Shadowy think tanks are a risk to the UK’s democratic integrity

'There is no requirement, either, for think tanks to be transparent about the sources of their funding.'


If we can’t follow the money, we can’t be sure whose interests are being pursued. It’s time to let in the light.

Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.

It’s been widely reported that among the names on Liz Truss’ as of yet unpublished resignation honours list is Mark Littlewood, Director of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). Ruth Porter, a senior adviser to Truss while in number 10 who was previously communications director at the IEA, is also reportedly in line for a gong.

The connection between Truss and the IEA goes back a long way: according to Tim Montgomerie, the founder of Conservative Home, the IEA had “incubated” Truss – and her key ally, former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng – when they were junior MPs. With their assumption of high office, Britain was to become a “laboratory” for the IEA’s ideas, he said.

Although Truss’ relationship with the IEA is remarkable for its extreme proximity, politicians being close to particular institutions is nothing new. Politicians often find themselves drawn to particular interests and ideas, and so will gravitate toward institutions that reinforce or augment their thinking.

Nor is think tanks or pressure groups seeking to exert political influence necessarily a problem in a democratic society. Unlock Democracy, the organisation I head, strives to do precisely this.

But while lobbying of this nature is an inevitable and essential component of an open democracy, the problems come when we don’t know whose interests are being pursued. Think tanks, though often participating in comparable work to consultant lobbyists, do not have the same obligation to register their activities.

There is no requirement, either, for think tanks to be transparent about the sources of their funding. In fact, for some, it is impossible to find out who their big donors are. A comparative assessment of the transparency ratings of various think tanks can be viewed here: Unlock Democracy has the highest rating of openness; the IEA, meanwhile, has the lowest rating.

Without being able to follow the money, we cannot hope to understand the interests (commercial or national) that may underpin donations to think tanks, or determine whether those giving money are based in the UK. While it is expected that any foreign funds are most likely to come from rich donors or corporations rather than foreign governments, these donors may still have very close links with a foreign government and seek to shape UK policy in line with the interests of those Governments. Without the data, we just don’t know.

If a think tank advocates for a more relaxed attitude to climate change, the public, the media and Ministers are likely to scrutinise their proposals more carefully if they can see that an oil company is one of its major donors. The same can be said for a think tank that opposes measures to cut smoking when a tobacco manufacturer contributes a significant sum to its budget.

Indeed, for this reason, the government’s own recently published guidance makes it clear that no government department is supposed to engage (except in very restricted circumstances) with an organisation in receipt of tobacco industry funding. As long as our view of the picture is partial, proper public scrutiny will be denied, and officials may risk inadvertently breaking their own rules.

We at Unlock Democracy are far from alone in pointing out these issues. In a government-commissioned report published in 2021, Nigel Boardman advised the government to consult on whether think tanks, which are in the business of advocacy, should be required to declare by whom they are funded, as well as whether, in certain instances, they should have to register as consultant lobbyists.

However, in response to a parliamentary question asking what steps had been taken in response, the Government spokesperson denied the need for greater transparency, warning of the risk of “regulating to death”.

Extending to think tanks the same transparency requirements that already exist for lobbyists should not be seen as a threat to democratic freedoms. Wilful blindness, on the other hand, to the potential presence of veiled, foreign interests in our democracy poses a serious and present danger.

The National Security Act, which became law earlier this month and requires “political influence activity” by those acting for a foreign power to be registered, could have provided further safeguards to our political process. The Act’s definition of such activity closely approximates that of several UK-based think tanks. However, amendments seeking to ensure appropriate levels of transparency also apply to think tanks in receipt of major foreign Government funding were unsuccessful.

Politicians and the public are entitled to know who funds think tanks involved in shaping policies that affect all our lives. With barely 18 months to go until the likely date of the next general election, increasing the transparency of think tank funding is of vital importance.

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