There has been much unease about the Legatum Institute’s role in reorientating the UK’s trade policy for a future outside the EU. It seems at times to be a private agency operating within the government without democratic oversight, negotiating our place in the world and our future economic partnerships. So what sort of people sit behind Legatum?
The London ‘think tank’ is an offshoot of the Legatum Group, a private investment firm headquartered in Dubai. Legatum was established by New Zealand billionaire Christopher Chandler, a disaster capitalist who made his wealth as the post-Soviet economy collapsed in the 1990s.
Chandler was once a major shareholder in the Russian state energy firm Gazprom and in 2002 was named as a person of interest by the French security services because of alleged connections with the Russian security services and was accused by Bob Seely – using parliamentary privilege – of being a Russian agent. In January 2018 it emerged that Chandler had bought himself a Maltese passport, thus using his wealth to acquire the very rights that so many British citizens are being deprived of as a result of Brexit.
Steve Baker, until recently a Brexit minister, has a long-established association with the Legatum Institute and has called it the ‘UK’s leading voice of pragmatic free trade’. And indeed, its access to government ministers is truly astonishing.
One of Legatum’s former advisers, Crawford Falconer, is now Britain’s chief trade negotiations adviser, the second most senior official in Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade. Falconer was recently photographed with Fox outside the Trade Department as he launched a programme to ‘train’ civil servants across ten government departments in the ways of free trade.
Open Democracy recently revealed that Department for International Trade minister Greg Hands MP arranged monthly meetings with Shanker Singham, then head of the Legatum Institute’s trade commission. Singham also had multiple undeclared meetings with then Brexit Minister Steve Baker and met Philip Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union at DExEU’s Whitehall offices shortly after leaving Legatum. When the media started asking questions about Singham’s role, he neatly side-stepped into pro-Brexit think tank the IEA.
Like the Initiative for Free Trade, the Legatum Institute has fallen foul of Charity Commission rules for failing to operate objectively and offer independently minded education under the terms of its remit. Before allowing it – somewhat implausibly – to register as a charity, the Commission questioned the Institute’s links with the Legatum Group and its single-minded bias towards lobbying in favour of a low-regulation approach to the economy.
Other familiar Brexit faces at Legatum include Matthew Elliott, a co-founder of Vote Leave, the official campaign to leave the EU, who became a Senior Fellow in January 2017; and Radomir Tylecote, a Eurosceptic academic who left the Behavioural Insights Team, a private company advising the Treasury on how to ‘nudge’ or manipulate the electorate, after co-authoring a book criticising the EU.
In response to sustained media heat on the organisation, Legatum has taken some diversionary action, claiming it has ended its Brexit work. Matthew Elliott moved on in May 2018 to spend more time on lucrative political consultancy for investment firms such as Shore Capital, where his insights are no doubt highly valued by the ‘high net-worth individuals’ and corporations for which the firm works.
Meanwhile, long-time Legatum staffer Shanker Singham has set up a trade unit at the IEA as part of the ongoing strategy whereby a small group of like-minded actors establish a network of incestuous right-wing ‘think tanks’ to magnify their impact and dominate the media space.
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