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There have been at least ten newspaper front pages over the past week over Nigel Farage being booted from his Coutts bank account. Ministers have come to the rescue – pledging swift action and accountability for everyone from the BBC to NatWest over the affair.
When the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had its bank account closed without notice in 2015, there were no front pages. The Guardian and some middle eastern media picked it up. Elsewhere? Not so much a flood of support as a melting icicle. There were no knights in paper armour riding to their aid.
Then again, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is viewed as a left-wing organisation, so it probably deserved it, in the eyes of some in the political establishment – as Farage would put it.
What happened? In 2015, the Co Op bank closed their account with little warning. They were not obliged to give any reason. It was, the organisation’s director Ben Jamal tells me, “a bit of a shock to us” when it happened.
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“We found out that this was perfectly legal. The bank just closed down without articulating reasons. Initially, we thought this was Palestine-related, but we cannot say categorically that it was,” he added.
They learnt they weren’t the only ones: the bank had closed down a “whole range” of progressive campaigning organisations. As Amnesty International noted in a study met with media silence in 2017: “The affected parties (in particular those that chose to make their situation public) are predominantly small civil society campaign groups, pursuing human rights and development agendas.
“They rely primarily on individual donations for their core funding, and include twinned and affiliated groups of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC). As a result of the threat or actual closure of their accounts, they have had to contend with considerable operational costs, loss of income and reputational damage.”
The best information PSC got did not come directly from the bank. “At the time the Co-op was being taken over by a hedge fund, and it was shedding anything that was regarded as risky accounts,” Jamal says.
Among those were accounts that posed a political problem: “There were a number of organisations related to Palestine, indicating there was a political element to it. The broad framework was shedding risk…Politicians of all stripes didn’t voice any concern about the appalling behaviour.”
Did the right-wing media offer voices of solidarity? “No. We had to find ourselves new bank accounts, and we never got a proper explanation of the process.”
A year or two later, The Times ran a story on a number of political organisations being placed on a list by a credit agency as allegedly having terrorist connections. PSC was on it. They of course fiercely deny any such link – and were never given the chance to explain this to the Co Op either. But they did successfully fight back against the credit agency claims and secured “redress”. Jamal does not know if it was connected to what was going on with the Co-Op in 2015
But regardless of the cause, for PSC, there was something “fundamentally wrong” in all this. “People were being denied necessary services such as bank accounts without redress, appeal, or accountability, on the basis of political views, and that’s problematic,” he tells me.
As the Mail, Telegraph, and ministers are now finally admitting – the principle to uphold is that “if a bank account is a necessary service, it should not be withheld from people without a good reason, and without mechanisms for them to challenge the decision.” In other words, banks should be accountable for their actions.
But the hypocrisy of silence over PSC and other groups’ account closures in 2015 does ruffle Ben Jamal’s feathers. “Those same voices that are concerned now weren’t coming to our aid in 2015.”
It means he is “very cautious” about welcoming the upcoming changes to rules on bank account closures. It will depend on whether they fit a “basic principle” that a bank should not be able to close down the account of an individual or organisation without a good reason and without redress.
The PSC director adds: “If the government is going to take action, it needs to be action that applies those principles across the board. So that they’re not just sympathetic to victims when the target of the bank’s actions are politicians with whom the government agrees.”
Will Jamal now be joining the calls for Farage to have his Coutts account restored? “No.” It’s not hard to see why.
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