British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has stepped down in the midst of an escalating scandal tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The ALEC connections have led opposition party leaders and the British press to question whether British Prime Minister David Cameron has been "allowing a secret rightwing agenda to flourish at the heart of the Conservative party."
Fox, Atlantic Bridge, and ALEC
Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy reported on the escalating political scandal involving allegations that Fox's friend and former flatmate, Adam Werrity, had been profiting off of their relationship. Werrity had been handing out business cards embossed with Parliament's logo that described him as an "adviser" to Fox, and businessmen had gone through Werrity to arrange meetings with the defense minister. Lobbying firms and charities tied to Werrity, in turn, would receive payments from some of those same individuals and special interests. As the Fox-Werrity scandal unfolded, it emerged that Werrity had been using Fox's taxpayer-funded office as the official headquarters of a "charity" Fox had founded in 1997 called "Atlantic Bridge."
In 2001, the American Legislative Exchange Council set up a sister charity by the same name, which led to a surge in Atlantic Bridge funding and activities.
The Guardian stated that, as a result of the ties to ALEC, "It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the space of five years the Atlantic Bridge went from a small, Tory-leaning charity, dispensing freedom medals in the name of Thatcher, to an influential networking club linking most of the cabinet to powerful business interests, neocons and Tea Party enthusiasts."
Fox spoke at the 2008 ALEC meeting, and thanked ALEC for their partnership with Atlantic Bridge. The Atlantic Bridge has not only been tied to ALEC, but also to U.S. Congressmen like Jon Kyl and Lindsay Graham, as well as GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, whose spokesperson, Jeffrey Gordon, is a former defense industry lobbyist.
Last year, the British Charity Commission criticized Atlantic Bridge for "promoting a political policy [that] is closely associated with the Conservative Party," rather than advancing its charitable purposes. Atlantic Bridge was given a year to report back on how it changed its activities, but the organization closed its doors on September 31 rather than change its ways. The dissolution came in the midst of the Fox scandal and just before The Guardian revealed Werrity had been running the charity from Fox's taxpayer-funded offices.
Fox held on to his position through the months-long, continually escalating controversy, but resigned Friday after a "money trail" exposing Werrity's self-dealings was revealed. But the scandal stretches beyond Fox and Werrity -- in the aftermath of the resignation, it is the ties between ALEC and Prime Minister Cameron's cabinet that may have the greatest impact.
Questions Raised Over PM Cameron's Neo-Conservative Connections
Prime Minister David Cameron has aimed to promote moderate policies within the Conservative Party with a "green" commitment to environmentalism and pledges to protect Britain's free healthcare system. But as the Center for Media and Democracy has documented, ALEC's agenda is diametrically opposed to those policy positions -- ALEC promotes climate change denial, opposes federal health care reform, and calls for dismantling social programs.
The Guardian writes:
Both Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians stepped up their demands for the prime minister to explain why several senior members of his cabinet were involved in an Anglo-American organisation apparently at odds with his party's environmental commitments and pledge to defend free healthcare. ... The powerful lobbying organisation, which receives funding from pharmaceutical, weapons and oil interests among others, is heavily funded by the Koch Charitable Foundation whose founder, Charles G Koch, is one of the most generous donors to the Tea Party movement in the US. In recent years, the Tea Party has become a potent populist force in American politics, associated with controversial stances on global warming.
A long list of Cameron cabinet members have ties to the organization. For example, Cameron's press secretary, Gabby Bertin, admitted she was paid £25,000 by drug manufacturer Pfizer while working as the "sole employee" of Atlantic Bridge in 2003. Pfizer is a longtime ALEC member and has used the organization to push deregulatory policies and limitations on lawsuits in North America. At the time, Fox was health secretary for the minority party and his "charity" had taken an interest in health policy.
Additionally, in the same way deep-pocket donors in the United States (like the Kochs) contribute directly to Republican candidates and fund a network of right-wing organizations, Atlantic Bridge received funding from a network of U.K. donors that also fund Britain's Conservative Party. For example, Michael Lewis of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre not only donated to both Atlantic Bridge and Conservative political candidates (including Fox), he also paid for Werrity's Israel-related travel expenses. Hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs banker Michael Hintze gave £1.5 million to the Conservative party since 2005 and donated £104,000 to Atlantic Bridge; he also supplied a private jet for Werrity and Fox to fly to the United States in May, as well as funding other travels, and gave Werrity office space at Hintze's hedge fund. Additionally, after the Charity Commission charged Atlantic Bridge for retroactive taxes owed during the period it was violating its tax exempt charitable status, Hintze bailed out Atlantic Bridge with a £60,000 loan. The Daily Mail writes these funding activities "could lead to accusations that a group of rich businessmen were effectively paying to try to exert influence over one of the key members of the Cabinet."
The Shadow Defense Secretary, Jim Murphy (a member of the minority Labour Party), writes in The Observer:
With each passing day there have been fresh allegations of money and influence and it appears that much of the source was the Atlantic Bridge network and its US rightwing connections. We need to know just how far and how deep the links into US politics go. This crisis has discovered traces of a stealth neocon agenda.
British Public Opposes U.S. Conservatism
A survey of letters to the editor on the topic suggests the British public is wary of America's current brand of far-right conservatism.
One letter stated:
As citizens of Britain and the European Union we vote for both the Westminster and Brussels parliaments on the assumption that both bodies are acting in the interests of their electorates ... the creation of a secretive and discredited "charity", the Atlantic Bridge, which relied on the power of right-wing overseas extremist groups and tax-avoiding billionaires to pursue their own agenda on behalf of foreign interests, is clearly an infinitely greater threat to our democracy and British sovereignty than [integration into the European Union (which British conservatives oppose)].
The drive towards small government, private healthcare and charity instead of government services for the poor mirrors the society some US bodies prefer. If true this would go some way to explaining why many of the current policies being pursued by the Conservative-led coalition in economics, defence, health, education and social security were not explicitly stated in the Conservative manifesto. Perhaps there exists a covert manifesto which was devised not by the Children of Thatcher but by the Children of Ayn Rand. None of us would have voted for that at the last election.
(ALEC-connected politicians are known for pushing an agenda far more extreme than voters expected. ALEC alum Scott Walker, for example, did not campaign on busting unions, defunding schools, and disenfranchising citizens, and some are feeling remorse.)
Call for Greater Transparency
Prime Minister Cameron took office on promises to clean up Britain's lobbying industry, but promised reforms will not take effect until 2013. A Labour Party spokesman said: "The Werritty scandal has shown the need for transparency is urgent," but the industry claims the "informal lobbying of ministers by undisclosed interests through opaque networks of party backers, former ministers and political friends will not be eliminated by registering or regulating public affairs professionals."
London's Daily Telegraph reports that the Cabinet Secretary is expected to rule that Fox violated codes of conduct, but the report will not include full information about those funding the activities. British media and the Labour Party are expected to continue investigating Atlantic Bridge donors, and the Center for Media and Democracy will be tracking the role of ALEC's corporate members.