As I expected all along, Guido’s ‘crusade’ against the Smith Institute has turned out, on publication of the Charity Commission’s Inquiry Report, to be pretty much a busted flush.
Overall, the Smith Institute has been criticised for failing to take sufficient steps to ensure that it maintained a clear public image of political neutrality and balance in the face of what has been, on Guido’s part, a quite blatant and sustained campaign of smears and innuendos, many of which have proved to lack any substance or foundation. So far as Guido’s role in instigating the investigation is concerned, the most telling piece of commentary in the report is the Commission’s account of his response to the Commission’s section 8 direction, which required him to deliver additional evidence that he claimed, at the time, to have in his possession:
180. A direction was issued under section 8 of the Act to a complainant [Guido] to obtain further evidence that they claimed to hold. The complainant’s response re-iterated earlier concerns and referenced previously published and publicly available information. Therefore, the response from the complainant did not provide any further information to assist the Inquiry.
In short, when pushed to back-up his claim to have additional evidence to support his complaint, Guido produced nothing of substance that wasn’t already in the public domain.
Guido is, if this blog post is anything to go by, furiously poring over the report in an effort to figure out how best to spin its contents to maximum advantage – and yet, on an honest reading of the Commission’s findings one would have to conclude that the real issue the report raises is simply that there is a general tension that exists between the constraints that charity law mandates on political activity and engagement by registered charities and the basic role and function of political think-tanks. There is nothing by way of criticism in the Commission’s report that could not equally be applied to the activities of the Camaroonies favourite think-tank, Policy Exchange, itself a registered charity.
One of the main themes that the report seeks to address, at some length, is that of whether everything from political statements made by guest speakers at Smith Institute events to the publication of papers with forewards written by serving government ministers amounted to evidence of the Institute having engaged in carrying out political activities inappropriate for a charity, and its in this section of the report that the bulk of criticism levelled by the Commission is to be found, leading to conclude that:
[T]he educational work of the Institute was acceptable in most instances, both in terms of its subject matter and value consistent with its charitable purposes, and it was widely accessible. However, there are a number of instances where the balance and neutrality of the Institute’s work were compromised by a party political association.
Bearing that in mind, what can one make of a pamphlet entitled ‘Compassionate Conservativism’, written by Jesse Norman (who, since publication, has been selected as a Conservative PPC) and Jana Ganesh and published by Policy Exchange in June 2006.
The promotional blurb for this pamphlet, on Policy Exchange’s website and on the back cover of the pamphlet reads:
David Cameron has made “modern, compassionate conservatism” the guiding philosophy of his leadership of the Conservative Party, stating that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. But many have expressed scepticism or even hostility to this idea. So what is compassionate conservatism, and how can it meet the social and political challenges faced by today’s Britain?
While the introduction to the pamphlet begins with this effusive paragraph:
One of the most prominent themes of the Conservatives under David Cameron has been that of “compassionate conservatism”. In a speech at Policy Exchange in June 2005, at the outset of his campaign to be leader of the Conservative party, Cameron said that his party would stand “for compassion and aspiration in equal measure”. In December, in his acceptance speech as leader, he called for “a modern and compassionate conservatism which is right for our times and our country”. And since then, he and other senior Conservatives have repeated this call in speeches, in the media and in political advertisements; and the theme of “modern, compassionate conservatism” has formed the core of the party’s new statement of aims and values, Built to Last.
Reading all that, it should come as now great surprise to find that a review of the pamphlet in the Sunday Times described it as a ‘handbook of Cameronism’ while Iain Dale, at the time a trustee of Policy Exchange, described it on his blog as ‘probably the first attempt by anyone to seriously define the Cameroonian political philosophy’.
Reading all that, does it appear that Policy Exchange have given due regard, in publishing this pamphlet, to the requirement that charities should avoid givng rise to the appearance of party political bias and/or a party political association?
Putting the party politicking to one side, something Guido is incapable of in this case, the real issue that the Commission’s report highlights is simply that there are serious incompatibilities between the constraints on political activity that go with charitable status and the manner in which political think-tanks operate, particular those that espouse a philosophical viewpoint that aligns closely with that of a political party – a fact that many think-tanks recognise. The Centre for Policy Studies, for example, has adopted the standard legal model for a non-profit organisation by registering as a company limited by guarantee but has chosen not to take on charitable status in order for it to have the freedom to pursue its political objective without the artificial constraints inherent in charity law. This is, in my view, as it should be. I don’t consider that the state should meet the costs of explicitly party political activity beyond what is necessary, in a parliamentary setting, to offset the advantage that governments have in developing policy by virtue of being in a position to tap into the resources of the state, and that goes for giving political think-tanks the benefits of the tax breaks that go with charitable status.
As such, what the Commission’s investigation indicates, particular when one applies the principles is expresses to other think-tanks, like Policy Exchange, is a clear need to review the whole question of whether these think-tanks should be eligible for charitable status at all.
What follows is likely to be desperately predictable.
Labour will clearly pitch the report as a near total exoneration when it not quite that clear-cut in a number of places.
Meanwhile, Guido will accuse Labour of spinning the report in its favour – which he already has – while doing everything possible to put his own face-saving spin on its contents and paint a considerable more damning picture of the report than it actually merits. As happened in the case of his often overblown coverage of the ‘loans for peerages’ investigation, Guido massively oversold the story in his efforts to enulate his ‘hero’, Matt Drudge, painting himself into a corner from which he now has to find a way to extricate himself now that the investigation has failed to live up to his earlier hype. As a result we can fully expect hm to bullshit like crazy for the next few days in the hope of blowing enough smoke to cover the fact that, when effectively challenged to put or shut up by the Charity Commission over his claim of having more evidence of wrong-doing on the Institute’s part, he signally failed to deliver.
That said, Guido’s early ruminations on the outcome of the investigation into the Smith Institute do provide a couple of points of interest.
In his follow-up post, Guido’s opening gambit is that of noting a footnote in the report that indiciates Gordon Brown did not respond to the Charity Commission’s correspondence, which he describes a ‘Nixonian’. Clearly, what Guido would like you to think is that the Charity Commission wrote to Brown in the course of its investigation and received no response. However, on the same page of the report, we find the entry to which this footnote specifically relates and which notes that one of the actions taken in the course of inquiry was that of:
[C]ontacting the Rt. Hon Gordon Brown MP and the Rt. Hon Ed Balls MP to offer them the opportunity to comment upon the Commission’s findings.
In other words, Brown was sent a copy of the Commission’s findings after it had completed its investigation but before publication of the final report and offered the chance to comment on its content, an opportunity he declined by default in choosing not to enter a response. As such, it implies only that Brown accepts the finding of the Charity Commission and sees no reason to challenge them.
What it does provide, however, is a nice clear demonstration of Guido’s efforts to spin the report as something it isn’t, even if the trick of presenting a single sentence out of context and trowelling on an innuendo (‘Nixonian’) is neither novel nor particularly clever.
(As the Charity Commission’s report on the Smith Institute is lencrypted to prevent the copying of text from the report, you may prefer to download this unencrypted version of the report).
The other item of interest is Guido’s follow-up reference and link to the ‘Centre for Open Politics‘ which, on its homepage, describes itself in the following terms:
WE ADVOCATE TRANSPARENCY IN THE POLITICAL PROCESS
Our work is inspired by and based on the work of the Sunlight Foundation in Washington D.C. We are committed to helping voters, bloggers and journalists be their own watchdogs, by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and Web sites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency.
Underlying all of Sunlight’s efforts is a fundamental belief that increased transparency will improve the conduct of politics itself and the public’s confidence in the political process.
Harry Cole and Amanda O’Brien
A cursory look over the real Sunlight Foundation suggests that it is as good as its mission statement:
Our goal through our grant-making, blogging, projects, and technical leadership, is to use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money,lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our newly discovered British imitators, Harry Cole and Amanda O’Brien.
For starters, hiding behind the ‘Centre’s’ domain name – www.sunlight-cops.org.uk – is a DIY social networking platform called ‘Ning‘ that, at the moment, is perhaps best considered to be a clunky variation on Facbook that allows you to put your own branding on your socila network.
However, and rather embarrassingly given its opening statement of intent, its on a matter of basic openness and transparency that the so-called ‘Centre for Open Politics’ falls flat on its face from the outset by failing to disclose the fact that of its two founders, Harry Cole, is (or at least was, as of July last year)…
a politics student and Vice-Chairman/Treasurer of Edinburgh University Conservative Association…
…and as ConservativeHome reported here, at about this time last year, young Harry was busily ‘running the [Conservative Future] recruitment drive out of CCHQ’ over the summer and ‘working closely with CF Chairman Mark Clark and Justine Greening MP to make sure a high number of new recruits sign up’ during the autumn round of university fresher’s fayres. You may also note that, at time, young Harry was also the proud own of this e-mail address…
And Amanda O’Brien?
Well, having conclusively tagged young Harry as a member of Conservative Future, its no great stretch to conclude that the Amanda O’Brien listed as a founder member of the so-called ‘Centre for Open Politics’ is very likely to be the same Amanda O’Brien who gets a brief mention in this 2006 article on Essex Conservative Future, which appeared in the Independent and who crops up as a campaign supporter on the blog of the, now, national chairman of CF, Michael Rock, where she is listed as the Deputy Chairman of Essex Conservative Future.
In short, the ‘Centre for Open Politics’ is a Conservative Future front set up by a couple of students who’re too stupid to realise that the first thing any halfway decent blogger will do on running across their website is run a background check on them. And I might also point out that it actually took less than ten seconds to make the pair of them for exactly who and what they really are, and so, with that, Harry and Amanda can kiss the credibility of their little project goodbye within a matter of hours of cropping up on the radar of the blogosphere.
How dumb is that!