Why is US think tank the Heritage Foundation so interested in Brexit?

The corporate interests which fund conservative think tanks in the US see Brexit as a lucrative business opportunity.

On May 4, an investigation by OpenDemocracy revealed that the Tufton Street climate change denialist think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) had been partly funded by the Donors Trust, a “dark money ATM” for right wing business interests such as Charles Koch. 

The Trust has significant links to Koch family foundations, though it is bankrolled by probably hundreds of conservative donors who get a big tax write off for their contributions. A Mother Jones article from 2013 said that “The groups funded by Donors Trust more or less pursue the same agenda—eliminate regulations, kneecap unions, shrink government, and transfer more power to the private sector.”

Other groups which accept funding from the Donors Trust include the Heritage Foundation, which has recently hosted Conservative Party politicians like Oliver Dowden, who gave a weird culture war speech about the ‘privet hedges of suburbia’, and last week the former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost. You can read the text of his speech here.

Frost quit his ministerial position just as the contradictions in the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU over Northern Ireland were starting to become an unavoidable problem. The UK looks increasingly likely to override the Northern Ireland protocol, something that would be controversial in Washington DC, where there is wide bi-partisan support for the Good Friday Agreement. Overriding the Protocol could put that agreement, and peace in Northern Ireland, in jeopardy.

Three Tory ministers were in the US last week for meetings, including Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, but Frost was also there, and according to the Irish Times, he “told the Heritage Foundation event on Thursday that talks had effectively reached the end of the road with the EU and now the UK government had to act.”

In his speech, Frost said he was happy to follow in the footsteps of Dowden, Brandon Lewis and Priti Patel in speaking at the Heritage Foundation. 

“Their presence here symbolises the very close ties, personal and intellectual, that exist between our politics and our thought worlds in the US and the UK.  They are also a tribute to the huge role that Heritage, and you personally, Nile, here at the Margaret Thatcher Centre, have played in this,” Frost said, thanking Nile Gardiner, Telegraph columnist and Heritage Foundation employee.

You could be forgiven for thinking Frost was on a self-publicity tour. It has been suggested that he might step down from the House of Lords to run for a seat as an MP. He would join a faction of Brexit fundamentalists within the Tories who would be much more hardline than Boris Johnson on social and environmental issues. Frost told his audience that “I haven’t been elected to anything – so far”.

On Northern Ireland, Frost said that the UK didn’t “need lectures” from the US, and also told the Telegraph that the UK should “act unilaterally to disapply part or all of the Protocol”. “We may, of course, face EU retaliation, though it would be disproportionate to the trade involved, only arguably legal and entirely self-defeating. If it happens nevertheless, it will complicate things – but we should not fear it”, Frost said.

In leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, the UK has created an untenable situation for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement rests on the UK and Ireland being in the same free trade area. Decoupling the UK from the EU means a customs border has to be placed somewhere.

The Heritage Foundation is interested in Brexit because it wants Britain to become a deregulated free-for-all for corporate power. Anthony Kim, a Research Fellow at Heritage, wrote this week that “unshackled from the strictures of EU bureaucracy, the British economy could register substantial improvements in key policy areas such as business freedom.”

Frost argued that Brexit allowed the UK to evade the “constraints on national democracy and freedom of choice” imposed by the EU. The “inability to make real choices and changes is surely part of the reason for the disaffection with mainstream politics very visible across Europe”, he claimed. Luckily, having left the EU, disaffection with politics has been totally eliminated in the UK!

Frost went on to blame internationalism for creating “political disaffection” and “identity politics”. Reasserting nationalism through Brexit should be “the first sign of a potential renewal of self-confidence in the West. It’s not a throwback—it is a move forward. It is the renewal of the formula that made the West successful: democratic states deciding their own affairs domestically and defending their security together against external enemies.”

This is similar to Dowden’s culture war rhetoric in his speech to the Heritage Foundation. The West was under attack by the forces of multicultualism and globalism, but now it’s back, baby! And part of being back is reasserting those national borders, except that one which cuts the island of Ireland in half, because that one’s a bit of a problem. 

The UK doesn’t want to be the one to reassert that border, you see, because that would look bad, so it’s going to put the EU in a position where it will have to do customs checks at the Northern Irish border, and then blame it on the EU.

Nile Gardiner, a Telegraph columnist, former aide to Thatcher and Director of Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, plays a leading role in connecting the architects of Brexit to US conservative funders through his role at the Heritage Foundation. Here’s the panel of an event he hosted online in 2021.

Gardiner called Elliot, Hannan and Carswell “the central three figures in the establishment of Vote Leave”. The same dark money that funded pro-Brexit groups is no doubt interested in the outcome of any potential US-UK trade deal.

The Trade Justice Movement says that any Anglo-American trade deal would come with serious concerns on regulations related to the environment, health standards, and public services. They note that “As with other post-Brexit trade deals, there are big questions about how a US trade deal will be negotiated and agreed, and how the public and civil society will be consulted.”

It would be an immense irony for the Brexiters to have argued that the UK’s relationship with the EU was undemocratic, only to turn around and sell the UK’s public services and regulatory standards down the river for access to US markets with no democratic vote on the issue.

John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward

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