Shanker SIngham, Gisela Stuart, David Davis , Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa Villiers launching Plan A+ at the IEA (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Censored by the state

How the Charity Commission suppressed a think tank’s Brexit output

“Don’t do anything political”. 

This was the message the Institute of Economic Affairs received in a phone call from the Charity Commission on 21 September 2018, three days before the launch of our paper Plan A+, which I was privileged to co-author with Shanker Singham. What this meant was never made clear. Think tanks, after all, are known to express opinions about politics.

Plan A+: creating a prosperous post-Brexit UK was written at speed in the shadow of the Chequers white paper that summer, the moment when Theresa May’s government reached its inevitable decision to align with swathes of EU rules, a decision which would have put the prosperity gains of Brexit essentially on hold. Five years since the referendum, we believe that the public should know how the Charity Commission, the quango tasked with regulating Britain’s think tanks, effectively suppressed the publication of what became the most reported think tank paper in UK history.

Our team at the IEA, the International Trade and Competition Unit (ITCU), had begun life at the Legatum Institute and moved to the IEA in March that year. Founded by Shanker Singham, the team believed that Brexit represented a brief moment for the United Kingdom to become an independent trading nation once more. In doing so it could help reverse the slide in human prosperity growth that had begun around 2000, as harmonised and burdensome multilateral regulations helped the rise of a crony capitalism that keeps incumbents on top and hinders the emergence of the disruptive innovators on which prosperity depends.

Shortly after the launch of the paper, the Commission told the IEA it was giving it an official warning

The team had maintained a constant stream of publications outlining the need for full independence from the EU if independent trade policy and renewed prosperity were to be possible. The purpose of this article is not to go into detail about the arguments in Plan A+, save to note that it was the most reported think tank publication in UK history and, after a launch carried live on two television channels, the Telegraph described the sudden shift in the Conservative Party’s “centre of gravity”. Confidence in Theresa May’s government never recovered. 

We also note in passing that the IEA was burgled four days before publication. The burglary targeted the offices of the Plan A+ authors, from which several laptops were taken, the office of Darren Grimes, then at the IEA, and Director General Mark Littlewood, on whose desk was placed a draft hard copy of Plan A+, taken from the authors’ office. (naturally we do not believe that this was connected to the Charity Commission: it is mentioned here to illustrate the torrid atmosphere of the time). 

Shortly after the launch of Plan A+, the Commission informed the IEA it intended to give the think tank an “Official Warning”. It suggested that when Plan A+ recommended an alternative to government policy this constituted “political activity”; and the Commission claimed that when IEA Director General Mark Littlewood had said in his speech at the launch that he hoped people would find the report “persuasive, perhaps even compelling”, this meant it constituted “advocacy”.

In November, the IEA was forced to remove Plan A+ from its website and to stop distributing hard copies. In early December, the Commission’s new “Regulatory Alert” told think tanks that it was “not acceptable” for papers to contain “arguments based on opinions or suppositions”. In February 2019, it told the IEA that launching Plan A+ ”in the public media spotlight” and with a panel containing “vocal supporters of Brexit who opposed government policy” justified its de facto censorship of the IEA.

The Charity Commission, which is a non-ministerial government department, informed the IEA that “The charity… does not have any Human Rights”, and that “those presenting… could have commented on the merits or not of the free trade principles set out in the report without calling for a change in government policy”. It made no such demands of think tanks whose authors took Remain-backing positions. As the IEA told the Commission: “we are being made an example to discourage others”. 

That an agency of state demanded the physical destruction of a book should be a canary in the coal mine

The IEA contacted the Commission through March, April and May. The Commission eventually stated that its aim is “the benefit of the public — including Government”. A year after it was first released, the IEA published a redacted version of Plan A+, cutting language like “the Brexit prize”, considered too emotive despite being the Prime Minister’s own phrase. This all happened just months after the Commission’s CEO told a Parliamentary inquiry that its guidance would not be used “to prohibit speakers with lawful… views”.

Like any think tank, the IEA has always sought to work with the regulator of its sector. But as the IEA is now explaining to the Government, there is a strong case to be made that the Commission broke not just its own rules but also the law, repeatedly.

Nonetheless, the IEA has been central to the Brexit settlement that has emerged. A month after the United Kingdom finally left the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson invited the IEA’s Director General and the Plan A+ authors to his historic announcement at Greenwich of the re-emergence of the “global champion of free trade”, where he described “decades of hibernation” ending “not a moment too soon”, announcing the beginning of “the great multi-dimensional game of chess” recommended in Plan A+, “in which we engage in more than one negotiation at once…” 

The British government has undergone a tectonic shift, pursuing a bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral agenda, in democratic control of its trade policy and domestic regulations. That the UK is joining the CPTPP, an idea mocked when it appeared in Plan A+, demonstrates how Britons now see their country’s role in the world. With the United Kingdom once more leading the cause of trade liberalisation, the IEA, which laid the intellectual foundations for the Thatcherite free-market revolution, has once again shaped the new opportunity for freedom and prosperity. 

All this is to the good. But that an agency of state demanded the physical destruction of a book should be a canary in the coal mine for the freedom to speak and publish in the United Kingdom.

Some of the information in this article is taken from the recent IEA paper ‘The New Trade Route: The story of the IEA, Brexit and the UK’s new approach to global trade.

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