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An important report was published today by Transparify , examining British think tanks whose reports and proceedings influence government policy on anything from education to health, and attitudes to smoking and climate change.
What it reveals is that while a number of British think tanks are open about who funds them – including the Institute for Government, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute- and some like RUSI ( the Royal United Services Institute )have improved their transparency – some of the most influential think tanks which impact on current Tory government policy are extremely secretive.
Nearly all of the secretive think tanks are on the Right of the spectrum. They are the Adam Smith Institute,Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies,Policy Network, Civitas,the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
What the report reveals is that the largely US financed Adam Smith Institute – a firm advocate of privatisation and libertarian thinking particularly over smoking- does not disclose ANY details of its donors or where it gets its money . It is dominated by a sister organisation Adam Smith International (UK) ltd, which receives British taxpayers money and World Bank cash for advising foreign governments and has a turnover £130m. Adam Smith International has its own website which does provide details of its projects and staff- and shows its projects vary from assisting privatisation to good governance. It only has one project in Jordan tackling climate change.
ASI’s American equivalent, according to the report, has filed a tax return showing it has received $1.2 million in donations but only spent just over $5000 in the US.
The Centre for Policy Studies, according to the report, has been active in fighting further regulation of the tobacco industry. It does not disclose its donors.
The Institute of Economic Affairs, according to the report, also has had backing from tobacco companies. It also claims it managed to change Government policy over the funding of charities financed by a ” mystery ” donor.
The report says : “In early 2016, The Independent reported that the IEA had “secured [a] change in government policy” on the back of a £15,000 donation from a “mystery donor” whose identity the IEA refused to reveal. The IEA told the newspaper that it had met with ministers or officials “as often as we were able” to discuss the proposal with them.”
Policy Exchange – which is a very active think tank with frequent debates involving MPs from all parties – and very influential. It was forced to withdraw large sections of one study The hijacking of British Islam which controversially named mosques up and down Britain of spreading hate speech – which turned out to be untrue. Again we do not know all the donors to Policy Exchange but we do know it has strong links with ministers, including Lord Maude, a former civil service minister.
According to the Sunday Times, Policy Network was initially bankrolled by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a banker who by 2002 had reportedly donated £250,000 to the organisation. It is had not published details of donors for two years and is dominated by prominent Labour right wingers. Its president is Lord Mandelson who runs his own lobbying consultancy Global Counsel.
Finally there is the case of the International Institute for Strategic Studies which appear to be transparent but missed out donations totalling £25m from one big donor, Bahrain.
Leaked papers revealed that secret memorandum of understanding had been drawn up between the think tank and Bahrain’s ruler to fund the organisation. The report says:
“The Guardian reported a figure of £25 million, noting that this would account for “more than a quarter of IISS’s income“. Compiling data from multiple sources, pro-democracy group Bahrain Watch arrived at a figure of £30 million, corresponding to just over a third of IISS‟ overall income. The Middle East Eye published calculations according to which Bahraini funds may add up to nearly half of total IISS income.”
Given Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as reported on this blog, launched his new ” East of Suez” policy in Bahrain – it appears that Britain will be driven to defending Bahrain should a new wave of Arab unrest spread. It now appears in return that Bahrain will be in a strong position to influence the British government to present itself as a modern liberal society when it is obviously not the full picture.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange or the Institute for Economic Affairs campaigning on any issue they want in a democratic society – including if they want to take up issues raised by tobacco companies or climate change.
But I am against secret backers using think tanks to try and influence government – and public debate from behind the scenes – and creating the illusion that these bodies are simply independent researchers with no agenda.
Transparify have done an invaluable job in drawing attention to this. The full report which has not been funded from external sources is here.