Anonymous think tank funding threatens our democracy

In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the electorate was told to ‘Take Back Control!’ from the unelected officials of the EU, the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels that influence all of the UK’s laws and weren’t allowing British people to decide British laws. You’d think the right-wing groups who support the UK’s exit from the European Union would act in full transparency to show us how democracy should work. Of course, they don’t.

Right-wing think tanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) are the leading voices in support of free-market capitalism, they both benefit as members of the US-based Atlas Network, receiving large amounts of money and training to promote free-market capitalism in 90 different countries. The TPA alone has received at least £223,000 from US donors in the past 5 years, money which has directly influenced Conservative Government policy. The IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs) is a group that former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has praised for influencing Government in providing tax-cuts for big business. Faceless foreign money being used to influence laws and implement a specific political ideology in nearly 100 countries, this doesn’t conform to Vote Leave’s message of bringing sovereignty back to the British people now, does it?

Labour MP’s have been vocal in their condemnation of these think tanks, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell requesting an inquiry to discover who are the big donators to these groups and Ben Bradshaw voicing his concern about the influence these ‘shady and non-transparent groups’ may have over our democracy.

The individual cases of these groups and their donators are worrying, the links that occur between them and the coordination of their actions is near dystopian.

Vote Leave whistle-blower Shahmir Shanni confirmed that groups such as the TPA, IEA, Vote Leave campaign, as well as other pro-Brexit groups, hold regular meetings to discuss current issues and what coordinated action they should take to influence politics in their favour. The known individuals involved in these different groups have direct links, as they are often the same people. Matthew Elliot was in charge of the Vote Leave campaign, he also founded the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Vote Leave treasurer, Jon Moynihan, was appointed to the IEA’s board earlier this year.

The TPA has admitted they ran a smear campaign against Shanni as he brought to light issues around Vote Leave’s overspending and the connection between these right-wing think tanks. The fear these think tanks have of the public discovering how they function speaks volumes.

Think tanks can be a necessary, even positive contributor to democratic systems. They allow a controlled space in which experts conduct research to discover what issues are important to different individuals and groups of people. In turn, the type of policies that need to be implemented to resolve these issues can be found. Think tanks have had positive impacts, playing a significant role in the democratisation of countries such as Chile and contributing to valuable research to discover what is needed to alleviate poverty in many African nations. If think tanks remain neutral and diverse they can suggest policies that really do help the many. Unfortunately, some of the most influential think tanks today represent a singular ideology and only contain ‘experts’ whose objective it is to implement this ideology. This happens on the left and the right side of politics.

Nonetheless, it is primarily right-wing think tanks which are undermining our democracy. The secretive, anonymous donations they receive mean it is impossible to assess who is seeking to benefit from them influencing Government policies and actions. Brexit is a clear example of this, as big donators to the Vote Leave campaign remain secretive we cannot cross-examine what they would have to gain from the UK leaving the EU. This cross-examination is a key principle of democracy that is being quickly diminished by these think tanks.


Robbie Lennie

History and Politics student @ Northumbria University

Robbie Lennie has 12 posts and counting. See all posts by Robbie Lennie

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