for some time, giving it a justification for closing his account irrespective of its values.
This distinction does not appear to have been widely communicated: over a quarter (27 per cent) of survey respondents thought that what happened to Farage and his bank account is something that could happen to them. There is evidently real anxiety among the public at the prospect of being denied financial services, which puts banks in a uniquely challenging position compared with other large corporations.
Politicians might want to be wary about how much they involve themselves with this particular issue. Despite more than a month of coverage and multiple days on which the story made the front pages of major newspapers, only 26 per cent of people said they had read or heard a significant amount about Farage’s banking troubles (32 per cent said they had read a fair amount, 23 per cent a slight amount, and 20 per cent said they had heard nothing about the story at all). Moreover, just a fraction (11 per cent) said the issue mattered to them a significant amount personally, and almost half (48 per cent) said it did not matter to them at all.
Compared with the cost-of-living crisis, NHS backlogs and climate change, debanking was down at the bottom of the priority list we put to respondents. Its domination of the news cycle was not a reflection of its importance to voters. Sunak might want to take note of what voters actually want the government to focus on.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain on 2 August 2023 for the New Statesman.
[See also: How Nigel Farage became the hero of sex workers]