Tufton Street, London: an inconspicuous metropolitan street close to Westminster, lined with unspectacular, red-bricked Victorian townhouses. To outsiders, this appears a relatively dreary, ostensibly normal city centre street; to political insiders, the street’s name is a signifier of the murky machine of hardline conservatism responsible for driving the UK closer to the brink of a no-deal Brexit.
A hive of right-wing think tanks find themselves located in or around this one small area, specifically at Number 55, which houses groups known for their zealous pro-Brexit views and climate science scepticism. In the past, they have been successful vehicles for corporate policy, particularly during the Thatcher years. They have, in recent years, had a shadowy resurgence.
Almost all of them — who place firmly on the right of the political spectrum — are capitalising on Westminster’s ailing two-party system and dulling Brexit uncertainty, attempting — successfully — to influence policymakers at the highest levels. All the while, the dark money that is funnelled into their work is untraceable and anonymous.
Known for disguising themselves as independent researchers, or policy factories, they have become increasingly influential in the Westminster political apparatus. In the UK, the general public is mainly unaware of think tanks and their policy-influencing capabilities.
At the 55 Tufton Street address, you can find pro-Brexit groups (campaign group Vote Leave were based here), climate science deniers (Global Warming Policy Foundation) and vociferous free market tax-slashers (TaxPayers’ Alliance).
Just around the corner is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), one of the oldest think tanks in the UK, which has had something of a rebirth since the Brexit referendum was first called. Classically libertarian and pro-business, they favour low taxes, deregulation and dream of unfettered free markets with minimum government intervention.
By and large, they are registered as charities; as such, they are not obliged to disclose their funding. Consequently, there’s an opacity to their operations, one that is difficult to ignore given the amount of ministerial access their members have had in recent years.
Peter Geoghegan, who works as an investigative reporter for the news website OpenDemocracy, has revealed worryingly deep-rooted links between the European Research Group (ERG) — a faction of hardline Brexiteers within the Tory party fronted by Jacob Rees-Mogg who have almost single-handedly stalled Brexit — and the IEA.
Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, and Matt Hancock, the current Health secretary, have long-standing links with the IEA. Another former Brexit secretary, David Davis, along with ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, heralded a highly controversial, since discredited report as the ideal pathway for an EU break.
Just last month, the Charity Commission said that the IEA’s ‘Plan A+’ report on Brexit breached charity law, slamming the think tank for misconduct, mismanagement, and impartiality — since it openly campaigned for a hard Brexit.
Financially, it’s near impossible to pinpoint the IEA’s backers. They received funding from tobacco and gambling lobbies, having previously written reports that were favourable towards these industries, OpenDemocracy reported last year. But it’s mostly speculation on names or identities.
The ‘Plan A+’ report’s author, Shanker Singham, a former trade lawyer and Washington lobbyist, has been dubbed the ‘Brexiteers’ brain’ behind some of the ERG’s main policy ideas.
As trade advisor for the IEA, he has enjoyed unprecedented access to government ministers and members of the ERG. According to emails first uncovered by OpenDemocracy, Singham even dictated the schedule of then Brexit secretary Steve Baker, a member of the ERG, ensuring he met with various special interest groups.
Singham, an astute, unelected lobbyist who rose from relative obscurity, has come to play a pivotal role in a push for a hard break with the EU.
Many MPs reference Singham’s economically-questionable reports when they downplay fears of a no-deal Brexit; reports that attempt to capture in writing the economic benefits of stripping back regulations, poleaxing tax rates and of a hard Brexit — ERG MPs, like clockwork, then put forward a slightly more sensible repackaging of these ideas.
“What you now have in the UK — the same as what you have in the US — is the real hollowing out of policy-making capacities in the political parties,” Geoghegan told the Irish World.
“Think tanks are becoming increasingly influential because they seem to offer solutions, or policy proposals, for political parties that don’t really have a heck of a lot of internal policy-making capacity.”
This outsourcing of policy-making — during the greatest political crisis the country has seen post-war — should concern many people. But it’s the lack of any meaningful lobbying register based on legislation which means it is pretty much the wild west when it comes to tracing funding for think tanks, despite former prime minister David Cameron’s many commitments about transparency in British politics.
Because their paymasters are not declared, the activities of these think tanks continues to blur the line of independent operatives and strident lobbyists.
Darker than dark
“Think tanks in the UK are darker than dark,” Mirko Draca, an economist at Warwick University who has researched lobbyists, said. “We don’t have the institutions set up so that we can measure what’s going on.”
According to Draca, such Thatcherite think tanks in the 1980s were merely “big picture idea shops”. Now, he said, they’re much more “in the thrall” of specific special interests.
In the 1990s, the US introduced a lobbying disclosure act. Although it hasn’t hampered the explosion of money in lobbying there, it ensures capital is recorded and trackable. With a US-style lobbying disclosure act, these think tanks would be forced to reveal meetings with ministers, even the minutiae of tableside discussions. At the moment, UK-based organisations have no such obligations.
Another issue is the much-maligned revolving door: a generation-old system of politicians taking up high-profile roles with lobbyists, private firms, contractors or think tanks after their terms.
The most troubling aspect of revolving doors, Draca said, is that insiders use built-up knowledge and contacts and sell it to special interests.
“They set up policies that might not be best for public welfare but are very good for those special interests,” he said.
That is not the only concern posed by revolving doors. Politicians, particularly those on the right with corporate interests, can be acutely aware of their own careerism. Often, people working in government — elected MPs, aides, advisors — are mindful of the everyday decisions they make and how they can affect their career prospects.
“They don’t want to put at risk some kind of lucrative, post-politics career,” Draca said. Special interests, then, can invisibly influence decisions without ever having to attend a meeting — something almost impossible to reign in or monitor.
Much like mainstream media organisations, political representatives, for the most part, have been reluctant to question the roles of think tanks in modern politics. In recent months, Singham has been a regular guest on news TV panels, normally there in the name of ‘balance’ as the lone oppositional voice to something seemingly straightforward and uncontroversial like the sugar tax.
One vocal lawmaker, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, told the Irish World that he is “extremely concerned” about the influence “these shadowy organisations” have had on the political process in Westminster.
“At a time when we are becoming more aware of the role of dark money in our politics and the attempt by hostile states like Russia to undermine our democracy, it is high time these so-called think tanks were fully transparent about the sources of their funding,” he said.
Steve Goodrich, a research manager at the UK branch of anti-corruption charity Transparency International, has no qualms about how the cloaked practices of such organisations endanger the democratic process. Lobbying practices, he said, must be “open, transparent and accountable to public scrutiny”.
“When it takes place behind closed doors, and with money of unknown provenance, it raises serious questions about the probity of these engagements,” Goodrich added.
“Considering the gravity of the decisions facing government right now, it’s more important than ever that there is no doubt about the integrity of its actions.”