Dark Money Investigations: News

How both sides of Scottish indy debate are being bankrolled by dark money

Revealed: Former PM Gordon Brown’s think tank Our Scottish Future is among those receiving the lowest transparency rating

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
3 May 2023, 10.00pm

A think tank set up by Gordon Brown has received the lowest possible transparency rating in openDemocracy's latest Who Funds You? audit


openDemocracy / James Battershill

Prominent think tanks on both sides of the independence debate in Scotland, including one set up by Gordon Brown, are keeping their operations secret and using dark money to fund activities, an audit by openDemocracy has uncovered.

Our Scottish Future, a pro-union group founded by the former prime minister in 2019, publishes no information on its donors. Its published accounts show it has assets of just under £350,000 but provide no details of how that money was received.

Another pro-union think tank set up in 2017, These Islands, offers no information on its website of who supports it financially, what income it has or what purpose money was provided for.

And pro-indy think tank The Scottish Independence Convention, launched in 2005, provides no public information on funding, or even the corporate structure that underpins it.

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Think tanks can play a significant role in shaping political debate and even government policy. These organisations, along with 17 in total across the UK’s devolved nations, were scrutinised as part of openDemocracy’s latest “Who Funds You” report – a systematic audit of the financial transparency of think tanks.

The audit found devolved think tanks have less money than their larger UK-wide counterparts, which were last audited by openDemocracy in November. A total of £3.1 million in spending was identified in the devolved nations, split across the 11 think tanks that published this information.

As part of the process, each organisation was notified of their proposed transparency rating in advance and invited to provide any further information that may alter the grade. There are five grades, from A (most transparent) to E (most opaque).

Four of the organisations immediately published further information to improve their transparency rating. In two cases, this meant the think tanks moved from grade E to grade A. Two more pledged to improve their transparency information in the future.

However, the audit found a quarter of the cash spent by think tanks targeting devolved institutions – around £800,000 – could be described as dark money as it was raised by organisations given the lowest transparency grades of D or E.

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate of the true dark money spending as five think tanks did not publish any annual income information at all.

One such organisation, Centre for the Union, has been active in the recent debate in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit trading arrangements, and has been critical of both the Northern Ireland Protocol and the updated Windsor Framework agreement between the EU and UK.

The group’s parliamentary chair is DUP MP Ian Paisley and its “director for Northern Ireland policy” is Jamie Bryson, a loyalist campaigner who has been prominent in leading opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Centre for the Union is a limited company incorporated in October with a registered office address in Glasgow. Its sole director is Ethan Thoburn, editor of anti-EU lobby group The Bruges Group and director of Orthodox Conservatives.

In a report published in November, openDemocracy’s audit revealed the UK’s most secretive think tanks raised more than £14m from mystery donors over the previous two years. A third of UK think tanks received an E rating in the audit.

The latest report extends the scope of the audit to think tanks targeting devolved governments and institutions. While several in Scotland and Northern Ireland received poor scores; the two Welsh think tanks covered in the audit both achieved an A rating.

The Bevan Foundation and the Institute for Welsh Affairs, had a total income of nearly £700,000.

The top grade is applied to organisations that name all funders who gave £5,000 or more and who also declare the exact amount of money given by each funder.

Other think tanks that received an A for financial transparency include the Scottish think tanks Common Weal, Business for Scotland and Migration Policy Scotland. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also maintains a Scottish office and produces work dedicated to Scotland. IPPR Scotland does not produce a separate transparency report, but its parent UK body has previously been rated grade A.

Juliet Swann, senior policy officer at Transparency International in the UK, said it was “heartening” that some think tanks made improvements when alerted to their potential poor score in the audit.

“Openness about governance, sources of funding, and any political influencing activity, are essential for public confidence in how our democracy works,” she said.

But she also called on think tanks in Scotland to ensure they recorded their activities on the official lobbying registrar.

“We also note that of the Scottish think tanks mentioned, only Common Weal and IPPR appear to be registered with the lobbying registrar and recording their meetings with MSPs and ministers,” she added.

“We would urge any organisation seeking to influence Scottish policy development to declare their funding sources, be transparent about their governance and commit to submitting returns to the lobbying registrar.”

Download the latest Who Funds You Report here. You can help us to promote financial transparency among more think tanks by supporting our work.

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