In the 18th Century, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and “father of economics” Adam Smith first described the “invisible hand” of the free market. Smith believed this was a benevolent force, a natural corrective in the capitalist system that meant those who had accumulated wealth would be (subconsciously) compelled to redistribute some of that wealth to those who had not.
During the campaigns for the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections, the presence of another invisible hand could be felt. The opaque activities of several Free Market acolytes, many of whom also actively crusaded against Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, betrayed a less benevolent agenda in their attempts to influence voters and neutralise the SNP and independence movement.
In Scotland in 2021, the invisible hand was wielded as a fist.
The Neoliberal campaign against independence
During a recent investigation, published in conjunction with The Ferret and The National, we analysed the activities of several anti-SNP and anti-independence groups funding aggressive Facebook ad campaigns that potentially met the diagnostic criteria of “Dark Money” activity. These groups all shared similar patterns of behaviour, in particular a calculated obfuscation of those responsible for establishing, managing and especially funding the campaigns.
Collectively these groups have spent, at a conservative estimate, £63,000 since the end of 2020 on explicitly political, pro-union Facebook ads. For comparison, the official Scottish Green Party Facebook account has only spent £42,000 on Facebook ads, and that is since 2019.
During our investigation we discovered that several of the individuals involved in these groups were actively coordinating similarly caustic and opaque campaigns against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour in 2019. This article builds on the first and exposes a wider network of connections and associations linking at least five of these groups together into what we have designated the Unionist-neoliberal complex.
These individuals all espoused a conservative, neoliberal ideology, with particular emphasis on free-market and libertarian principles (all of which we’d argue are essentially interchangeable in the context of current UK politics). Some are employees of organisations specifically founded to promote this agenda. This article is not so much about Dark Money, but the Dark Arts of neoliberal propaganda.
This is not a conspiracy theory or apophenia. We make no claims that these individuals, and the groups they represent, are running a singular, coordinated campaign that would violate the EC “working together” regulations. What is clear from our research is that the campaigns identified form a specific “interest group” that can be distinguished from the wider anti-independence movement. Whereas the overall pro-union community truly believe in the union as a cultural, political, historical and social entity, we would argue that this mercenary neoliberal faction deploy the emotive arguments of unionism to disguise what they truly believe in from voters, which is a singularly ruthless ideological project.
Marxist economist David Harvey argues that:
“the [Neoliberalism] project is about concentrating and accumulating more wealth and power within a very small faction of the capitalist class and corporate world… It was funding of the think tanks and all of the rest of it to produce a counter-narrative as to what the nature of the problems were–and those problems really focused on that the workers had too much power. They had to be somehow disciplined. And the big question was how to go about doing that. So there emerged then this political project to try to attack working class power.”
It is no coincidence that all the individuals discussed here are part of the neoliberal “discourse influencing industry” of think-tanks, professional lobbyists, activists and journalists. The patron saint of PR and propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote about how “intelligent minorities must make use of propaganda continuously and systematically”:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes.”
As “shrewd persons” of the neoliberal political project, these groups mentioned below are propagating a counter-narrative seeking to undermine any progressive movement threatening the accumulated power and wealth of the UK’s Corporate class. These groups, by attacking both Jeremy Corbyn and Indyref, are essentially a counter-revolutionary movement, defending the status quo and reinforcing the ideology that brought us Brexit as the dominant political narrative in the UK. They are anti-liberty libertarians.
As Thomas Frank asserts, “Libertarianism is supposed to be all about principles, but what it’s really about is political expedience. It’s basically a corporate front, masked as a philosophy.”
But who do these concealed hands we’re talking about belong to? We will start with a group not covered in the previous article, Young Unionists.
MAX YOUNG: YOUNG UNIONISTS
Max Young is currently registered as the responsible person for the Young Unionists campaign. YU are an unincorporated association that spent £21,008 on anti-SNP Facebook ads. There are two key pieces of evidence that undermine Young Unionists appearance as a completely grassroots organisation. Firstly, the last paid for ad ran on the day of the election, and since then the main page has gone from posting multiple times a day to only 3 posts in total since the election. Surely a genuine grassroots campaign page would remain active, continuing with it’s activism and community building, as demonstrated by other Unionist groups such as UK Union Voice?
Secondly, and more importantly, there was a key change of YU staff just two months before the election. Before March 28th 2021 Gavin McWhinnie, a Regional Chair of the East of Scotland Scottish Young Conservatives, was recorded as the person responsible for sponsoring all YU paid for ads. When contacted about his involvement in YU he stated: “I have had no dealings with any expenditure for that page this calendar year. I am therefore unaware of any electoral registration issues that may arise. You should refer any questions to the Young Unionists directly.”
After March 28th the person identified as responsible for YU advertising is Max Young. Young is the former Deputy Editor of two explicitly Neoliberal media sites, 1828 and Free Market Conservatives.
Young was also named as a “relevant participator” in the Capitalist Worker campaign in 2019. CW was an unincorporated association that was investigated by Peter Geoghegan and OpenDemocracy for suspected Dark Money activities targeting Jeremy Corbyn. The CW campaign spent £50,313, including £37,760 on aggressive Facebook ads. The site was managed by Max and his brother Conrad, as well as Brian Monteith. Monteith is the Editor-In-Chief of ThinkScotland.org, to which Young contributes regular articles, and which we discuss below.
The only other person that can be found as a named participant of the YU campaign is Heather Rainey. From extensive research she appears to have no discernible social media, or online presence whatsoever.
Nowhere on the Young Unionists Facebook page or website do they openly declare the identities of those responsible for running the campaign, nor do they disclose the identities of any donors.
Although not involved in YU, it is interesting to note that Max Young’s brother Conrad was involved in both Capitalist Worker and another opaque campaign targeting Corbyn in 2019 called City Action. City Action spent £40,000 on Facebook ads without identifying any donors. The group was run by an organisation called Centre Point Strategies who we profiled in another previous article as being linked to Scottish political campaigns and donations supporting current Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross.
BRIAN MONTEITH: THINKSCOTLAND.ORG
Brian Montieth is the named individual responsible for funding Facebook ads for Free Market, anti-independence campaign site ThinkScotland.org. He is a former Conservative MSP and Brexit Party MEP. Monteith has worked as Director of Communications for the Brexit advocacy think-tank Global Britain and as Head Of Press for the Leave.EU campaign. He was the Head of Research at the now dissolved right-wing Scottish think-tank Policy Institute and served on the advisory council of The Freedom Association.
ThinkScotland.org is a “virtual think-tank” founded by Nursing Home entrepreneur Robert Kilgour. Kilgour is the Director of another 2021 unionist campaign group, Scottish Business Supports the Union (SBUK). He is registered as donating £64,800 to the Conservative Party. The ThinkScotland.org site itself proclaims:
“ThinkScotland’s editorial outlook has always been right of centre – with the aim of explaining and defending free markets and an open liberal society – but crucially without endorsing any one political party – or taking a corporate view.”
Although the site identifies its founder and editorial team, it remains evasive about other sources of funding, coyly referring only to “other generous donors (who) have come forward to give their financial support, large and small.” Brian Monteith has posted at least £27,000 of ads undermining the SNP and independence movement since the end of 2020.
One specific advert Monteith paid for promoted a ThinkScotland.org article by Jon Dobinson, whose company Untrodden Path provided election materials for another alleged Dark Money campaign in 2019, the Campaign Against Corbynism, run by James Bickerton. We shall discuss Bickerton’s two anti-SNP Facebook groups below.
In our previous article Monteith said: “ThinkScotland.org provides an online magazine format far beyond politics, including culture, travel and reviews – our advertising helps attract larger numbers of readers. All Facebook and Electoral Commission protocols are followed and what is required to be published is published. Electoral Commission registration has already been applied for.
“Requiring publication of the details of every donation to small magazines and cultural outlets would be a disproportionate and onerous restriction on freedom of speech – and would create huge disincentives to the crowd-funding that many people use to provide modest financial support to their favourite worthwhile causes.”
The last active paid-for ad on the ThinkScotland.org Facebook profile was one encouraging tactical voting and ran during the Scottish Elections, two months ago.
JAMES BICKERTON: DIVIDED WE FALL AND EXPOSING SNP
James Bickerton is recorded as the individual responsible for the ads run by two anti-SNP groups, Divided We Fall and Exposing SNP.
Bickerton is a former research assistant to Sarah Wollaston MP and is a journalist for The Express. He has also worked as the Political Editor of The Backbencher, a “libertarian-leaning politics website“ that believes in “free markets and free peoples…The Backbencher was coined to promote unorthodox politics: to highlight issues facing Britain, promote the Libertarian cause, and maybe change some minds and opinions along the way.”
Bickerton, along with Ted Jeffrey and Joanne Bell, ran the Campaign Against Corbynism group in 2019.
When interviewed about Campaign Against Corbynism by Jeffrey Bickerton stated: “We wanted to very much not look like a Tory front…it needs to look like [stutters] well it needs to look like what it is, a unified campaign.”
Ted Jeffrey is currently the Editor-In-Chief of the conservative media site Wolves of Westminster, having formerly contributed to other sites mentioned in this article including Comment Central and The Backbencher.
Joanne Bell (who tweets under the guise of @jobellerina) is a strategic communications consultant and activist with the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Against Anti-Semitism.
Peter Geoghegan also links Campaign Against Corbynism to ThinkScotland.org contributor Jon Dobinson, the founder of the Recovery campaign and Director of Brexit Dark Money lobby group World4Brexit. Geoghegan identifies Dobinson as the Director of Untrodden Path Ltd, a company that provided “election materials” to CAC (Untrodden Path was used by another dubious political action operation called Working 4 UK Ltd, which also attacked Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.)
Like CAC, both Divided We Fall and Exposing SNP fail to identify those responsible for managing the groups, nor do they disclose the sources of their funding. The groups spent £1,000 and £3,700 respectively on Facebook ads.
Bickerton said he founded and still runs the Campaign Against Corbynism, adding its policy is to keep donors private due to serious threats and abuse received in the past. He said: “I have some involvement with Divided We Fall and Exposing SNP and can confirm neither has spent any money at all except for Facebook advertising. I’m a fervent unionist for a variety of reasons and wanted to launch a pro-union group that would campaign across not just Scotland but England and Wales as well. I still think there’s a big opening here – not much point saving the union in Scotland if it crumbles in, for example, England.”
Bickerton said he’s been helping Exposing SNP after a group of Scottish students launched it and asked for his advice, adding he’s “much more on the periphery”. He has advised them about dealings with the Electoral Commission but doesn’t run the Facebook page, although he does have admin rights.
He continued: “I have nothing to do with their website. The guys who founded the group were worried – quite understandably from my experience (with CAC), it can be extraordinarily vicious – about cybernat trolling and didn’t want to go public unless the group reached a certain size. I agreed we would put out ads under my name. I’m so used to abuse I didn’t think a bit more would make much difference.”
MATTHEW KILCOYNE AND TOM PRIDHAM: BUSINESSES FOR THE UNION
Matthew Kilcoyne is named as the responsible person for the Businesses For The Union campaign, another unincorporated association we discussed in our prior investigation. Kilcoyne is Deputy Director of the free-market think-tank the Adam Smith Institute. A former Conservative Party activist, he has worked as an advisor to the Government’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group. Also a journalist, he is regularly published in The Telegraph and 1828. In an article titled “Ignore the Angry Cyber Nats”, Kilcoyne describes the independence movement (both Welsh and Scottish) as “caustic”, whose narrative is one “that suits a certain kind of creepy weirdo who spends a little too much time in his mother’s basement sticking pins in wax models of Englishmen.”
Kilcoyne’s employer, The Adam Smith Institute, is one of the most influential think-tanks in the UK. The ASI was one of three organisations the Thatcher government relied heavily upon for policy advice, alongside the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). No strangers to dark money accusations, the ASI are rated as “highly opaque” by Transparify.org as they refuse to disclose both the providence and amount of funding they receive.
The ASI have recently published a paper by Young Unionist Max Young as well as their own “Neoliberal Manifesto” (to which Kilcoyne contributes two chapters) in collaboration with Young’s former employer 1828.
When approached for the previous article, Kilcoyne stated that: “My work at the Adam Smith Institute has nothing to do with the Scottish election and Businesses for the Union is totally independent. Registration for BFTU is with the EC…Thank you for raising awareness of British voices and Scottish businesses that want to retain our Union and avoid the disruption and division another referendum and independence would create. I encourage all unionists to show their support.”
The ASI did not respond to prior requests for comment.
BFTU spent £10,549 on Facebook ads attacking the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon without disclosing the sources of their funding.
Tom Pridham is the registered secretary of BFTU. He is currently a Director of Public Affairs for FTI Consulting Strategic Communications. Ranked number 25 of top consulting firms in the US in 2019, FTI lobbies at Westminster. Other individuals associated with FTI include Conservative Lord Ed Vaizey and Alex Deane, a career lobbyist, who also serves on the advisory council of The Freedom Association.
Tom Pridham states on his twitter bio that he is the Chair of the Shaftesbury Conservative organisation, as well as regularly contributing to neoliberal media such as Comment Central, Conservative Home and Max Young’s 1828.
Pridham’s linkedIn page also states that he was employed as a Caseworker for former Conservative MP Victoria Borwick from July 2016 to January 2017. He began this role one month after the Brexit referendum in which Victoria’s son, Thomas Borwick, served as the Chief technology officer for the Vote Leave campaign.
The Businesses For The Union campaign, run by Kilcoyne and Pridham, states that “We stand as an independent voice for small Scottish businesses who believe the risk the leaving yet another union, is too much.”
Robert McChesney states that “Neoliberalism is the defining political economic paradigm of our time-it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximise their personal profit”.
As we have illustrated here, there has been a clear and concerted effort in neoliberal circles to combat the threat of progressive movements in the UK, be it the truly Socialist re-awakening of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, or rejuvenated independence movements advocating the dissolution of Westminster Unionist hegemony.
As Noam Chomsky warns us “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.”
In May 2021 and December 2019, the invisible hands of the neoliberal project invested significant amounts of time and money working in the dark to influence UK democracy and reinforce the ideological dominance of the Capitalist class.
The question now is, what progressive movements will these PR paramilitaries target next, and what action can we take to rebalance this asymmetric propaganda warfare, and it’s real world consequences?
Follow Sean Rankin on Twitter @ClydesiderRed
Neither Billy Briggs, The Ferret or The National are affiliated to The Free Press? Nor do the views in this article necessarily reflect or align with those of the aforementioned parties.
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