This is the strange tale of how Greenpeace and the Guardian newspaper colluded to attempt to show that the IEA is an all-powerful, Illuminati-style puppet-master controlling the apparatus of government on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the corporate elite remain in charge.
It all began in Copenhagen in May, where I was at the annual Europe Liberty Forum, which brings together free market think tanks, activists and academics from across the Continent. One attendee went by the name of Tom Delacy. He was registered as from a group called “Trade is Great” though he explained he was really with a public affairs firm called Harrison Boyd. He seemed a nice enough chap, and we chatted happily about the IEA, the work we were doing specifically on trade and whether there might be ways for us to work together. He and a colleague had previously met with the Atlas Network, the organisers of the Copenhagen forum, who’d suggested that they would find lots of free trade enthusiasts in Copenhagen that week if they wished to come along.
He did seem particularly obsessed about how many times we met with government ministers to discuss policy, but rather clueless about the details of trade policy itself. Things didn’t seem to quite stack up, but a search for Harrison Boyd did reveal it was a firm based in Canada (their office address even showed up google maps). They also had their own website, which was limited on content, but still broadly had the look of a boutique PR agency (now deleted).
Somewhat suspicious, but willing to give Mr Delacey the benefit of the doubt – I discussed the matter with Michael Carnuccio, my opposite number at the E-Foundation, a pro-market institute in Oklahoma, who we have been working with closely to foster better US-UK trade relations.
About a week later Mr Delacy asked if he and his colleague ‘Emma’ could meet my colleague Shanker Singham, who heads up our trade team at the IEA, and me. By this time, we had checked the website ownership of ‘Trade is Great’ [also now deleted] to find that the website ownership was paid to be hidden and we’d spoken to friends in Canada.
Other things did not feel right. I was going back and forth by phone and email quite a lot with the E-Foundation at that time and we compared notes on our ‘too good to be true’ though wholly untraceable new friend.
But we met with Mr Delacy. I confess to not being too concerned at the time – this was a follow up meeting not a ‘deal-making’ one, with the next step being for us to complete due diligence on Harrison Boyd and for us then to confirm in writing precisely what our terms were for any donation before we received it (such as clarity that donors do not influence the contents of IEA reports, see the report prior to release and to confirm clients are not a state organisation, amongst other things).
At our meeting, which it transpired he taped, we discussed a wide range of issues – including the IEA’s interactions with politicians, the fact that donors cannot and must not influence the conclusions of our work and the broad thrust of the IEA’s finding in the trade area (concern that regulatory alignment with the EU might inhibit future trade deals, criticism of the “precautionary principle” and its damaging effect on innovation etc).
This week, while away in the USA, I learned that the whole elaborate set-up was part of some madcap campaign by Greenpeace to expose the IEA’s working practices and to shine a light on our wide-ranging influence on world affairs. All of which would be flattering if it wasn’t all rather childish.
Firstly, we showed how we were willing to talk quite openly about our ideas and business approach with a potential supporter, even one we regarded with considerable suspicion and without having conducted due diligence.
Secondly, like most, if not all, think tanks, we relish the opportunity to discuss ideas with policymakers and politicians. Simply producing research papers or pamphlets that no one takes any notice of would be a forlorn exercise. The fact that we can get a hearing from politicians across the spectrum is a matter of considerable professional pride to us at the IEA, not of any embarrassment. I’m not sure how effective we are in educating politicians about free market ideas, their profession often requires them to consider short-term and tactical decisions, whereas think tanks tend to provide a longer-term strategic perspective.
We organise dozens of events every year, usually held at our offices in Westminster, in which we bring together politicians, advisers, businesses, journalists, academics and IEA donors to discuss a wide range of different policy ideas.
This seems to concern Greenpeace and the Guardian as being “cash for access”, completely missing the point that we can’t control or guarantee any sort of access to or any sort of sanction against any politician. MPs attend our events entirely of their own volition and we have no ability to enhance or diminish their careers. If politicians speak to us, it is because they want to and think we have something useful to say.
There is an enormous job of education to be done – especially on trade policy – in part because the UK hasn’t had one for over forty years. The IEA aims to be a resource for anyone who finds our work useful, irrespective of party, ideology, Remain or Leave, backbencher or minister or, indeed, politician or non-politician. We provide analysis without favour so that people can be as educated as possible on these complex issues.
We are accused of being both ideologues and corporate shills at the same time, which is rather difficult to reconcile. PR companies simply represent the interests of their clients, the IEA makes representations based on a wider free market perspective. This might be useful for IEA donors, but the commitment to free markets pre-dates any donor relationship. There are no circumstances in which we would put forward anti-market statements or research because a donor wished us to do so.
There also seems to be a concern from Greenpeace and the Guardian that we support a “hard Brexit” and are somehow engineering one. However, our work focuses around a Brexit that delivers free trade and open markets. We believe this approach – which we have advocated irrespective of our membership of or departure from the EU – will deliver effective long-term economic solutions far beyond the blinkered and day-to-day interests of governments or bureaucrats.
In fact, during the referendum, the IEA took no official stance on the outcome of the Brexit vote (indeed, we take no corporate stance on any specific policy issue). Our staff were split on the issue, and our spokespeople are on the record on either side of the debate. I debated the issue live on CNN with a fellow IEA employee. Shanker Singham, who joined the IEA in March 2018 to focus on Brexit-related trade and competition issues, was pro-Remain.
Prior to the Brexit vote, we published major works in 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016. One of our primers from 2013 explaining the role and value of free trade has been translated around the world, including in Farsi, Korean, Arabic and Armenian. Our earliest work on this stems back to the 1960s.
We get criticised about transparency, whilst consistently making clear that we respect the privacy of our donors and don’t place a list of them in the public domain. It is a matter for individual donors whether they wish their donation to be public or private – we leave that entirely to their discretion –many of whom do publicise this.
To see the full list of accusations made by Greenpeace and the Guardian, along with the IEA’s responses, click here. Unfortunately, we were refused a full transcript or recording of their undercover ‘interview’, which seems a little odd for a campaign supposedly promoting transparency, but we have replied as best we can from the snippets they have furnished us with and from memory.
The Institute’s editorial and policy output is decided by its research team and Academic Advisory Council. In other words, we make independent editorial decisions and then seek funding.
It is surely uncontroversial that the IEA’s principles coincide with the interests of our donors. A cursory look at other think tanks would confirm this.
For example, the think tank Reform have several donors in the healthcare industry and undertake significant work on NHS reform. The New Economics Foundation take a significant amount of taxpayers’ money from NHS England and undertake work in this area, whilst the IPPR are funded by BP and Shell and do work in the energy field.
And our detractors are obsessed with claiming we cannot be an educational charity, yet steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the huge amount of work we do directly for students and teachers, at schools and universities.
They aren’t interested in the vast number of events and conferences we run, or our annual THINK conference which saw over 500 sixth formers and students attend The Royal Geographical Society for a day full of talks, seminars and an in-conversation session with Nobel Prize Winner Vernon Smith. They don’t care about the hundreds of students we mentor every year. They ignore the fact we publish a hugely popular magazine – EA which reaches nearly every A-Level economics class in the country.
We believe that capitalism and free markets lift millions out of poverty; we believe that an informed and educated approach to Brexit is necessary if we wish to see it deliver enhanced freedoms; we believe in showing how the application of market processes can improve people’s lives right around the world.
Yes, we need to seek donations. But these follow our ideas – our ideas do not follow money. Yes, we seek to influence and educate politicians, in the same way we do students. What would be the point of having any research at all if we didn’t promote it?
We have rigorous and academic work that we wish to promote; we exist to be thought-provoking and influence the climate of opinion.
I suspect the obsession of some anti-market campaign groups and journalists with the IEA lies principally in recognising the amazing impact the Institute has achieved for a relatively small turnover of around £2.5m per annum (The Guardian Media Group’s turnover is at least £200m, Greenpeace’s income in the UK is something like 10 times bigger than the IEA’s).
But there’s a very long way to go before the IEA can consider its mission complete. And that means many more politicians, advisers and journalists to educate.