A Roman soldier stands in a chariot, flexing his bow. One of the two horses is rearing; the arrow points skyward. The image is pretentious, and whoever drew it did not bother to find out what weapons the Romans used: not the bow and arrow.
These days anything goes, of course. But if you have given your organisation a name that appeals to history, a name you proudly say is Latin … wouldn’t you take a bit of trouble over your logo?
Legatum didn’t think facts were important. It was in a hurry.
The Legatum Group was set up in 2006 by Christopher Chandler, a New Zealand billionaire who, with his brother Richard, had made a fortune in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its headquarters are in Dubai. Its “development arm” is the Legatum Foundation, registered in Bermuda and controlled by a company in the Cayman Islands, which is the main sponsor of the Legatum Institute, based in London.
The Foundation claims to be an educational charity, but this status is currently being investigated by the Charity Commission. The Institute is advising Government on Brexit. The Wikipedia page on the Institute describes it as an “independent non-partisan policy, advisory and advocacy organisation.” This is laughable. A think-tank more partisan than the Legatum Institute is hard to imagine. It has espoused hard Brexit with fervour and total disregard for facts.
Here is a typical assertion from its recent document, The Brexit Inflection Point: “Historically, the British system of free trade made Britain, Europe and the world richer…” However, “the EU system that has replaced it – of protectionism and harmonised regulation – has constrained economic growth for Britain and the world.”
The Financial Times commented, “Anyone tempted by this pre-1914 nostalgia would do well to check the data.” Using Bank of England trade volume statistics back to 1830, the FT found that “UK trade openness (total imports and exports as a share of economic output) has been more than twice as large on average during its membership of the EU than in the 1830 to 1913 period. Indeed the UK has traded more in every year since 1977 than it did in any year before 1912.”
Well, who’s counting?
Legatum has the ear of Government. It meets regularly with ministers, who heap praise on its economics director, Shanger Singham. Singham talks to ministers and anyone else who will listen about the fabulous trade opportunities for the UK after Brexit, opportunities that don’t exist, because the EU will not allow them or WTO rules do not permit them, or because, for instance, we would have to multiply our existing trade with New Zealand by a factor of 30 to make up for the trade we will lose with Ireland.
Legatum’s publications have been criticised as “riddled with misconceptions” (the FT) and “not realistic” (George Peretz, a specialist in trade law), or as magical thinking (EU). There has been a scathing response to its proposals for the Irish border, which favour “creative thinking” and the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles and aerostats” (drones and air balloons. Why use plain language when posh language is available?)
If the last bit sounds remarkably close to the Government’s paper on the border, one may assume that Legatum drafted the paper.
It was not always like this. Legatum has come a long way.
It’s instructive to read a piece about British think-tanks by Zoe Williams in the Guardian of 27 October 2010. Williams chose Legatum as one of ten “to watch.” She said of it, “Not that big, but weird. Set up by four ex-Bush staffers, who would have been swamped in the US think-tank environment. Wanted to be taken seriously on a global level, so had to find a location between Washington and Everywhere Else. Which, it turns out, is Mayfair.” (My italics.)
If you want to be taken seriously you need more than a Mayfair office. For a long time, Legatum was struggling to find a place. Before 2016, it didn’t have a USP. Neoliberal and right of centre, it was nevertheless pro-EU. Shanker Singham voted Remain. Anne Applebaum, the high-profile journalist and commentator, was also a Remainer. The referendum caused an earthquake. Applebaum departed, after what sounds like an almighty row, Shanker Singham underwent a Damascene conversion to Brexit, and Legatum embarked on an ideological crusade. Unbelievers were purged.
And Philippa Stroud arrived. With her arrival, Legatum, already “weird,” became weirder.
Created Baroness Stroud of Fulham in 2015, Philippa Stroud was appointed CEO of the Legatum institute in September 2016. She came from the Centre for Social Justice, which she co-founded with Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 and which collaborated with the Legatum Institute in its initial Brexit publication, Road to Brexit (2016). She had been a special adviser to IDS at the Department for Work and Pensions.
Philippa Stroud ‘s interest in social justice had begun at the age of eight; she remembered “lying across a massive Queen Anne armchair in our house in France, transfixed… by photographs of famine victims in Bangladesh.” (God’s Heart for the Poor, by Philippa Stroud and Christine Leonard, 1999). After university (it is unclear where, just as it is unclear why her family had a house in France when she grew up in Surrey, or at what age she became a Christian), she went to Hong Kong, where, rejecting her father’s career in international banking, she worked among drug addicts. She was elated to be there: “I loved it when rats ran across my feet in the dank darkness of sewer-like alleyways.”
After two years she returned to England, married David Stroud, an evangelical Christian whom she had met in Hong Kong, and founded the King’s Arms church, which offered practical support to the homeless.
She stood twice, in 2005 and 2010, as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, but was unsuccessful. By 2010 a change in public attitudes had brought the practices of the King’s Arms church under unfavourable scrutiny. An article in the Observer of May 2010 accused it, and Philippa Stroud personally, of trying to “cure” gay people by “driving out their demons.” A former administrator of the church commented anonymously in the Guardian, “Anything – drugs, alcohol or homosexuality, they thought you had a demon in you.”
Stroud contested the claims, but holds other fundamentalist views. She opposes abortion. She has drawn a parallel between the pro-life campaign and the anti-apartheid struggle of Mandela. The evangelical Newfrontiers Church, which she attends and of which her husband is a leader, proclaims itself “a church where…husband and wife embrace male servant leadership and joyful female submission…”
Voices were raised asking Cameron to sack her. She was a special adviser in a Government department in which her personal opinions would necessarily come into play. Cameron didn’t.
Now she is heading a think-tank steering Government policy in a matter even more fundamental, and for which she is unfitted in exactly the same way. She has a Rottweiler in this fight, and it’s dressed in sheep’s clothing. She hates the welfare state. Members of the Christian right may be individually good people, but their refusal to acknowledge the political causes of poverty drives them into positions that often cannot be distinguished from fantasy.
Baroness Stroud is a fantasist. What else can one call someone who is overjoyed by the sensation of rats scuttling over her feet in an alleyway? Never mind the demons or the cavalier approach to biographical fact. “A positive record of helping her community,” was the judgement of a former member of the King’s Arms project in the Guardian, “finely balanced with monumental delusion.”
Into this delusion, the project that is Legatum fits like a hand in a glove. For Legatum is deluded, too: a cursory glance at its pronouncements demonstrates that.
And perhaps here we have the answer to the mystery that is Brexit. A young right-leaning think-tank that desperately wanted to be taken seriously met a Government that was totally out of its depth and needed a hand to hold. It was a marriage made in heaven.
The consequence was folie a deux, which brought forth the Government’s Brexit policy.
Is this enough?
“Finance capital is clear about what Brexit is for,” states Brendan Montague in How Legatum has written the hymn sheet for a dirty Brexit on the Open Democracy website, 27 November. “It is to transform Britain into a low-regulation state, and in turn break the semi-regulated cartel that is the European Union. This is necessary because capitalism right now is almost flatlining, and is not going to save itself. It needs to be fed, and your pension, and your planet, is its feed.”
The gloved hand is a fist. Legatum is operating on two levels: the fantasy floats above a reef. In this context, the financial background of Legatum’s founder, Christopher Chandler, and the offshore locations of its various head offices make perfect sense. Disaster capitalists make money out of disasters. Those wishing to know what this means should read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which has a chapter on the collapse in Russia.
The question arises of whether people who profit from disasters have a hand in causing them. Of course they do, sometimes. There will always be a rationale. And at the very least, the disaster capitalist will want to be on the spot when the disaster unfolds.
So there sits Legatum, in its Mayfair office, waiting for the crash that will be Brexit and helping it on its way.
The second consequence of the Government’s happy marriage, therefore, will be the wilderness identified by Brendan Montague and the further enrichment of a few people who have their bank accounts in places like the Cayman Islands.