UK think tanks are transparent, but they need to show leadership during Brexit

6 July 2016
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

On Tuesday 28th June, Nigel Farage took his triumphant turn on the floor of the European Parliament. “You all laughed at me”, he said of the beginnings of his campaign to pull the UK out of the European Union: “you’re not laughing now, are you?”. An influential study by Claudia Chwalisz of Europe’s populist turn sets out how populism works: by stages “provoking hyperbolic and divisive political debates, proposing simplistic solutions for complex issues…pressuring the mainstream to react and adapt, and creating expectations that cannot then be met.”

Britain’s voters chose a straightforward solution to the complex problems of our times. Every man-in-the-street news editors could round up demanded: “take our country back”. But the premier who called the referendum refuses to actually invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and even politicians who backed Leave are hesitating to grant what the majority demand. Why? The ‘sovereignty’ the Leave campaign promised won’t stand up to a trade deal negotiated outside of the EU bloc – from the “back of the queue”. Controls on immigration will rule out access to the Single Market, says Angela Merkel – which we can’t afford.

What’s more, ordinary people will not see more of Britain’s evaporating social spending after Brexit. The promise to redirect £350 million in EU funding to the NHS was a “mistake”, according to Farage. The Institute for Fiscal Studies was savaged by Brexit supporters for predicting two additional years of austerity – John Redwood MP made the weak claim that they are funded by ‘European bodies’, Vote Leave chose the full-throated accusation that the think tank are a “paid-up propaganda arm of the European Commission”.

Here’s the issue: a few years ago, ‘evidence-based policy’ was the rallying call of Westminster. Redwood’s showmanlike attack on an institution famous for rigorous economic analysis exemplifies ‘post-truth politics’: “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)”.

Luckily, the IFS has a publicly-available breakdown of who funds what research on its website: and the public has the benefit of the Channel 4 Fact Check Team. But at a time when “people in this country have had enough of experts” – according to Michael Gove, former chairman of Policy Exchange – this information is not always so readily available to clear things up. That’s a problem.

Transparify is a campaign to untangle the financial backing of think tanks and their research agenda. They produce a yearly global scorecard on the transparency of think tank funding which was released on 29th July 2016. In 2015, only three UK think tanks from a sample of 25 earned their top rating: with “all donors listed and clearly identifying funding amount for, and source of, particular projects”. In the past year, the number of think tanks who list only some donors or “no relevant information” on how they are funded has dropped from nine to four. Who kept us in the dark? The Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange.

“Think tanks can have significant political influence through their ability to shape democratic debates, for better or for worse”, said Transparify’s Executive Director, Dr Hans Gutbrod. “Transparency is a core democratic value. Taking money from hidden hands behind closed doors raises concerns about possible stealth lobbying, and is simply not acceptable in a modern democracy.” The Adam Smith Institute’s Executive Director responded that they “have no obligation to violate our donors’ privacy”.

Britain’s vote creates a mind-boggling amount of work for experts. Parliament and Whitehall will be tied up for years, as every government department will need to engage with negotiations. Public sector leaders have lost what they call “a source of greatly needed skills and expertise” in the EU, but the challenges of a low-growth, geopolitically unstable and warming world don’t stop at the Channel. Transparify finds that after much improvement UK think tanks now lead most European countries and the United States in evidencing their independence. But today, UK think tanks don’t just need transparency, they must have legitimacy, boldness, and foresight.