Given that most think tanks and universities are heavily against Brexit, the recent arrival of the Legatum Institute into the arena of trade policy mattered. It was filling a a gap in the market: proper research into potential trade relationships, on the basis that Brexit might not be a disaster. It has also acquired the services of Shanker Singham, an experienced trade lawyer. Both he and Legatum have come under the microscope today with a Mail on Sunday splash suggesting that the Kremlin might be behind it all. Its headline: ‘Putin link to Boris and Gove Brexit “coup”’.
Did this relationship go too far, and did Singham end up advising Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on a private (now leaked) memo to the PM? This is one MoS allegation which has not been denied. But it’s the suggestion of Putin’s influence that makes the story incendiary, especially as it nods to the idea that the Kremlin was somehow behind Brexit. A popular theory, as Tracey Ullman’s sketches recently observed:-
Legatum’s sources of finance are certainly opaque. It’s owned by a Dubai-based hedge fund: not a great look. When Legatum came on the scene a few years ago, many people were trying to work out where the money was coming from and to what purpose it was being spent. But now, several years on, it seems pretty clear: Christopher Chandler made a tonne of cash and now wants to give away a tonne of cash through sponsoring progressive ideas. Through Legatum, he has a fairly long track record in promoting free markets with a specific view to poverty eradication. There’s the Legatum Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT, and also the $1 million Legatum Fortune Technology Prize for the ‘application of technology solutions has demonstrably improved the quality of life among impoverished populations’ and various similar initiatives. You get the idea.
Chandler is a New Zealand-born financier whose fund, Sovereign Global Investment, did some lucrative deals in Russia in the early 1990s. And this seems to be the only basis for the claims of a Putin ‘link’: the guy once made a lot of cash in Russia.
I’ve never met Chandler, nor have I heard anything about him, but I could guess at what he’s like. I’m involved in two think tanks: the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies, and I’ve been offered a glimpse into the strange world of fundraising. The typical donor is someone from a modest background who has made far, far more money than ever expected – he or she will want to give back. But how? Yes, they’ll give to charity. But they’ll see how much poverty is sustained by bad or clichéd political ideas. But here’s the problem: the bad ideas are in a feedback loop. They’re usually held by government, which collects tax, and then the tax money is sent into think tanks who tend to argue for higher taxes and a bigger state. So the cycle of poverty continues, with no new thinking.
To break the cycle, you need better ideas – but they cost, and they need sponsors. If you believe in the power of ideas and you have money to spend, then sponsoring research the promotes liberty, freedom and tackling poverty is a very effective way of doing so. More effective than giving the cash to political parties, who’ll put it onto a man in a monkey suit.
But I’ll tell you why I am confident that Legatum is free of Kremlin influence: in 2011 it hired Anne Applebaum. She’s one of the most brilliant politics writers of her generation (Gulag, Iron Curtain, Red Famine) and while at Legatum she exposed ways in which Putin is trying to influence the West. So Legatum would hold seminars with titles like ‘Putin’s Useful Idiots: Russian Media and the European Far Right’ and the ‘Beyond propaganda’ project monitoring other forms of Russian manipulation. Fiery, impassioned, effective: she is the last person on earth that the Kremlin would choose as a stooge. She was the power behind Legatum until she quit last year. She went because she was (and remains) deeply opposed to Brexit, a project to whose success Legatum is now committed. But she was on to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon before anyone else.
Legatum is an influential think tank run by a secretive owner, so deserves scrutiny. The Mail on Sunday has asked some legitimate questions, but Legatum has given a clear answer and flatly any Russian influence or funding – saying the Russian investments were one of many. ‘One is not in cahoots with Putin merely because one owns publicly-listed shares of a Russian company,’ it says. It might have added: if Putin wanted to disrupt capitalist society, why would he set up a passionately pro-free market think tank? If Putin wanted a stooge, then hiring Anne Applebaum in 2011 would be like Nixon secretly sponsoring Bob Woodward in 1972.
Oh, and from 2011 to 2014 Legatum was run by Jeff Gedmin, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In fact over the years, I’m not sure any organisation in Britain has done more to scrutinise and oppose Putin’s crony capitalism and general malfeasance.