Psst… want a Tory peerage? Just join a right-wing think-tank

Leading a right-wing 'think-tank' seems to be another sure-fire way of transitioning to the Lords.

Right-Wing Watch

Apart from the well-established route of wealthy folk handing the Tory party a few million quid in return for a peerage, leading a right-wing ‘think-tank’ seems to be another sure-fire way of transitioning to the Lords. And once a member of the ‘Upper House,’ key figures from these shadily funded groups, typically with vested interests in big business, fossil fuels, and neoliberal economics, can enjoy a lifetime of direct influence in making and shaping laws and the work of government. Lovely.

News this week that Liz Truss is set to award peerages to some of her closest think-tank allies certainly feeds into the argument that think-tanks act as a convenient steppingstone to a seat in the Lords. These are the same people whose extreme neoliberal agendas helped shape ‘Trussonomics’ – aka low tax and deregulation and an intensification of Britain’s deep-seated pro-rich, anti-poor bias, which crashed the pound, blew a £30bn hole in the economy almost overnight, wreaked havoc on the financial markets, and damaged the UK’s reputation around the world.

All four of Truss’s peerage nominations are right-wing think-tank associates. Jon Moynihan is chairman of the pro-Brexit libertarian think-tank known as the Institute for Free Trade (IFT). He is also director of the IEA Forum, the non-charitable arm of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which inspired much of Truss’s disastrous economic programme. Moynihan is a long-standing Conservative donor, having given more than half a million pounds to the party in recent years.

Mark Littlewood is another of Truss’s peerage nominees. The director general of the IEA has reportedly been friends with Liz Truss since they were at Oxford together, and not only backed Truss and Kwarteng’s mini-budget, also known as the ‘Tufton Street massacre,’ but showered it with praise, famously saying: “You’re not going to like this package [Truss’ tax cuts] if you care more about the poor.”

Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave who helped found the TaxPayers’ Alliance group, which campaigns for lower taxes, is also set to bag a peerage.

Finally, there is Ruth Porter. Porter is former communications director of the IEA, of which Truss founded its parliamentary wing FREER in 2011. Truss hired Porter to run her Tory leadership campaign, and later made her deputy chief of staff.

Any outgoing prime minister can recommend people for honours, after they have resigned. But someone who was in office for a mere 49 days being able to make nominations for what basically equates to a lifetime of law making, naturally raised eyebrows, which were elevated even higher when the names of the nominees were announced.

‘List of shame’

Deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, called the nominations a “list of shame” after Truss “and her Conservative co-conspirators” had taken a “wrecking ball to the economy.” 

On top of Liz Truss’s ensemble of think-tank Trussonomic guru nominees, there have been a number of other notable Conservative think-tank figures over the years to have been handed peerages.

Take Lord Dean Godson, the director of Policy Exchange, the conservative think-tank described by the Daily Telegraph as the ‘largest, but also the most influential think-tank on the right.’ In 2020, under Boris Johnson’s government, Godson entered the Lords, having earned a Tory political peerage while continuing to lead Policy Exchange. Godson also worked at the Spectator and Telegraph with Boris Johnson.

In fact, almost a quarter of those ennobled in 2020 were Tory party donors or ex-associates of Johnson. Among them was Charles Moore, who was Chairman of Trustees at Policy Exchange from 2005 to 2011 and became a Visiting Scholar there in 2015. Like Godson, Moore worked at the Spectator and Telegraph with Johnson, the latter of which he was editor. 

Dr Ruth Lea is another right-wing think-tank leader to have found herself with a peerage. Between 2004 and 2007, Lea was director of the Centre of Policy Studies (CPS), a ‘dark money’ think-tank founded by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. The day Kwarteng delivered his mini-budget, the CPS claimed responsibility for several of the key announcements.

In 2007, Lea co-founded the Eurosceptic and free-market campaign group Global Vision, which, as DeSmog reported,  shared an address with the Centre for Policy Studies and other connected groups involved in Brexit lobbying and climate science denial at Tufton Street. She is also on the advisory council for Taxpayers’ Alliance, an organisation at the heart of the Tufton Street network and is a fellow of the IEA. From January 2019 to 2021, Lea was a trustee and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which was founded by former Tory chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson – yes, another lord, having been made a life peer in 1992.

With that remarkable accumulation of think-tank memberships, it’s no wonder that in October 2022, it was announced that Dr Ruth Lea would receive a life peerage as part of Johnson’s 2022 Political Honours. 

Another appointee to the infamous ‘class of October 2022 Political Honours List,’ was Lord Andrew Roberts of Belgravia. Lord Roberts also boasts a CV stuffed with think-tank credentials, including being a trustee of Policy Exchange, a trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust, and a member on the advisory board of the European Foundation, a leading Eurosceptic think-tank founded in 1992.

Roberts, whose ex-girlfriend claimed he has framed pictures of Margaret Thatcher next to his bed, is an historian, biographer of Winston Churchill, and has worked as a freelance journalist. Like some of the other think-tank-heading lords mentioned above, Lord Roberts’ words have found their way to the pages of the Spectator. One article, entitled ‘Churchill, Cambridge and the battle for history,’ argues that a ‘mainstream effort to push back against activism by a vocal minority is working.’ The piece was co-authored by, wait for it, the young Zewditu Gebreyohanes, research fellow at Policy Exchange, director of Restore Trust, the group determined to weed out so-called ‘wokeness’ from within the National Trust, and trustee of the V&A Museum, a position awarded to her by Boris Johnson in 2022.

Talk about ‘incestuous’ appointments, all creepily connected in some way. And there’s more.  

Lord Daniel Hannan of Kingsclere, is another writer/journalist Tory peer who is involved with right-wing think-tanks. Daniel Hannan was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1999 – 2020. He has served as an advisor to the Board of Trade since 2020, advising the then secretary of state Liz Truss on the negotiation of new agreements with the likes of Australia. Hannan is founder and director of the Institute for Free Trade (IFT), described by the Guardian in 2020, as a “powerful right-wing think-tank.” The same year, Emily Thornberry, who was shadow trade secretary at the time, claimed that the IFT was lobbying to “open up our markets to all US meat imports, decree that whatever is legal there is legal here, and remove any domestic standards getting in the way.”

Known for his hard-line anti-EU views, Hannan helped found both the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs in the 1990s and the Vote Leave campaign. He has spoken at events organised by the climate science denying US think-tank, the Heritage Foundation.

In 2020, Daniel Hannan was given a peerage by Boris Johnson, alongside Tory donor Peter Cruddas. 

US/UK think-tank partnerships

The number of right-wing think-tank leaders nuzzling their way into the House of Lords, particularly during Boris Johnson’s reign, testifies the stature and influence these organisations assert among Conservative politicians. And the control that they have on shaping UK politics, some of which is being modelled by foreign influence, is disturbing. 

Libertarian think-tanks in the US, such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation, have long had a cosy relationship with Republican administrations. The latter drafted much of Ronald Reagan’s agenda to slash federal spending. It also launched a hostile campaign to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

While non-governmental UK organisations that research policies with the aim of shaping government have had influence on British politics, both on the left and right for some time, in the wake of the Brexit vote, radical, free-market think-tanks have gained remarkable access to the government.

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, a number of prominent UK politicians and campaigners, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, reportedly visited the US to meet with think-tanks such as the AEI and the Heritage Foundation, seeking support, ideas and networking opportunities. Powerful US think-tanks and their affiliates have teamed up with their UK counterparts, such as the IEA, and British politicians, to help map out policies, including the UK’s future relationships with the US and EU.

In 2018, Unearthed established that the IEA had been working with US donors to capitalise on the opportunities presented by Brexit, in order to ‘radically alter the rules and regulations that govern how we consume products in the UK. The same year, Mark Littlewood, IEA director, told an audience of businessmen and libertarian campaigners in Manhattan that Brexit offered the opportunity to “shred” EU regulations and appealed for their help. Littlewood later described his 13-stop US tour as “lucrative.”

But it was under Liz Truss’s disastrous tenure at No.10 when ‘Tufton Street’ became something of a household name, and concerns, not only about the influence of right-wing think-tanks, but also foreign influence on British politics, moved up a gear.

It’s no secret that Truss’s brief ascendancy was shared by the network of libertarian think-tanks housed in Westminster’s Tufton Street. A string of Truss policies and campaign staff were identified as having originated from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, and the Centre for Policy Studies. Policies to crackdown on the right to strike, scrap the planned rise in corporation tax, review inheritance tax, deregulate the childcare sector, and loosen financial solvency regulation, were all first proposed by the IEA.

Her vows to end the ban on fracking had been lobbied for by the Adam Smith Institute, where her longest-serving special adviser previously worked.

MPs raised the alarm about Truss’s links to these influential right-wing groups, and she became labelled a “puppet” for the organisations. Scottish National Party MP Deidre Brock said that Truss’ think-tank lifting policies “raises worrying questions about the functioning of our democracy, the impact of dark money on UK politics and the allegiances of Boris Johnson’s successor.”

Shadily funded

These think-tanks don’t disclose their funders. Investigations have revealed murky donations from those with vested interests. The IEA for example has received donations from ExxonMobil and BP, and along with the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute, the tobacco industry. A report by openDemocracy revealed that the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute have also received millions of dollars from US funders of climate denial.

Since 2012, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the IEA, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute, and the Legatum Institute have raised $9m from American donors. Of this, at least $6m has been channelled to the UK, according to tax returns filed with US authorities – representing 11 percent of the think- tanks’ total UK receipts, with the figure reaching 23 percent for the Adam Smith Institute, openDemocracy reported.

These think-tanks are thereby providing a funnel for influence peddlers from abroad who can’t legally give to political parties, meaning private foreign donors are able to influence UK policy without the scrutiny that comes from funding a political party.

Bending charitable status

These prominent think-tanks are not immune to attempting to bend charity status rules for their own gain. The GWPF found itself in the spotlight earlier this year, when the Good Law Project and MPs filed a complaint to the Charity Commission alleging major rule breaches. The complaint, which was backed by Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis and Layla Moran – was related to concerns that Lord Lawson has expressed the view that global warming “appeared not to be happening” and said that the charity was concerned with the “extremely damaging and harmful policies” put forward to deal with it.

In February 2018, the IEA was accused of “misconduct and mismanagement” and was issued with a formal legal warning by the Charity Commission after using its resources to campaign for a hard Brexit.

You would think that given the controversies, the growing body of concern about their political influence, and, of course, the economy-crashing policies of Liz Truss that left the UK worse off, that the days of right-wing think-tank’s proximity to the government might be numbered.

But as we have seen with the brazenness of Liz Truss’s think-tank allies’ peerage nominees this week, and Rishi Sunak’s own connections to lobby groups, including having spoken at an IEA fringe event, having worked at Policy Exchange, and whose levelling up minister, Michael Gove, was the think-tank’s founding chairman, the ideological reliance on right-wing think-tanks appears to be maintaining its influence on yet another Tory government.   

If we thought the think-tanks might be kicked out of Downing Street following the Truss catastrophe, we should think again.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory media tributes to Paul O’Grady largely ignore his politics

Media tributes have poured in following the announcement of the unexpected death of the Birkenhead-born legendary presenter, Paul O’Grady. While a ‘national treasure,’ O’Grady was an eminent gay activist, who was a key figure in furthering LBGTQ visibility in the media. In the ’80s he would regularly visit AIDs ward and was passionate about social justice and equality. As his acerbic and witty Lily Savage alter-ego, the comedian was a pioneer for drag in the mainstream.  He never kept his strong political views and his contempt for Tories and their austerity programme hidden and was known for risqué political takedowns.

In the wake of his death, a clip of the much-loved presenter and comedian taking on the ‘Austerity Budget’ live on TV in 2010, went viral on social media.

“We should let them know that we are not taking these draconian cuts lightly,” he said on his ITV show.

The iconic monologue of course rings true in many ways today, amid soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. But the Tory media’s tributes to O’Grady have largely stripped him of his politics, choosing to focus on the apolitical, like the work he did for dogs, his TV career, and him being a ‘national treasure,’ a phase he reportedly hated.

“Oh, what a terrible phrase, he once said when described as such during an interview with The Observer.

The Daily Telegraph’s 31-paragraph tribute, speaks of the brazenness of Lily Savage, O’Grady’s inspiring career, his relationships, his intellectual merits, but it isn’t until near the end of the obituary when his politics are finally mentioned in two brief paragraphs, one reading: 

“Politically on the Left, he proclaimed a visceral hatred of Margaret Thatcher and successive Conservative governments. “I loathe Cameron; I loathe Osborne…” he railed. “I’d like to see their heads on spikes on Tower Bridge. Seriously.”

The Times’ tribute was similar, concentrating on the inspiration behind the Lily Savage character, and confining O’Grady’s politics to just two short paragraphs.

“His enjoyment of shocking the self-appointed guardians of morality never left him and his suggestion that he wanted to see the heads of David Cameron and George Osborne “on spikes on Tower Bridge” provoked outrage. Nor was he amused when one national newspaper suggested he had matured into a “national treasure,” wrote the Times. 

The Daily Mail has not been short of Paul O’Grady tributes. But similarly, his political and equality activism have been noticeably missing.

‘Paul O’Grady’s For The Love of Dogs show ‘could continue under new presenter’ and honour his legacy as Stephen Mulhern favourite to host,’ headlined the Mail, in a piece devoted to O’Grady’s much-loved canine show, and musing on who could be his replacement.

Mail columnist Janet Street-Porter, who was a friend of O’Grady’s, wrote a tribute, but chose to sidestep his politics. 

In essentially ‘depoliticising’ the beloved figure, it could be said that the right-wing media’s obituaries of O’Grady don’t really do him justice.   

The liberal media have been more embracing of O’Grady’s fearless political bite and representative of his full character in their tributes.

‘O’Grady faced down Tory austerity, homophobia and shame – he was a true hero,’ was a headline in the Guardian. Indy 100 referenced how his ‘legendary rant on Tory austerity’ has resurfaced and is ‘still as relevant as ever.’ The same newspaper went a step further, reporting on Labour MP Chris Bryant jokey comments during an interview celebrating his life, that Paul O’Grady ‘absolutely passionately hated Tories.’

The article ruffled the feathers of Tory MP Michael Fabricant, who felt compelled to tweet:

But perhaps the most earnest tribute was by Channel 4 News, which featured Labour peer and actor Lord Cashman providing a warming and heartfelt obituary about his friend. “He was unbridled in standing up for justice and equality,” said Cashman, adding how O’Grady was “a proud woke” who stood up for the “unheard, unseen or brushed away.”

In stark contrast, PMQs this week told us a lot about the Tories’ understanding – or misunderstanding – of the legendary equality activist. In a botched tribute, Dominic Raab, who was standing in for Rishi Sunak, referred to O’Grady as ‘Paul Grayson,’ before being interrupted by heckles.

No doubt, Paul O’Grady would be looking down and smiling at the slip of tongue, as it kind of confirms everything he thought, and wasn’t ashamed in saying, about the Tories. 

Woke bashing of the week – Daily Mail vents fury at ‘woke’ barristers refusing to prosecute climate protestors

Perhaps an attempt to divert from the major news story of the day that was Boris Johnson’s humiliating performance at the Partygate hearing, on March 24, the Daily Mail chose to lead with its favourite pastime – woke bashing.

This time the object of its sermonising was barristers. Well actually, it was a ‘kill two birds with one stone’ frontpage, deriding ‘woke barristers’ and ‘eco-warriors’, another popular victim of Daily Mail disdain, who are often framed by the newspaper as threatening, unsafe and downright dangerous.

‘Fury at woke barristers refusing to prosecute eco warriors: 120 top legal professionals to sign ‘Declaration of Conscience’ to try and keep climate activists out of the courts,’ read the headline.

If you cut through the same-old predictable anti-legal system cliches and taunts that have become depressingly familiar in the right-wing press, including ‘virtue signalling’, ‘undermining the legal system’ and ‘leftie lawyers,’ the story is about a group of leading barristers who have defied bar rules by signing a declaration saying they will not prosecute peaceful climate protestors or act for companies pursuing fossil fuel projects.

The Mail’s rant claims the move has triggered ‘fierce condemnation’ and uses several antagonistic quotes to showcase the ‘fierce’ opposition. One quote, made by Tory MP Robert Buckland, outrageously equates ‘rapists and paedophiles’ to climate activists, arguing that if the former are entitled to a fair trial, the declaration doesn’t ‘sit very well’ with the principle of representing clients ‘without fear or favour.’

The article fails to provide the context behind the story, that the lawyers’ refusal to act in the interests of new fossil fuel projects or prosecute climate activists, was in response to last week’s damning IPCC report. The report delivered a ‘final warning’ to humanity, urging for there to be an end to fossil fuel consumption. 

The barristers’ ‘Declaration of Conscience’ states that continued fossil fuel developments pose a serious risk to the rule of law, given the UK parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 and warnings from international agencies.

But the only mention of the IPCC’s critical report by the Daily Mail was relegated to page 19, alongside an editorial warning against ‘climate hysteria.’ The Mail even broke the embargo on the Lawyers Are Responsible press release, in desperation to print the frontpage ‘woke barristers’ attack, as Byline Times reports.

One of the two prominent lawyers involved in the declaration who was singled out in the Mail’s report, was Jolyon Maugham KC, founder of the Good Law Project, alongside Sir Geoffrey Birdman KC, chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights.

In a rebuttal to the Mail’s article in the Guardian, Maugham KC explains the rationale behind the declaration and why he has signed it. He writes how sometimes the law is wrong and how tomorrow’s history books will speak with horror of the law today that “enabled the destruction of our planet and the displacement of billions of people.”

“Like big tobacco, the fossil fuel industry has known for decades what its activities mean. They mean the loss of human life and property – which the civil law should prevent but does not.”

Referring to Robert Buckland’s comments in the Mail, Maugham KC says it is wrong to suggest hypocrisy because the barristers would act for those accused of violence but not for the fossil fuel industry.

“The difference is that I support the law that imprisons those convicted of violence, but I cannot support laws that permit new fossil fuel projects,” he writes.

The Daily Mail’s woke-barrister attacking front page is sadly a classic example of culture wars being manufactured by the right, in order to obscure the real wounds in society.

And in this case, it is quite literally the real wounds – climate change and the slow destruction of the planet.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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