The Speaker
Saturday, 20 July 2024 – 08:44

What are Think Tanks and do they really influence us?

Yes; Think Tanks not only influence public opinion but also government policy. However, to understand how they do this, we must first look into what Think Tanks actually are.

What are Think Tanks?

To give a whistle stop overview, Think Tanks are primarily research institutes that conduct and publish social and political research; they even draft legislation which may end up being used by the government. The majority of Think Tanks in the UK are ideologically driven meaning they have a set bias and will publish research and articles that fit with a narrative they want to present. Think Tanks are funded by donations from generally wealthy people and sometimes from government grants.

How do Think Tanks influence us?

Now that you know the basics of what a Think Tank is, how do they influence us? Media appearances are the most direct method that the public is introduced to them. Researchers or heads of Think Tanks appear on TV news to react to political turmoil or policy announcements, providing their opinion or, more accurately, the institute’s opinion on the issue being discussed. They also have representatives appear on TV political staples like Question Time and Newsnight, to name two. Think Tanks also produce a lot of content for print news, either writing full articles or having small excerpts from their published reports used within other articles. Many of these Think Tanks have pages on their websites that list their appearances in various forms of media. (IEA) (ASI)

However, when Think Tank representatives appear on TV, I doubt most people give a second thought to who they actually are. That their analysis of the news comes from a biassed standpoint; furthermore, in some cases they may be analysing laws that they themselves have lobbied or influenced the government for. 

What is the impact on our politics?

Connections between MPs and Think Tanks are a common thing. Many MPs used to work at Think Tanks or will do when they decide to leave politics. For example, the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng used to be the chairman of the Bow Group and the current Minister for Women and Equalities Kemi Badenoch, was a member of the advisory board for Onward, both right wing Think Tanks. But connections run deeper than former employment, especially for more right wing Think Tanks.

I know Liz Truss coming to power a couple of months ago seems like an age but her connections with right wing Think Tanks like Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) show how deep these relationships can go. According to a report by OpenDemocracy, several of her key economic policies, such as deregulation, tax cutting and cracking down on striking, originate from these Think Tanks. Some MP’s even described her as a “puppet” for said institutes. She was very close to the IEA, in particular founding its parliamentary wing, FREER in 2011, and hired its former communications director to run her campaign.

Furthermore, on the day of the announcement of the mini budget, Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the right wing blog Conservative Home, tweeted that it was a massive moment for the IEA saying that  “incubated Truss and Kwarteng during their early years as MPs. Britain is now their laboratory.” The head of the IEA Mark Littlewood, retweeted with the sunglasses emoji while the IEAs head of public policy tweeted “yes” to a statement suggesting Liz Truss had given control to extreme Neoliberal Think Tanks.

Liz Truss’ connections with Think Tanks were extreme but not overly rare. Further reports by OpenDemocracy describe how right wing Think Tanks have monthly meetings with Conservative MPs; one of these groups, the IEA, has been accused of offering donors exclusive chances to speak with government ministers behind closed doors.

To avoid listing further examples which will make this article overly long, I will provide links to reports by OpenDemocracy about the links to think tanks and government officials.

The talk of special access for donors leads me onto a darker part of Think Tanks: who gives them their money?

How are Think Tanks funded?

A volunteer run project called Who Funds You? looked into the funding of Think Tanks. They found that right wing institutes, many of which have connections with the government, like the IEA and the ASI, are the most closed about where their money comes from. A further report on this by Transparify in 2017 drew similar conclusions. What we do know about their funding comes from leaks. A report from nine years ago looked at the ASI and IEA finding that big tobacco had donated tens of thousands of pounds to both of them, calling into question their positions on smoking legislation. Both had opposed legislation to make cigarette packaging plain. The IEA has also received money from Exxon and BP, while both the IEA and ASI received millions of dollars from US funders of climate change denial. Although unconfirmed, many call into question Liz Truss’ pro-fracking regulation that’s in line with these institutes policy and the funding they are receiving from these oil giants.

These are likely only a small piece of how these Think Tanks are funded; most of its funding sources we will likely never know.

Do Think Tanks influence us?

So back around to the title: Think Tanks definitely do influence us, if not directly, but through influencing the government and the laws it passes. So when you switch on the news and see Think Tank representatives looking at and dissecting the politics and news of the day have a little think about who they represent, what ideology they may be trying to push? Have they lobbied the government on the laws that they are analysing? All news, whether it be print, TV, social media or radio, has been produced by a whole host of people with a whole host of biases and beliefs that may not be immediately apparent. This can be harder for various reasons. 

Firstly, taking the IEA as an example, they don’t want people to be aware of its biases. Its founder said that “we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the public along certain lines”. Secondly, when representatives from these institutes appear on TV news most of the time the public is given little to no context about the institute they represent or the biases it may have. 

Unfortunately, the task of properly dissecting the news falls to us, the general public. If you are ever watching the news and they bring on a researcher from some political institute and you have a free moment, take five minutes to have a quick google, become a journalist for a few moments and see who might be trying to influence you.

OpenDemocracy links:

Policing

Tobacco

Extinction Rebellion

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