When Boris Johnson assumed office as prime minister in July 2019 and proceeded, without the mandate of a general election, to appoint a cabinet that was arguably one of the most rightwing in post-second world war British history, many commentators called it a coup. The free market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs felt self-congratulation was more in order, however. This week, liberty-lovers witnessed some exciting developments, the IEA said in an email to its supporters. The organisation, whose mission is to shrink the state, lower taxes and deregulate business, noted that 14 of those around the Downing Street table including the chancellor, Sajid Javid, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the home secretary, Priti Patel were alumni of IEA initiatives.
The IEA had good reason to boast about its influence. Just a few years earlier, on the occasion of its 60th birthday in 2015, Javid had declared that it had reflected and deeply influenced my views, helping to develop the economic and political philosophy that guides me to this day. In a speech to the IEA the same year, Raab also enthused about the organisations effect on his younger self. A few years back, he told the audience, he had been on a beach in Brazil. Hed had a couple of drinks, and had gone in to the sea to mull over an idea: that New Labour had eroded liberty in Britain and created a rights culture that had fostered a nation of idlers. Lost in thought, the tide had dragged him far from his starting point, and back on the beach, he had trouble locating his family among all the scantily clad Brazilians. On stage, he thanked the IEA for helping him develop this idea, which became the starting point for the book Britannia Unchained, an anti-statist tract, co-written with other MPs who would go on to join Johnsons new cabinet Patel; Elizabeth Truss, now trade secretary; Kwasi Kwarteng, business minister; and Chris Skidmore, then health minister.
The authors were also members of a parliamentary faction called the Free Enterprise Group, whose aim was to rebuild confidence in free market capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis, and for which the IEA has organised events, co-authored papers and provided administrative support. Other members included future Johnson ministers Andrea Leadsom, Matt Hancock, Robert Buckland, Julian Smith, Alister Jack, Alun Cairns, Jacob Rees-Mogg, James Cleverly and Brandon Lewis.
Libertarian thinktanks in the US, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have had this sort of close relationship with incoming Republican administrations for years, furnishing them with staff and readymade policies. Thinktanks non-governmental organisations that research policies with the aim of shaping government have long been influential in British politics, too, on both left and right, but the sheer number of connections between Johnsons cabinet and ultra free market thinktanks was something new. In the period immediately before the Brexit referendum and in the years since, a stream of prominent British politicians and campaigners, including Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, have flown to the US to meet with thinktanks such as the AEI and the Heritage Foundation, often at the expense of those thinktanks, seeking out ideas, support and networking opportunities. Meanwhile, US thinktanks and their affiliates, which are largely funded by rightwing American billionaires and corporate donations, have teamed up with British politicians and London-based counterparts such as the IEA, the Legatum Institute and the Initiative for Free Trade, to help write detailed proposals for what the UKs departure from the EU, and its future relationships with both the EU and the US, should look like, raising questions about foreign influence on British politics.
The organisations involved in this collaboration between the US and UK radical right are partners in a global coalition of more than 450 thinktanks and campaign groups called the Atlas Network, which has its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Members of the network operate independently but also cooperate closely in fighting for their shared vision of ultra free markets and limited government. They call themselves the worldwide freedom movement, collectively they have multimillion-dollar budgets, and many of their donors, board members, trustees and researchers overlap.
Brad Lips, the chief executive of Atlas, has said that his organisation takes inspiration from monetarist economist Milton Friedmans famous insight that only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
As an umbrella organisation, Atlas took no position on Brexit itself, and many of its European partners were opposed, but directors of UK groups in the network were prominent in the official campaign to take Britain out of the EU. Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Vote Leave, was founder of the TaxPayers Alliance, a pressure group to cut taxes, which is an Atlas partner. It also won lucrative prizes from Atlas for its work. The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, a long-term Eurosceptic and also a director of Vote Leave, has been a frequent visitor to the US Atlas partners, and went on to become director of two British thinktanks that were also in the network. The IEA took no position as an institution before the referendum, either, but its director, Mark Littlewood, explained in 2017, in Freedoms Champion, the Atlas Networks quarterly magazine, why the leave victory was so galvanising for the libertarian movement: Brexit provides us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically trim the size of the state and cut the regulatory burden.
For many conservatives, Brexit was also an opportunity to revitalise the World Trade Organization and its drive towards unfettered globalised free trade, which had ground to a halt in 2014 as it became increasingly unpopular. Back in 2015, Raab predicted a tectonic struggle over the future of transatlantic trade in which the IEAs strength will be like the warm, irresistible tide on that Brazilian beach, gently, powerfully, sometimes without us even knowing it, shifting the debate to a whole new place.
After the referendum, thinktanks in the US and UK seized the crisis moment. Two UK Atlas partners, the IEA and the Legatum Institute, gained exceptional access to ministers as they advocated for a hard break from the EU and provided constant briefings to the radical Brexiter MPs in the European Research Group (ERG). They had lots of meetings with ministers because politicians like people promising simple answers, but often those answers were not there, Raoul Ruparel, a former special adviser to Theresa May on Europe, told us.
British voters, and even some MPs, are barely aware of the deep influence of these thinktanks, yet with help from members of this network, a once politically impossible kind of Brexit became inevitable. It seemed almost faith-based, a senior Whitehall source said, [the idea that] if only the UK would do a free trade agreement with the US, opening up almost unilaterally, it would be the equivalent of doing one with the whole world prices would drop, wed all be better off. He added: It was staggering, really. Not even Margaret Thatcher or monetarism at its height had contemplated such shock therapy.
Public policy thinktanks fall into different categories: some concentrate on neutral factual research, others have more fixed ideological positions and lobby for particular solutions. Some present themselves as scholarly institutes and call their researchers scholars or fellows, although they are as likely to have come from politics, lobbying, media or the law as from academia. Some thinktanks receive government funding, others depend on donations. They may be registered as private companies, or as not-for-profit charities. The latter status gives them and their donors substantial tax breaks but, in theory, also restricts how directly political their activities can be. In practice, the lines are blurred and are repeatedly the subject of dispute.
The Atlas thinktanks are privately funded. Fossil fuel magnates, hedge fund and finance billionaires, and tobacco and oil companies have been prominent donors to partners in the network. These partners start from a shared ideology, which promotes self-reliance, market freedom and minimal tax and regulation. The EU, as a supranational form of government that favours reasonably strong regulation in areas such as data privacy, tax avoidance, finance, climate and the environment, is viewed by many of them as anathema.
Some leading US thinktanks in the network, such as the Heritage Foundation, also believe the EUs relationship with Britain has weakened the transatlantic alliance. The Heritage Foundation is 100% in favour of Britain leaving the EU, with or without a deal, Nile Gardiner, director of the thinktanks Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, told us. We believe Britain will be an even stronger partner for the US outside of the EU, which is increasingly anti-American.
As an umbrella organisation, Atlas encourages what it calls policy entrepreneurs in thinktanks by offering coaching in fundraising, messaging and marketing. It makes grants, awards financial prizes and connects key figures with potential donors through its regular Liberty Forum gatherings. Partner thinktanks have to share the mission, but the idea isnt that Atlas starts in the middle and tells everyone what to do, explained Linda Whetstone, who is the networks chair and a board member of the IEA. We have a set of beliefs that we think enable human flourishing. Atlas sets up its stand and people come to us and say, thats what we want and then Atlas helps them do it. The Atlas ideology often aligns with its donors financial interests, although its thinktanks claim that donors do not influence what they research. Several of the thinktanks also say that the views they publish are those of their affiliates rather than the official position of the institution.
One key Atlas strategy involves using the media to shape the political debate. By encouraging the creation of more and more thinktanks a never-ending production line of new institutes, centres and foundations, whose acronyms blur into each other the network can generate a constant river of commentary from its experts, says Andrew Simms, a veteran of environmental thinktanks who has often debated against members of Atlas-affiliated organisations. A predominantly rightwing British media have been happy to give them space. This gives the impression of widespread support for what may be minority or fringe points of view. The thinktanks contribution to the post-referendum Brexit debate was a turbo-charged version of what they have long done on issues such as tax and climate, where they have disputed the scientific consensus, argues Simms. Its a belief system. They go very big picture to shift the tide of opinion.
Shahmir Sanni, a former pro-Brexit campaigner who volunteered for BeLeave, a campaign group directed at young voters before the referendum, has given an insiders description of how he believed the British libertarian thinktanks exerted influence on the EU debate. After the referendum, Sanni was given a job at the TaxPayers Alliance, but when he spoke to the press, alleging there had been coordination between BeLeave and Vote Leave, he was sacked, and subsequently won a case against his employer for unfair dismissal in 2018. In his tribunal claim, Sanni described a nexus of organisations, including the TaxPayers Alliance, the IEA, the Adam Smith Institute and two other Atlas network partners, as well as other non-Atlas campaign groups, which, he alleged, met regularly to agree a common line on issues relating to Brexit. By coordinating messaging they could garner more media coverage than a single organisation could achieve. Together they present a lobbying group pursuing the same political agenda, Sanni said. (The organisations he identified have denied they act as lobbyists or as a co-ordinated grouping; they met to agree timings and avoid diary clashes for events, the TaxPayers Alliance said.)
Alongside efforts to shape the media narrative, some Atlas thinktanks in the US have furthered their cause by writing blueprints for legislation for new governments. In 2017, Hannan set up his own new thinktank, the Initiative for Free Trade, which was an Atlas partner, to do something similar. The launch event took place at a Foreign Office venue with Johnsons help. The IFT worked with nine other Atlas partners including the Adam Smith Institute and the IEA in the UK, and the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center and the Heritage Foundation in the US to draw up a detailed, 239-page draft legal text for a US-UK free trade deal that would radically liberalise the UK economy, including opening up the NHS to foreign competition. The Cato Institute helped with funding, and the focus was not the EU, but liberalising trade with the rest of the world as the best way to alleviate poverty and spread opportunity, Hannan told us. (IFT ceased being an Atlas partner in the summer of this year.)
Atlas thinktanks in the US have become regular stops for key Brexiters. Javid, for example, made six trips in the past eight years to the American Enterprise Institutes World Forum, its annual gathering of the rich and powerful on a private island resort in Georgia. Gove joined him there in 2018. Liam Fox, David Davis, Owen Paterson and Farage have given talks at the Heritage Foundation. Johnson flew to the AEI in 2018 at its expense to accept an award, and has met representatives from Heritage, too. Truss did a grand tour of Atlas US thinktanks for policy discussions last year. These US trips were important to Brexit politicians, Simms believes, because they give you affirmation, they indicate you are part of the same club. It gives you a chance to align strategies and messaging. Its part of nurturing the shared project and rehearsing the script.
We asked Oliver Letwin, the former Conservative minister who helped lead the Tory backbench rebellion against a no-deal Brexit, how influential he thought the free market thinktanks were. He said that occasionally they had shifted the political terrain, but mostly the dynamic worked the other way round. Earlier in his career, he recalled, he had commissioned some of the UK ones to write pamphlets but only to justify what he had already decided to do: One alights magpie-like on these, if they tend to your argument. But 95% of the reports they produce are just junk. He doubted they had played much role in Brexit policy. Why, then, did he think so many Conservative politicians had made trips to the US thinktanks? He seemed baffled by this. Do they? I have no idea.
The ambition to create a network of thinktanks that could drag the political debate to the right was conceived in the aftermath of the second world war. For more than two decades, following the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the theories of the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes had dominated political thinking in the US and UK. Keynes argued that governments should intervene in the market and use state planning and public spending to control booms and busts and unemployment. Challenging this orthodoxy were economists of the Austrian school, including Friedrich Hayek, who believed that state intervention made the market operate less efficiently and thus hampered the creation of wealth. Hayek believed that state planning wasnt just bad economics, but that it was politically disastrous and led to totalitarianism.
One of Hayeks key texts, The Road to Serfdom, was published in abridged form in the Readers Digest in 1945. For the British entrepreneur and former RAF pilot Antony Fisher, discovering Hayek was a life-changing event. Fisher sought out the academic, who was then teaching at the London School of Economics. Hayek advised Fisher not to waste his time taking up politics directly, but instead to set up a scholarly institute with the aim of shifting public opinion. The decisive influence in the battle of ideas, Hayek said, was wielded by intellectuals in universities and by journalists, whom he called second-hand dealers in ideas. If you really wanted to change politics, these were the people to target.
First, Fisher worked to make his fortune, pioneering the factory farming of chicken for supermarket abattoirs. Then, in 1955, he used his money to set up the IEA with his friend, businessman Oliver Smedley. Smedley wrote to Fisher at the time in correspondence unearthed later by BBC film-maker Adam Curtis that they would have to be cagey about what the thinktanks real function was: Imperative that we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the public along certain lines which might be interpreted as having a political bias.
For the next 20 years, the IEA published a steady stream of papers on its free market themes. No one took any notice for years and years, Whetstone, who is Fishers daughter, recalled. But its staff were preparing the ground for an assault on the consensus, firing off what they called shells. When the economic crises of the 1970s hit, these shells were lying around primed for use by politicians. Keith Joseph, the Tory minister and MP, who underwent a radical conversion to free markets and small government after the Conservative defeat in 1974, acknowledged a huge debt to the IEA. He became a close adviser to Thatcher, who went to meet Hayek at the IEAs offices, and she, too, was profoundly influenced by his analysis. Joseph set up his own free market thinktank, the Centre for Policy Studies, which later became an Atlas partner. Thatcherism grew out of the ideas of these two thinktanks.
In the late 60s and early 70s, as his long-term thinktank strategy was finally about to pay off, Fisher invested in a new enterprise in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands: turtle-farming. He also decided to sell his idea of the thinktank as agent of political change to another wealthy proponent of libertarianism, US fossil fuel magnate, Charles Koch. Koch and his brothers had inherited a vast fortune from their father in 1967 and were building up Koch Industries into the behemoth it is today. Fisher went on a mission to Wichita, Kansas, where the company had its headquarters.
Charles Kochs right-hand man, George Pearson, described Kochs meeting with Fisher as one of the more memorable dinners of my life: the two business titans discussed the merits of turtle-farming versus cattle-ranching and talked about how to spread freedom through thinktanks. Koch was already funding a libertarian thinktank and in 1974 he set up a new one, which was later renamed the Cato Institute. It describes itself as dedicated to principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.
By the late 70s, Koch had adopted a three-part strategy to create a movement that aimed, he said, to destroy the prevalent statist paradigm. It would involve lobbying government to repeal regulation of industries and all taxes, educating a new young libertarian cadre and funding politicians directly to win influence. Koch anticipated that bringing about this ideological shift would take decades, and he committed to the long haul. Like Fisher, Koch was an engineer by training, and he saw the libertarian effort as a kind of production line. In the mid-1990s, the president of the Charles Koch Foundation, Richard Fink, wrote an essay that laid out the Koch strategy for change. First, donate to universities in order to produce the necessary intellectual raw material. Second, donate to thinktanks, which then process this raw material into a usable form to be consumed by opinion formers. Third, donate to political advocacy groups, which have been characterised by critics as front groups whose function is to make politicians believe there is strong grassroots pressure for small-state, anti-welfare policies. These synthetic grassroots groups were described by David Koch as their sales force. Other billionaire-endowed thinktanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, adopted similar tactics.
Fisher started his own thinktank proliferation project in the US in the late 70s. By then married to an American and living in California, he launched two more free market thinktanks and developed plans to breed thinktanks wholesale, in the words of Friedman. All these people wanted to know what hed done or how hed done it, Whetstone told us. So, in 1981 he launched the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which would later evolve into the Atlas Network. The name, Whetstone thinks, was not based, as commonly believed, on the novel Atlas Shrugged by the writer and heroine of the libertarian movement Ayn Rand, whom Javid says he reads every year. Instead, it was directly inspired by one of Fishers favourite classical stories and the Greek mathematician Archimedes. In the myth of Atlas, the Greek god is condemned by Zeus to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders, while Archimedes said: Give me a lever ... and I will move the world. Fishers thinktanks, together with those of his US billionaire friends, were to be the levers with which to move the world.
In the years since the referendum, two UK Atlas thinktanks have stood out for their influence over the Brexit debate: the Legatum Institute, a charitable foundation ultimately funded by a Dubai investment group, and Fishers original champion of liberty, the IEA. Both thinktanks have been energetic at different points in pushing Britain towards a hard Brexit.
A key figure in their efforts has been Shanker Singham, a British-American trade lawyer who worked extensively in the US, including as a lobbyist in Washington. He had previously been listed as an expert with the Atlas thinktank partner the Heartland Institute before joining the London-based Legatum in early 2016 as its director of economic policy. A reluctant remainer originally, Singham told us last year that he realised the leave vote was a massive global event that could reboot the whole World Trade Organization. Soon after the referendum, he put together a special trade commission at Legatum to produce a roadmap for a post-Brexit world. His team included fellows from the Heritage Foundation and other Atlas thinktanks.
Singham was an instant hit with the Tory partys hardcore Brexiters. The UKs trade negotiations had long been done through Brussels, and home-grown experts like him were in short supply. In September 2016, he helped to draw up a blueprint for a hard Brexit at a gathering of leading Eurosceptics, including then Brexit secretary David Davis, at Oxford University. That same month in parliament, Steve Baker, then chair of the ERG and himself the founder of an Atlas partner thinktank, the Cobden Centre called on the then trade secretary Liam Fox to make use of the work of Singhams first-class team at the Legatum Institutes special trade commission. In the months that followed, the approach taken by Daviss Brexit department appeared to follow much of what had been proposed at the Oxford meeting.
Over the next year, Singham and Legatums relationship with the Tory Brexiters blossomed. During this period, representatives from Legatum regularly met ministers including Davis, Johnson, Gove, Truss, Raab, Fox and Greg Hands. Referring to Singham, the senior Whitehall source said: He gets about, doesnt he? You certainly have to say at the least that he was very, very good at networking.
Philip Rycroft, the civil servant who was permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU) from 2017 to 2019, who is also recorded in government transparency data as meeting Singham on a number of occasions, explained that ministers were keen for him to understand Singhams views on Brexit. Ministers said he had interesting thoughts. Its perfectly legitimate for them to say: Can you check him out for us?, he said. It wasnt the sole channel to them.
In late 2017, Singhams commission published a Legatum report, The Brexit Inflection Point, which was later found to have breached Charity Commission rules for being too politically partisan. Legatum removed the report from its website and halted its Brexit work altogether in spring 2018. Around this time, Singham left Legatum to set up a new International Trade and Competition Unit at the IEA, keeping his Brexit work in the Atlas family.
In the autumn of 2018, the ERG cranked up the pressure on Theresa May, with ammunition from the free market thinktanks, as Brexit negotiations reached a crunch point. In July, Mays Chequers plan, which included regulatory alignment with the EU and an Irish backstop keeping the UK in a customs union, fell apart just days after ministers had agreed to it. By the time MPs returned from the summer recess in September, they found the political agenda seized by the ERG, which made a series of orchestrated media announcements. Baker coordinated these through a WhatsApp group. What followed looked like a good example of well-worn Atlas strategies at work capture the political narrative through the media, use different groups to maximise coverage, work to shift the overall climate of opinion.
Reports had begun to appear in the media, based on briefings from anonymous sources, that Davis was working with the IEA to deliver a 140-page alternative to Mays plan. Yet it failed to materialise, reportedly after ERG members were unable to agree on some of its wilder ideas, which included a military expeditionary force to defend the Falkland Islands. Instead, on 11 September, a little-known organisation, Economists for Free Trade, launched its vision for Brexit, which involved walking away from an EU trade deal and reverting to WTO rules. The economist speaking on the panel at its launch event was Prof Patrick Minford, trustee of and veteran contributor to the IEA; he was introduced by the then ERG chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was also an adviser to Economists for Free Trade.
The next day, the ERG produced another paper, this time on how to solve the Irish border problem. The ERG held a launch event in London, and a blog founded after the referendum, Brexit Central, which was edited by the former policy director of the TaxPayers Alliance, published the paper online. Separately, a few days later, Hannans Initiative for Free Trade launched his ideal US-UK free trade deal, the collaboration between UK and US Atlas thinktanks. The following week, the IEA launched Plan A+, its own radical proposal for a Canada-style free trade deal, drawn up by Singham and his team. The ERG supported the launch and Johnson took to Twitter to declare it a fine piece of work by @shankerasingham @iealondon.
There was a puzzling circularity to all this activity generated by separate organisations, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be connected. The merits or otherwise of the proposals were almost beside the point. They captured the news agenda day after day, creating a tide of commentary and headlines. Because broadcasters often fail to match Brexiters with trade experts, they get away with their nonsense, Simon Wren-Lewis, professor of economics at Oxford University, has noted. By the time the nonsense is revealed as such, and enough people know why it is nonsense, the discussion has moved on and new nonsense appears.
In November 2018, the Charity Commission told the IEA to take down Singhams Plan A+ for being too politically biased. This year, it was republished, with 3,184 revisions to the original document. Meanwhile, Singham continues to work with ministers and the ERG through his private consultancy, Competere, and another new thinktank.
Ruparel, the former special adviser to the prime minister on Europe, recalled having to analyse all the thinktank proposals with officials that autumn to brief the prime minister on them. He had worked for an Atlas thinktank partner, Open Europe, commenting on the game from the sidelines, before becoming a special adviser to Davis in 2016, and later to May. In government, he told us, actually trying to deliver practical policies was easier said than done. He said the ERG blitz was stressful but that its proposals had zero impact on negotiations under May in the end. It was all stuff wed looked at before and dismissed because it was non-negotiable with the EU, he told us. But did it shift the tide of opinion against the prime minister? Did these ideas start the political pressure on Mrs May or was the pressure there and politicians picked up these thinktank ideas to make their point? Its a judgment call, he said.
According to the senior Whitehall source: It was a pretty unsettling time. We were very conscious some ministers had bought in to this stuff and you were in between two very strongly held ideological positions, one of them supported by thinktank people who had the ability to turn out papers very fast. It didnt make life easy. But despite an awful lot of ink being spilt and lots and lots of meetings, they never came up with an answer that sorted out the Irish border. There was a gap between the ideologically driven wish and the hard reality.
One striking thing, talking to current and former Conservative MPs, is how little they seem to know about the influence of key thinktanks in the Atlas Network. Anna Soubry, the former Conservative minister and advocate of a second referendum, acknowledged to us that the ERGs sustained campaign of media events in autumn 2018 had been hugely significant, but she was not aware of the thinktank work behind it.
The clique that think about Europe and nothing else now dominate every aspect of the party, said Margot James, the former Conservative digital and culture minister. Its just different to the one I joined. When James entered parliament in 2010, she became a member of the Free Enterprise Group and went to IEA events, but eventually found the thinktanks views too rigidly ideological. James now feels that a number of MPs have adopted the IEAs ideas lock, stock and barrel and that Johnson had surrounded himself with dogmatic small-state conservatives. Oh, there are people at No 10 who would honestly make your hair stand on end, she said.
Amid the febrile political atmosphere post-referendum, some remainers have seized upon the personal and organisational connections linking the many Atlas thinktanks. The Labour and Green parties have accused anonymous donors of failing to identify their real agenda, and of using these organisations to undermine British democracy; the Brexit referendum was never presented to the electorate as a way to return to unfettered globalisation, they argue. The thinktanks have also been accused of allowing undeclared donors to influence their research. All of these allegations have been vigorously denied.
After the referendum, Elliott, the former Vote Leave director, became a fellow of the Legatum Institute for a period, researching populism and going on a speaking tour of the US. He visited old friends at the Heritage Foundation and four other Atlas Network thinktanks to share lessons from the victorious campaign and to make the case for Brexit as a great opportunity for the US-UK trade. He also became an Atlas Network mentor. As far as he is concerned, the Atlas Network had nothing to do with the Brexit campaign. He told us he was bemused by the spider diagrams drawn by leftwing campaign groups that link Brexit to the influence of undeclared thinktank funders in the UK and the US. Its verging on conspiracy theory, he said. His view is that the result of the Brexit referendum came as such a shock to many remainers that they are desperate to find any alternative explanation rather than accept the fact that the British public wanted to leave the EU.
Last year, investigators from Greenpeaces Unearthed journalism team covertly recorded the head of yet another US Atlas thinktank, the E Foundation For Oklahoma, saying his group was planning to raise money to give to the IEA to campaign on Brexit. Littlewood, the IEAs director, boasted on film that he was in the Brexit influencing game, and said he had completed a lucrative tour of US donors. When the footage was published, the IEA denied that it had received any cash from US businesses in relation to its work on trade and Brexit, and stated that it did not recognise the sums of money being suggested by the E Foundation.
In recent years, US Atlas partners, under sustained criticism over their funding, have become more transparent in listing many of their donors. By trawling their annual accounts, US tax returns, and grant databases from US foundations, it is possible to identify some of the major donors to US Atlas thinktanks that have hosted prominent British Brexiters or teamed up with them to produce material. Foundations associated with the Koch brothers have been major funders of the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Mercatus Center, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. These same thinktanks have also received funding variously from other foundations connected to US plutocrats, including the ultra-conservative Bradley, Scaife and John Templeton foundations. The family foundation of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer has been a major donor to the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.
The Atlas Network, as an umbrella organisation, has also received multimillion-dollar funding for its worldwide activity in recent years from foundations set up by the Koch, Scaife, Bradley, Earhart and Templeton families. It lists those who give it money in its annual accounts, but only declares its own grants and donations to other organisations in Europe as a whole, making it impossible to see how much it has donated or passed on to specific UK partners. It told us that it had not funded any Brexit-focused projects in the UK.
UK thinktanks in the Atlas Network mostly do not identify their donors. They argue that donors, whether British or foreign, have a right to privacy. It is also the case that some private funders and corporations have declared donations themselves, and these have been acknowledged by the thinktanks on their websites, while some donors have been revealed by journalists. In the past two decades, a series of tax-efficient vehicles for US donors have been developed, which make it possible to route money to Atlas thinktanks in the UK. These have raised more than $6m (4.6m) for rightwing British thinktanks since 2014. New Guardian analysis has identified 11 donors who have given nearly $4m in the past five years.
Hannan and the IEA are unimpressed by the lefts criticism of thinktanks funding and supposed impact. A lot of the critique of these supposedly influential groups is based on the idea that if you establish that a libertarian is speaking in a libertarian thinktank, your work is done, said Hannan. But if you take the view that we should have pluralist debate, whats wrong with that? He pointed out that the Hungarian-American billionaire investor George Soros has funded the pro-EU cause. (Grants awarded by Soross Open Society Foundations are listed on its website.)
Hannans own thinktank, the IFT, does not identify its funders, but he defended the right of the super-rich to use their money to help shape politics. It would be a regressive thing if people who succeeded in life, whether its the Kochs or anyone else, thought they should spend money on themselves rather than on things they believed in. Of course you would expect people to be spreading their ideas, he said. Besides, he argued, in the marketplace of ideas, even vast sums of money cannot magically turn bad ideas into persuasive ones. In the end, he reckoned: The best ideas win. Thats how it works, isnt it?
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How the right's radical thinktanks reshaped the Conservative party - The Guardian