The UK’s most secretive think tanks have raised more than £14m from mystery donors in the past two years, new analysis by openDemocracy has found.
Among them are some of the most influential groups in UK politics. Think tanks often boast that they have driven changes to the law and economic policy, such as the tax cuts announced by Liz Truss that are blamed for tanking the UK economy earlier this year.
We have rebooted the formerly volunteer-run Who Funds You? campaign, which uses think tanks’ own income disclosures to position them on a funding transparency scale. The project originally ran for seven years before coming to an end in 2019.
Our analysis assigned a third of think tanks – nine out of 28 – an ‘E’ rating, the worst possible score. These organisations had a total income of at least £14.3m according to their most recent corporate filings, yet we found no, or negligible, relevant information made public about where most of this money comes from.
These notoriously ‘dark money’-funded organisations claim to have influence with the government – and often employ high-profile politicians.
Clifford Singer, the former director of Who Funds You?, said: “I’m so pleased that Who Funds You? is being relaunched on its tenth anniversary, and I can’t think of a better organisation than openDemocracy to take it forward.
“openDemocracy has consistently shone a light on the world of dark money and politics, and Who Funds You? is a perfect complement to openDemocracy’s excellent investigative work.”
Six of the least transparent think tanks – the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, Civitas, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Policy Exchange and the TaxPayers’ Alliance – also received an ‘E’ rating in 2019, meaning they have not made any significant improvements.
The three other think tanks that received the lowest transparency rating this year are the Centre for Social Justice, the Legatum Institute and ResPublica, all of which scored higher in 2019.
Singer told openDemocracy that it is “disappointing” to see think tanks lapse in their commitment to transparency.
“I’m sure the relaunch of Who Funds You? will prompt more improvements in transparency, while spotlighting those who remain intent on influencing public policy without declaring who funds them,” he said.
There is no legal requirement for think tanks to reveal their funders, but this lack of transparency is a major concern, say campaigners, especially for institutions that seek to affect government policy.
“Think tanks can play an important role informing policy in Westminster, yet opacity about their funding can raise suspicion that they’re peddling positions in favour of vested interests,” said Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK.
At the other end of the spectrum, think tanks rated ‘A’ are highly transparent, naming all funders who gave them £5,000 or more in the past year and declaring the amounts given.
Ten think tanks (just over a third) received an ‘A’ rating, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the New Economics Foundation. The 2019 audit gave nine institutions an ‘A’ rating, including these two.
Polly Curtis, the chief executive of cross-party think tank Demos, which went from a ‘B’ to an ‘A’ this year, said: “Think tanks are an essential part of the democratic fabric of the UK… The values of openness and transparency are core to what Demos stands for, and I’m therefore delighted that our transparency rating has increased since the last audit.”
We found that four think tanks scored lower for transparency this year than in 2019. Among them is the Legatum Institute, a right-wing free-market advocate that has been described as the “Brexiteers’ favourite think tank”.
The Legatum Institute, the fourth largest think tank in our audit, dropped from a ‘C’ rating to an ‘E’. Think tanks are rated ‘C’ if they name at least 50% of funders who gave them £5,000 or more in the last reported year and group funders into specific bands by the amount given.
Despite its influential position, the Legatum Institute, which had an income of £4,175,671 in 2021, has provided no or very little clear information on its website about where donations come from.
But an investigation by openDemocracy in June found that the US fundraising arm of the institute, along with the US arm of the Adam Smith Institute, had between them received $350,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation. Led by a billionaire heir to an oil and banking fortune, the foundation has contributed millions to climate-sceptic organisations in the past decade.
Speaking to openDemocracy, journalist and campaigner George Monbiot said: “For many years, certain think tanks have populated the media, played a decisive role in our politics and changed the life of this nation. Yet we lack the crucial information required to see who they really are: namely, who funds them.”
Policy Exchange, for example, one of the UK’s most prominent conservative think tanks, doesn’t provide any clear information about the funders behind its income of £3,396,554 in 2021. Earlier this year, we revealed that the controversial anti-protest law targeting environmental activists, the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, had been dreamed up by Policy Exchange – a think tank that had previously received $30,000 from US oil giant ExxonMobil.
A number of think tanks in the Who Funds You? audit have all steadily increased their influence at the heart of government over the past decade.
The Adam Smith Institute, IEA, Policy Exchange, the Legatum Institute and the TaxPayers’ Alliance have secured more than 100 meetings with ministers since 2012. All received ‘E’ ratings for transparency this year, and four did in the previous audit.
“Given the proximity of some of these organisations to those in high office, the public really should know who is backing them, for what and with how much money,” Goodrich from Transparency International UK told openDemocracy.
He added that think tanks failing to disclose clear information about their funding “gives the impression that they’ve got something to hide”.
For many years, a small band of us “voices of decline” and “enemies of enterprise” who “don’t understand aspiration” have been trying to point out that increments in gross domestic product do not equate to increments in happiness. We have argued that no one wins the human race. We have sought to explain that what mainstream economists call progress is what ecologists call planetary ruin. We’ve contended that infinite growth on a finite planet is a recipe for catastrophe. I hope Liz Truss is right to claim that so many people now accept our arguments.
Even if this coalition is not yet as broad as she suggests, she seems determined to widen it. Her plans to rip down planning controls, to cut public services, deregulate business, crush protests, unleash exploitation and destroy economic security, all in the name of boosting the rate of economic growth, could scarcely be better calculated to reveal the difference between GDP and prosperity.
Is our prosperity enhanced by increasing the volume of sewage in our rivers and on our beaches? No. It may boost the profits of the water companies and the remuneration of their directors, very little of which – unlike the effluent they release – will trickle down into our lives. Will a new roadbuilding programme enhance our lives? Not if, as new roads always do, it pushes congestion to the next bottleneck, while increasing noise, pollution and the destruction of landscapes. Will we be happier if the regulations protecting workers and consumers are stripped away? No. We will find that our health, wealth and wellbeing decline, even as the companies exploiting us become richer. Our lives do not grow in these circumstances. They are shrunk by poverty, pollution, poor health and exploitation.
dizzy: As a blogger, I should only quote small excerpts of copyrighted works and as a rule of thumb I tend to go for 3 paragraphs of newspaper articles. I recommend the rest of Monbiot’s article.
The richest 1% of the world’s people (those earning more than $172,000 a year) produce 15% of the world’s carbon emissions: twice the combined impact of the poorest 50%. On average, they emit over 70 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person every year, 30 times more than we can each afford to release if we’re not to exceed 1.5C of global heating. While the emissions of the world’s middle classes are expected to fall sharply over the next decade, thanks to the general decarbonisation of our economies, the amount produced by the richest will scarcely decline at all: in other words, they’ll be responsible for an even greater share of total CO2. Becoming good global citizens would mean cutting their carbon consumption by an average of 97%.
There’s an oft-quoted axiom, whose authorship is obscure: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Part of the reason is that capitalism itself is difficult to imagine. Most people struggle to define it, and its champions have generally succeeded in disguising its true nature. So let’s begin by imagining something that’s easier to comprehend: the end of concentrated wealth. Our survival depends on it.
I’ve come to believe that the most important of all environmental measures are wealth taxes. Preventing systemic environmental collapse means driving extreme wealth to extinction. It is not humanity as a whole that the planet cannot afford. It’s the ultra-rich.
Something to watch on the eve of huge energy price increases driving the cost of living crisis in UK
At Cop26 the wealthy countries cast themselves as saviours, yet their efforts are hopelessly inadequate and will prolong the injustice
The wealthy nations, always keen to position themselves as saviours, have promised to help their former colonies adjust to the chaos they have caused.
Never mind aid, never mind loans; what the rich nations owe the poor is reparations. Much of the harm inflicted by climate breakdown makes a mockery of the idea of adaptation: how can people adapt to temperatures higher than the human body can withstand; to repeated, devastating cyclones that trash homes as soon as they are rebuilt; to the drowning of entire archipelagos; to the desiccation of vast tracts of land, making farming impossible? But while the concept of irreparable “loss and damage” was recognised in the Paris agreement, the rich nations insisted that this “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”.
By framing the pittance they offer as a gift, rather than as compensation, the states that have done most to cause this catastrophe can position themselves, in true colonial style, as the heroes who will swoop down and rescue the world: this was the thrust of Boris Johnson’s opening speech, invoking James Bond, at Glasgow: “We have the ideas. We have the technology. We have the bankers.”
But the victims of the rich world’s exploitation don’t need James Bond, nor other white saviours. They don’t need Johnson’s posturing. They don’t need his skinflint charity, or the deadly embrace of the bankers who fund his party. They need to be heard. And they need justice.
55 Tufton Street, near the UK parliament at Westminster, London is home to many influential thinktanks that promote climate crisis denial and climate destruction. Writers Rebel, associated with Extinction Rebellion held a protest there on 2 September 2020.
Journalist and author George Monbiot is trying to get arrested today as part of the Extinction Rebellion Climate Emergency protests in London. There have been over 1,400 arrests of XR rebels in London and the Metropolitan Police have now imposed a blanket ban on London XR protests.
A few hours after this column is published, I hope to be in a police cell. I don’t yet know what the charge will be, where I will be arrested or when, but I know that if I go home this evening without feeling the hand of the law on my sleeve, I will have failed. This may sound like a strange ambition, but I believe it is a reasonable one.
If I succeed, I will be one of many. In the current wave of Extinction Rebellion protests, more than 1,400 people have so far allowed themselves to be arrested. It’s a controversial tactic, but it has often proved effective. The suffragettes, the Indian salt marchers, the civil rights movement and the Polish and East German democracy movements, to name just a few, all used it as a crucial strategy. Mass arrests are a potent form of democratic protest.
They work because they show that the campaigners are serious. When people are prepared to jeopardise their liberty for their cause, other people appear more likely to listen to what they say, and more likely to recognise its importance. Those who founded Extinction Rebellion researched these histories and sought to apply their lessons to the greatest predicament humanity has ever faced: the gathering collapse of our life support systems.
Climate change, global warming, irrefutable facts about, climate change, global warming
Looking into the eye of a Whale is very special.
I am not suggesting that saving whales is any real response to climate change, although of course Whales should be protected and adored. What I am suggesting is that we should hugely reduce our – i.e. human – adverse effect on this beautiful planet that is our World. We need to make huge changes to stop destroying our World.
It’s not about personal issues like riding a bike and doing away with cars (although it may have a minimal affect edit: doing away with cars would have a huge effect, aeroplanes too). Yes, we need to act local – avoid travelling excessive distances. Get a job closer to home.
The real issue is much bigger and needs to be addressed by politicians. We have to stop destroying this World. 2014 was the warmest year on record. Climate change is real and must be addressed.