Modern British History

Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics


The role of opaquely-funded, right-wing think tanks, pressure groups, and lobby groups in the Brexit saga has been foregrounded recently. This is partially due to the surprisingly central role the Jacob Rees-Mogg-fronted European Research Group (ERG) has come to attain in the lead up to the original date for Britain leaving the EU and calls to revoke Article 50.[1] The longer history of such groups in British politics is underappreciated, however.

Think tanks and pressure groups played a role in the Leave campaign, though their influence is impossible to evaluate. Their efforts were only one part of the much wider array of forces presenting the Leave case and attempting to convince the electorate.[2] Aside from politicians and political parties – such as anti-EU Tory backbenchers, UKIP, and a smattering of Labour Lexit campaigners – sections of the British media, especially the tabloid press, also played a central role.[3] .

However, it is by defining how the withdrawal agreement should be managed, and the direction of Britain afterwards once outside of EU, that think tanks and pressure groups have been most influential. Different groups see Brexit as providing an opportunity for the radical overhaul of British society. Lexit advocates see it as an opportunity to reform Britain on more social democratic – or even socialist – grounds.

This, however, is wildly utopian. Unsurprisingly, the debate about how to reshape Britain post-Brexit among Leavers has come to be dominated by right-wing – often free market – voices, such as think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute that are ideologically close, and often directly linked, to leading Brexiteers.[4] They see Brexit as a means of escaping EU regulations, enabling their ideal small-state, free trade Britain. This often joins with nationalist concerns. Some can even be plausibly described as nostalgic for empire: seeking Commonwealth nations as replacement trade partners is an obvious example. Such concerns are central to many in UKIP and the Conservatives, exemplified by Jacob Rees-Mogg having attended the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, an organisation with a history of hard-line nationalism that veers into racism.[5]

Small groups focused on thrashing out policy, engaging in propaganda, and allowing politicians and ideological allies to interact have always been a feature of politics. Ginger groups, parliamentary committees, and dining and debating societies have been central to modern British politics.[6] But the growth of think tanks and similar organisations led to new, more professionalised forms. More funding can be directed at promoting certain causes, allowing teams of researchers and campaigners to be employed full time to both craft policies and political rhetoric and to build and maintain political and media networks to spread their ideas.

There was a boom after World War II. Right-wing think tanks and industry groups began to grow in number and influence as part of a ‘counterrevolution’ aimed at reversing the post-war Labour government’s social democratic reforms which had ushered in Keynesianism, a mixed economy, and the welfare state.

However, such groups began to emerge decades prior. The early twentieth century struggle between free trade and protectionism was a key moment, and an instance of political conflict with interesting resonances with Brexit.

It began in earnest with Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign, championing imperial preference.[7] In one sense this was the opposite of Brexit, calling for Britain to become more closely enmeshed in an economic union, rather than leaving one. However, like with Brexit, there was also a deeper cultural aspect. Whereas those promoting Brexit value British identity and want to avoid becoming more politically and culturally tied to wider Europe, many proponents of imperial preference saw it as a way to rebuild a shared identity between imperial nations, particularly with the white-majority Dominions that had been granted political autonomy.

Chamberlain founded the Tariff Reform League in 1903,[8] and there were a number of industry groups which pushed for protectionism such as the Empire Development Union (EDU) and the Empire Industries Association (EIA). The Conservative politician Leo Amery played a key role, helping set up and manage the Imperial Fund, which covertly financed a range of organisations including the Trade Union Tariff Reform League.[9]

Free traders had their own organisations, such as the Free Trade Union. Whether they were decisive in nurturing popular support for free trade, or conversely a manifestation of popular feeling, Britain at the opening of the twentieth century has convincingly been described as having been a ‘Free Trade Nation’. Some of those involved in these efforts would go on to play key roles in setting up post-war free market think tanks and industry pressure groups such as Aims in Industry.

Elections fought over free trade vs protectionism resulted in Conservative electoral defeats in 1906 and 1923, but the protectionist pressure groups continued their efforts, while large sections of the press heavily pushed the policy.[10] By 1932, imperial preference was introduced at the Ottawa Conference. Whether the electorate had been swayed is hard to say as opinion polls had not yet been introduced and there was no referendum.[11] Yet politicians who favoured the policy believed – or could claim – they now had a mandate.

After Ottawa, groups such as the EDU and EIA rolled back their activities. The future course of action was relatively straightforward and decided directly by the executive.

Brexit is different. Only a stark choice between Remain and Leave was offered in the referendum, even though the possibilities for what happens after are much more open-ended. This has allowed right-wing political groups that had campaigned for Leave to assume an influential position.[12] This is not surprising given the rise in importance of such organisations, their close links to most of the leading Brexiteers, and the increasing impact of ‘dark money’ over politics.

Patriotic and free trade ideologies are combined in the Brexit visions of the most prominent Leavers. Somewhat ironically, it seems the two opposing sides of the free trade versus (imperial) patriotism struggle which led to the rise of the modern think tank and pressure group in Britain are now fused, and pushing for the same outcome.

Aaron Ackerley is an Associate Tutor at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed his Wolfson Foundation funded PhD thesis at Sheffield, titled Economic Ideas in the Interwar British Daily Press. It examines the contention that knowledge is power by analysing the specific ways in which economic ideas were created, reformulated, and transmitted by journalists. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

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[1] This would put on hold, or even provide the possibility of cancelling, Brexit. The ERG is a Parliamentary research support group, consisting of a group of Conservative MPs which have used hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money to fund its activities. However, it fits into a wider pattern of opacity that is the feature of many think tanks and pressure groups, with the ERG refusing to publicly reveal its membership list. There are also questions concerning its wider sources of funding, and many of its leading figures are closely connected to prominent right-wing free tanks and pressure groups.

[2] One of the more contentious elements have been claims of foreign interference in the referendum campaign, both state-backed as in the case of Russian propaganda and by private interests such as the US billionaire Robert Mercer. The latter has cultivated his own network of think tanks and alternative media companies, as well having financed Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm implicated in the breaking of electoral law.

[3] Tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were powerful champions of Leave, and decades of anti-EU stories featuring in their pages, many often being grossly inaccurate, helped lay the foundation for the Leave victory. The circulation of these titles has been steadily decreasing, which led some commentators to suggest their power was waning, but even aside from influencing their own readerships these titles helped set the wider media agenda, such as coverage across the BBC and especially the influential Today show on BBC Radio 4.

[4] For example, Rees-Mogg was one of the most high-profile champions of the Institute of Economic Affair’s post-Brexit policy plan.

[5] Mogg later said he regretted attending, but the fact he was trading on similar rhetoric and operating in linked networks led to his participation in the first place.

[6] This covers parliamentary committees and affiliated societies that are still important such as the Conservative 1922 Committee or the Labour Fabian Society, as well institutions that were more influential in earlier decades such as the Liberal Reform Society and cross-party dining and debating clubs such as Grillion’s, or imperialist groups such as the Coefficients and the Compatriots Club.

[7] This meant the erection of a protective tariff wall around the British Empire, designed to foster intra-imperial trade at the expense of non-Empire nations.

[8] The proprietors of newly founded popular daily newspapers such as the Daily Mail’s Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and the Daily Express’s Arthur Pearson became members.

[9] Amery also created a state agency, the Empire Marketing Board, which launched large-scale initiatives aimed at urging consumers to buy Empire goods, utilising poster campaigns and films.

[10] Most notable was the Daily Express, acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.

[11] Though in the preceding years some opponents had called for one, such as the liberal, free trade supporting newspaper the Manchester Guardian. ‘Books of the Day’, Manchester Guardian, 17 Jul 1930, 7.

[12] These groups are better able to promote their plans about how to reshape Britain’s post-Brexit future as many opponents of Brexit are focused on calling for a second vote.

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Thirty Years of the Fatwa


In late 1988, Muslim protestors in Bolton and Bradford, two poor and ethnically divided northern hotspots, were encouraged by television reporters to burn Salman Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Soon afterwards, on 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers had dramatic impact in the UK, as well as on global geopolitics. Thirty years ago today, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Britain in the course of the controversy. Following Rushdie’s ‘bloody Valentine’, the spotlight fell on Muslims. Previously they had been a virtually invisible minority group in Britain, subsumed within the broader category of ‘Asians’.

In this post we want to discuss the Rushdie affair in the context of a tide of rising Islamophobia and stereotyping. Since 1989, and accelerating after 9/11, Britain has seen a clash of fundamentalisms between extremism in the name of Islam on the one hand, and Western neoliberalism or state extremism on the other.

The Satanic Verses is about South Asian (mostly Muslim) and other migration to the UK, and the loss of religious faith. It contains a notoriously intangible section in which a character, Gibreel, who is psychotic, has a dream about someone called ‘Mahound’ (an insulting Orientalist term for the Prophet Mohammed). Rushdie, or Gibreel, or Gibreel’s disturbed subconscious, imagines Mahound as a paedophilic libertine who is also a ruthless businessman. Drawing on the now much-discredited satanic verses myth, the narrator suggests that sections of the Qur’an were dictated by the devil.  Prostitutes give themselves names of Mahound’s wives to excite their clients, and these names just happen to be those of the historical spouses of the Prophet Mohammed. There are countless other jabs at Islam, and religion more broadly.

This section of the book caused great offence to many, though not all Muslims. Particularly offended were Muslims who, like Rushdie, hailed from the Indian subcontinent, where the Prophet and his family are held in especially high veneration.  As the controversy spread, the novel was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. This culminated with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa (a legal opinion rather than a binding law) in February 1989 against Rushdie and his publishers. He followed this up by offering a million-pound bounty for the person who could kill Rushdie.

The fatwa was abhorrent and indefensible, but the dominant liberal reaction to the Satanic Verses protests was also questionable. Rushdie was positioned by commentators such as Fay Weldon and Malise Ruthven as one of their own. A pale-skinned, Cambridge-educated exponent of free speech, Rushdie’s Voltairean upholding of debate and democracy was juxtaposed with the supposedly barbaric and alien values of the protestors.

A reductive binary of liberating freedom of expression versus repressive religious culture emerged repeatedly in responses to the controversy by writers, publishers and journalists, as well as members of the cultural commentariat in Britain and elsewhere. Rushdie’s backers typically based their support for him on an absolutist defence of free speech. In this way, they echoed Rushdie’s own self-construction – expressed in essays such as ‘In Good Faith’ and ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ as well as his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton – as a courageous artist fighting against reactionary forces and speaking truth to power.

The reality was, and remains, much more complex than this. Freedom of speech is not a neutral concept or principle, and religious offence is always shaped by context. The majority of Rushdie’s British Muslim dissenters were far from powerful. Their protest was influenced by their social, racial and religious marginalization, and largely dismissed or vilified by privileged members of a liberal, secular arts establishment.

In the years following the publication of the novel and the subsequent furore, a number of controversies involving a clash between creative freedom and religious offence have grabbed media headlines. In Britain, the staging in 2004 of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep angered some British Sikhs. Then in 2006 small-scale protests erupted in London’s East End in response to the filming there of the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. Nearby, in the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s controversial depiction of Islam in their 2004 film Submission led to van Gogh’s murder. The following year saw global protests erupt in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Meanwhile the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo has been in the eye of a similar storm on several occasions and with devastating consequences.

Responses to these disputes by liberal commentators have remained hamstrung by a black-and-white worldview. Free speech is seen as a transcendental and absolute good, and religion – most often Islam – as censoring and censorious. Yet, there have been glimpses of a more gradated understanding in recent years. In 2015, for example, acclaimed writers including Peter Carey, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje objected to PEN’s decision to award their Freedom of Expression Courage prize to Charlie Hebdo because of the magazine’s offensive depictions of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups.

It is crucial to reflect on the events of thirty years ago and their legacy to ask how we might move forwards in a context that is deeply divided and plagued by Islamophobia. As Anshuman Mondal shows, any artwork intended for the public domain has a transactional dimension, and speech is a social and communicative act. Thus, creativity isn’t just about self-expression, and freedom of speech might work to forge understanding across differences. We must all recognize that some people are freer to speak than others. Also important, we suggest, is the imperative to speak – and listen – with social responsibility.

Rehana Ahmed is a senior lecturer in postcolonial and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book is Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism.

Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of four books including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays.

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PIP, Parity, and the Past: why history matters

L0006105 String galvanometer and human electrocardiogram

Few would deny that living with a mental health condition today often means living with stigma, limited support, or access to services. It has also become recognized that these issues do not affect people living with a physical health condition in the same way, thus leading to calls for ‘parity of esteem’ from charities such as Mind. [1]

Parity of esteem is best understood as valuing mental health equally with physical health, and in 2015 a government taskforce was created to achieve this. [2]

Nonetheless, disparity was recently brought into sharp focus by researchers at the University of York, who revealed significant differences in the allocation of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to people who have a mental health condition, in comparison to people living with physical health conditions such as diabetes.[3]

PIP was introduced as part of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, and supports people aged 16 to 64 who are living with long term health conditions or disability. [4]

York researchers cited the “informal observation” of appearance and body language in order to make decisions regarding eligibility as a potential cause of this disparity.

Nonetheless, history provides useful insight when attempting to understand how, rather than just why, such disparity between the mental and the physical may emerge in welfare contexts.

This is exemplified by the work of Rhodri Hayward, who traced the emergence and uses of the concept of the ‘unconscious’ in early twentieth century British primary healthcare. [5]

In this comprehensive book, Hayward’s focus on how the unconscious facilitated the interrogation of insurance or compensation claims in the wake of early twentieth-century welfare legislation, is particularly compelling.

Hayward defined the unconscious as the belief that there is “some sort of inner agent which records our experience and organizes its embodiment” which is beyond our control. [6]

In the early twentieth century, the passage of the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1897, 1900, and 1906), and the National Health Insurance Act (1911) offered a new scheme of sick pay and remuneration for the working population of Britain. These welfare policies set in motion significant changes in primary care. In the doctor/patient relationship the interests of the latter changed, as they became a claimant seeking financial compensation or insurance, not just medical treatment.

This legislation thus also stimulated a wave of insurance and compensation claims from the working population. Contemporaries lamented the economic and social implications of this increase, highlighting that a situation had been created where “any experience of sickness was bound up with the possibility of unearned reward.” [7]

The unconscious was vital to navigating and disciplining these complexities, and identifying malingerers. Crucially, the use of this concept allowed claims to be assessed without creating an oppositional relationship between the doctor and the claimant.

Moreover, contemporary medical professionals identified the group of “unconscious malingerers” whose “symptoms may be founded on fact, but are mostly imaginary.” [8] Such claimants continued to seek compensation long since their “real physical disabilities” had disappeared. [9]

Technological developments in electrophysiology facilitated the interrogation of a claim, as by detecting electrical currents produced by the heart, the ‘galvanometer’ was believed to reveal the “unspoken attractions and intentions of an investigative subject.” [10] In becoming quantifiable and measurable, the acceptance and use of the unconscious were solidified.

Hayward also sheds light on the place of the unconscious today, as he suggested that we may now have entered an “age of cosmetic psychiatry”, where psychological health is understood as within our control. [11]

In this new age, we are encouraged to shape our identities through an eclectic package of pharmaceutical and therapeutic treatments such as anti-depressants or mindfulness courses.

If we accept this shift, it is important to question what psychological concepts have or will replace those such as the ‘unconscious’ as a means of understanding the health, characters, and lives of others and ourselves. It is moreover useful to consider how these concepts may operate, discipline, or discriminate in a welfare context, such as a PIP assessment.

In his work, Hayward demonstrated how the unconscious shaped insurance and compensation administration. Married with new language and developing electrophysiological technology, this concept supported the interrogation, investigation, and assessment of claimants, and most importantly, the detection of malingerers. The acceptance and meaning of the unconscious was in turn shaped and reinforced by the language and practice which grew up around it.

By analyzing the use of this concept, Hayward demonstrated that it is possible to grasp why some people were granted insurance or compensation, and why others were not. His contentions and approach are therefore useful when trying to understand the current enduring and damaging disparity between mental and physical health, which has been highlighted by researchers and evidenced in PIP assessments.

Hayward’s work provides us with a useful template to analyse how, and therefore to understand why, people with mental health conditions are currently losing their welfare entitlement to PIP. His contentions should force us to question how current psychological concepts continue to facilitate and shape the decision-making process and outcome for PIP claimants, and whether these concepts have a role to play in disparity.

There are no simple answers to why parity of esteem continues to be so elusive in practice. This blog hopes, however, to have presented some useful tools to begin to ask the right questions.

Kate McAllister is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. Her research is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and aims to contextualise the current parity of esteem agenda, demonstrating that although this concept has shaped policy for over a century, implementing it in practice has recurrently failed. To navigate the complexities of this issue, her thesis focuses on the outbreak of Epidemic Encephalitis in Sheffield during the 1920s and 1930s.






[5]Rhodri Hayward, The Transformation of the Psyche in British Primary Care, 18701970, (London: 2014)

[6]Hayward, Transformation of the Psyche, xi

[7]Hayward, Transformation of the Psyche, p.37

[8]Hayward, The Transformation of the Psyche, p.36

[9] Hayward, Transformation of the Psyche, p.36

[10]Hayward, Transformation of the Psyche, p.42

[11]Hayward, Transformation of the Psyche, p.130

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Why Study the History of Child Abuse and Infant Death?


Content Note: death of infant children, child abuse, wrongful imprisonment.

Fifteen years ago today (December 10th 2003), Angela Cannings walked free from court, after over a year and a half in prison. She had initially been convicted of murdering two of her own children. Jason died in 1991 (aged seven weeks) and Matthew in 1999 (aged 19 weeks). The prosecution alleged that she had smothered them to death. Cannings consistently maintained that their deaths were from natural, but medically unexplained causes. Both convictions were quashed on appeal. The key issue was whether the deaths of the children were simply two instances of what is known colloquially as ‘cot death’ (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)), or of deliberate smothering.

The case was bound up in many ways with questions of expert evidence in court, especially that of (then) eminent paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow. He had described a rare form of child abuse that he named Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP) in 1977. In MSbP children have illnesses faked or induced in them by one of their parents or caregivers, who are supposed to be doing it for attention, or some form of recognition. It is now known as Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) by Proxy. Meadow became an authority on child abuse and infant deaths and his testimony was used in legal cases for the prosecution in the 1980s and 1990s. His shift from looking at prolonged fabrication of illness to SIDS has been covered elsewhere.

The quashing of Cannings’ convictions followed the quashing of a similar conviction for baby murder of Sally Clark in January 2003, and the acquittal of Trupti Patel in June of the same year. All three cases had featured Meadow’s evidence.

One of the interesting things here for historians of childhood and child abuse is how different explanations for child death, illness or maltreatment emerge in historically specific ways. Meadow’s 1977 naming of MSbP emerged from hospitals, and many of his cases were based upon repeated presentations of unexplained severe illness episodes. Cases would present and re-present over months or years, with huge numbers of tests being ordered to no avail. Eventually suspicion fell upon the mother, who normally in these cases ‘lived in’ hospital with her sick child, rarely leaving their side. Typically, in the early literature, when the mother was excluded from the hospital, symptoms subsided, and the child became well again. The inference was then drawn that it was the mother causing the symptoms.

In the aftermath of the Clark, Patel and Cannings cases the tide of public opinion turned against the very idea that mothers might harm or kill their children in this way. In January 2004, Government Children’s minister Margaret Hodge questioned “whether this is a proper diagnosis”; opposition health spokesman Lord Howe was more forthright, calling it “one of the most pernicious and ill-founded theories to have gained currency in childcare and social services… It is a theory without science.” The public tide had clearly turned. Meadow was struck off the medical register in 2005 for misleading statistical evidence given in Sally Clark’s trial, but reinstated a year later.

Awareness of different kinds of child abuse ebbs and flows in distinctive, historical ways. Explicit awareness of child (physical) abuse in hospitals emerged in the early 1960s through the practice of routine paediatric X-rays. (Child sexual abuse, which is now the most common meaning of the term ‘child abuse’ in British and North American paediatrics, does not take on this meaning until the 1970s, according to Ian Hacking). In Denver, Colorado, in the early 1960s, healing fractures in small babies were discovered, without being accounted for by histories given by the parents. Doctors concluded that these babies had been beaten. This issue of physical abuse, which bubbled along largely under the radar in Britain – despite some NSPCC reports in the late 1960s – exploded into national significance in England in 1973. Nine-year-old Maria Colwell was beaten to death by her stepfather while supposedly under local authority supervision. In the investigations into her death, guidelines were established to promote cooperation and information-sharing between the police, hospitals and social services.

This is the initial context for Meadow’s theory of MSbP: in a hospital environment, and one of heightened suspicion and concern. There was scope for extended contact between various agencies that could provide evidence that maltreatment might be occurring. As mentioned above, during the 1990s Meadow’s concerns shifted from prolonged fabricated illness to SIDS or ‘cot death’. Meadow was interested because he thought some of these latter cases were actually instances of baby murder by smothering, for the same psychological reasons he thought were behind MSbP.

However, the context had changed: from huge amounts of evidence in hospitals, Meadow was then called in to give evidence in court where there had simply been more than one SIDS death in the same family. He repeated at Sally Clark’s trial a statistic from a study that proposed the chance of two cot-deaths in the same (affluent, non-smoking) family were of the order of 73million to one. This calculation excluded the possibility of genetic or many environmental factors from consideration. Other paediatricians calculated that if hypothesised genetic and environmental factors did indeed play a role, the chance of two SIDS deaths in the same family can be as low as 200 to 1. (This is the statistical error for which Meadow was initially struck off, but it is not the reason that the first baby murder conviction – for Sally Clark – was quashed.)

In any case, the context has changed between the late 1970s to the late 1990s (hospital presentations to infant mortality statistics). The environment that brought a particular kind of child abuse to light in the 1970s is far removed from the court cases being tried in the early 2000s. The broader social history of these cases and conditions matters. It may well be that child abuse has regrettably always existed. But these are human definitions, human problems, and they are managed within historically specific contexts, ideas and institutions. These are subject to sweeping changes in relatively short periods of time. The Clark, Cannings and Patel cases are so controversial because they straddle a period of rapid change in understandings of infant death, and the credibility of various theories around child abuse.

Chris Millard is Lecturer in the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in British approaches to mental health, broadly conceived, and has written about self harm, child abuse and the philosophy of diagnosis.

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