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The Tory donor, Soviet-born Billionaire and Fossil Fuel Interests Bankrolling British Politics  

Policy Exchange, Institute for Economic Affairs, Global Warming Policy Foundation and co refuse to name their donors. But Peter Geoghegan has found recently published US tax documents that reveal important new details about who funds these secretive think tanks

Just Stop Oil protestors daub the headquarters of the Conservative Thinktank Policy Exchange.

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A former Conservative minister once told me that the cheapest way to influence British politics isn’t to give money to politicians – it’s to fund a right-wing think tank.

The network of think tanks nestled around Tufton Street in Westminster “incubated” Liz Truss. They have the ear of Rishi Sunak and other Tory ministers. Their representatives are constantly in the British media. 

Despite their political influence, British think tanks are charities and not required by law to disclose the names of their donors. That’s why their funding is often called ‘dark money’.

However, I’ve found US tax documents that show Tufton Street think tanks received more than $1m from the US in a single year, 2021, including significant sums from a major Tory donor, an influential Soviet-born billionaire and fossil fuel interests.

Amongst other things, the documents show for the first time that:

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Tufton Street’s American Friends

Tufton Street has long boasted of its influence on British politics. Last week I showed how Truss’s new ‘Growth Commission’ was dominated by senior figures from the US and UK ‘dark money’ think tank world.

Think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs have a history of taking money from tobacco and fossil fuel companies. Rishi Sunak recently told an audience at Policy Exchange that the think tank inspired his government’s laws targeting climate change protesters – after it received funding from the US oil superpower ExxonMobil.

Many of the network of think tanks around 55 Tufton Street have ‘American Friends of’ groups to receive funding from US donors – raising concerns about the influence of foreign money on British politics. 

Last year, the Charity Commission reviewed a complaint against the Global Warming Policy Foundation after my erstwhile colleague Adam Bychawski revealed that the American Friends of the GWPF had received funding from groups US linked to the oil and gas sector, despite saying that it was independent of the fossil fuel industry. Adam (a brilliant reporter, well worth a follow if you’re still on Elon Musk’s hell site) also showed that Tufton Street think tanks had previously received millions in funding from US climate deniers. 


Climate Sceptics and Fossil Fuels

The financial ties between Tufton Street and US climate deniers remain strong, according to the US tax filings I found, which cover 2021 and part of 2022. (The IRS has been very slow publishing tax documents since Covid.)

The Sarah Scaife Foundation, which has long been accused of funding climate denialists in the US, has donated to the American arms of the GWPF, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Legatum and the Adam Smith Institute in recent years.

Between them, the US arms of the IEA, Policy Exchange and Legatum also received more than $250,000 in 2021 from the National Philanthropic Trust, which has been accused of funnelling anonymous cash to climate sceptic groups in the US.

The National Philanthropic Trust is an example of what is called a ‘Donor Assisted Fund’ (DAF). These third-party US entities allow charitable donations to be made without disclosing their source and have often been accused of funneling dark money into politics.

Right-wing DAFs have donated significant sums to Tufton Street. In 2021, the American Friends of Global Warming Policy Foundation’s US arm received more than $100,000 from the Donors Trust, a DAF which has given hundreds of millions of dollars to US climate sceptics. 

Some of the funding for Tufton Street’s US operations is held back for expenses, but most of it eventually makes its way to the UK.

In 2021, the American Friends of the GWPF transferred $150,000 each to the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Global Warming Policy Forum, which has been rebranded as Net Zero Watch. (GWPF set up the forum after the Charity Commission found that it had broken impartiality rules in its climate coverage in 2014.)

The GWPF has been at the forefront of opposition to the UK government’s Net Zero policies. In May, controversial Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson joined GWPF’s board. A few weeks later, right-wing Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns became a director of GWPF’s campaign operation, Net Zero Watch. Jenkyns is a member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MPs, which has been pressuring Sunak to abolish the UK’s carbon emissions trading scheme and other green initiatives. 

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Political Connections

The US arm of Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank co-founded by Michael Gove, was the biggest recipient of US donations on Tufton Street in 2021, taking in $512,650.

Two of Policy Exchange US’s biggest benefactors were Tory donor Yan Huo and a foundation controlled by Soviet-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik.

Blavatnik is best known in the UK for his sponsorship of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. In the US, Blavatnik has attracted attention for his significant political donations to both Democrats and Republicans, including GOP house leader Kevin McCarthy, as well as his contributions to bluechip US universities

Policy Exchange’s American arm also received $34,786 in 2021 from the Blavatnik Family Foundation 2020 – run by Blavatnik’s brother Alex – “to support and advance the program of policy exchange between the UK and US”.  

The American Friends of the Institute of Economic Affairs received $386,000 in 2021, while the US wings of the Legatum Institute and the Global Warming Policy Foundation, took in $320,000 and $156,488, respectively, in the same year.

Meanwhile, in 2021 Adam Smith Institute received $30,000 from a US libertarian funder for a project entitled ‘the true reality of communism’.


Who Funds You?

These US tax documents shed important new light on Tufton Street’s funders. But there is still so much we don’t know about who is bankrolling these think tanks – even as some of their leading figures are set to be given seats in the House of Lords.

Former Charity Commission board member Andrew Purkis has long raised concerns about Tufton Street. Last year, he called for the IEA to be stripped out of its charitable status for breaching rules on political lobbying. 

Before finishing this piece I had a call with Purkis, who I’ve known for a few years. He told me that “wherever a charity is damaging its own reputation by the sort of funding it accepts, then it’s a matter of valid concern for the Charity Commission because it affects the reputation of the whole charity sector.” 

Tom Brake, who runs Unlock Democracy, which is campaigning for greater transparency of think tank funding, said that my findings “underline the urgent need to break the secrecy that surrounds the funding of many of the UK’s think tanks. With global temperatures smashing record levels daily, if big oil and climate change deniers are pumping money directly or indirectly into influential UK think tanks, we have a right to know.

“We need certainty on who is funding them and to what end.”

I agree. When we get more transparency about dark money in British politics from the US treasury than we do from UK authorities, we have a problem.


This piece originally appeared on Peter Geoghegan’s ‘Democracy for Sale’ Substack. Sign up here for updates. (https://democracyforsale.substack.com/)


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