Richard North, 02/01/2017  

As we progress into the seventh month, post referendum, the defining characteristic of the debate is that it seems to be going backwards. In a forward-looking debate, one might have expected the various protagonists by now to have reached a point where they could identify at least the main heads of the "end game", with the shape of a post-Brexit scenario beginning to emerge.

Instead,  the basic options are still being chewed over, and the issues have yet to be resolved. The only real development, as Lost Leonardo observes, is the idea of a transitional or interim option. It has been rising in prominence among politicians, journalists and academics, who are finally catching up with the concept. But there is no consensus as to what it should be, nor any clarity or realism. Some pundits are even reversing their own previous positions. 

Essentially, what we are seeing is a failure of the traditional systems which keep society informed. This can be termed the "information nexus" which, in the political context, comprises certain fixed elements. At its centre is government, with all the apparatus associated with that institution. Then we have the political establishment, comprising Westminster and the political parties plus, of course, the devolved assemblies.

They, in turn, feed – and are fed by – the media in all its shapes and forms, creating the third side of what might be a closed, equilateral triangle – but for a fourth element which supposedly keeps the system fresh and buoyant. This fourth element is the think-tank movement which started to come into its own in the 1950s. Having grown in number and stature, the ideas generated by think-tanks are widely credited with powering the Thatcher revolution.

So important have think-tanks become that they have almost become an arm of government, devising and topping up the policies which drive the different administrations, giving a vital impetus to policy formulation in a way in which the Civil Service never could.

As with the other three arms of the "information nexus", though, the European Union and, in particular, Brexit, has presented a particular challenge to the think-tank, to the extent that one would find it difficult to point to any one organisation which had excelled – or even distinguished – itself in devising a post-Brexit policy.

The progressive failure of the think-tank movement was remarked upon, on this blog, in Match 2015, and we have also reviewed the unwholesome grouping of right-wing think-tanks.

There are also concerns about the lack of transparency in funding, and also that foreign governments are making substantial donations to some organisations. Now, courtesy of the Sunday Times, we see another dubious link exposed, as four executives of the London-based Adam Smith International have been outed as netting as much as £43 million in share payouts and bonuses in the four years to 2016.

Says The Sunday Times, the consultancy is one of the biggest beneficiaries of government contracts, involving hundreds of millions of pounds of foreign aid, and has been embroiled in controversy, including allegations of obtaining private official documents that could help it bid for contracts.

And although financially separate from it, Adman Smith International is affiliated to the Adam Smith Institute think-tank, and acts as its consultancy arms. It was co-founded by Peter Young, a former Institute researcher, until recently cited as fiscal policy adviser to the Adam Smith Institute.

The Institute itself, is a frequent contributor to the debate on foreign aid, but not since 2010 has its director Sam Bowman called for foreign aid to be abolished. One would have thought that, with this being (apparently) the official policy of the Institute, Mr Bowman would be making strong and continued references to it.

And despite waxing lyrical over the misuse of public funds, Mr Bowman has never highlighted the role of his sister organisation, nor that his former co-worker, Peter Young, is now a multi-millionaire – as indeed are all four directors of Adam Smith International. Clearly, when think-tanks have undisclosed relationships with partisan organisations, of fail to disclose interests when publishing reports, there is something to be concerned about.

But a more subtle and insidious bias comes when think tanks indulge in self-censorship because of external relationships or donor interest. It is what is not said which can be as important – if not more so – than what it said. Combined with its generally poor quality work and its penchant for plagiarism, the Adam Smith Institute adds itself to the ranks of think-tanks, the work of which cannot be trusted.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The inability of the think-tank movement, as a whole, to offer any serious thinking on Brexit creates a huge gap in the public debate. Yet, by the very fact that so many think-tanks exist right across the political spectrum, and insist on contributing to the debate, means that they act in a role similar to bed blockers, crowding out other contributions.

Thus, a movement which has dominated post-war politics not only seems to have little to offer - it is impeding proper debate of the issue. And, when the other three arms are also failing, it would seem that the traditional information nexus is no longer working. Brexit, therefore, is creating new stresses in the system, suggesting that we need new mechanisms for delivering information.

In terms of think-tanks, though, there may be case for regulation, at the very least requiring these organisations to disclose their donors and to identify all their affiliates. In the meantime, we can but marvel at the hypocrisy of those whose enthusiasm for the free market, and winding down "big government", extends only as far as the first government pay cheque.

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