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Has the Henry Jackson Society been trying to buy influence in parliament?

The news that the right-wing Henry Jackson Society has pulled funds for parliamentary groups rather than disclose who its own donors are will be no surprise to those who are concerned about the influence of lobbyists in Britain. Nor will Muslims be shocked by this; many have been on the receiving end of vicious anti-Islam propaganda produced by the charity and those associated with it. Muslim-run charities reacted with alarm at the appointment of the society's director, William Shawcross, as chair of the Charity Commission in 2012, "despite reservations among some MPs over his independence and experience". A subsequent sharp rise in the number of Muslim-run charities under investigation and "review" by the commission appears to justify concerns that the supposedly neutral charity regulator is now pursuing a right-wing, neoconservative agenda targeting Muslims. The regulator denies any bias of any kind.

The withdrawal of funding for parliamentarians focusing on "homeland and international security" resulted from a disclosure request submitted by Spinwatch, an organisation which campaigns for greater transparency in public affairs. According to a report in the Guardian, the Henry Jackson Society "provided an office and staff to organise meetings for the two groups, chaired by Tory MP Bernard Jenkin and Labour MP Gisela Stuart."

It is alarming that the provision of such support also, apparently, entitled "the society's political director, Davis Lewin, and its events manager, Hanna Nomm" to be given House of Commons passes.

Quite apart from this sudden withdrawal of support for parliamentary committees —do other committees operate without external support? — this issue raises questions about the influence of shadowy lobby groups within parliament as well as the operation of a registered charity. How, for example, does providing "an office and staff to organise meetings" for two groups of MPs fulfil the stated "charitable objects" of the Henry Jackson Society, which are: "To advance the education of the public in national and international political, social and economic policy, including the promotion of research in any of those areas and the publications [sic] of the useful results of such research"?

How do these objects fit with the HJS briefing paper in October 2014 which sought to persuade Members of Parliament not to vote for recognition of the State of Palestine? Instead of pointing out to MPs that the State of Israel is guilty of ignoring its obligations under the Oslo Accords, the HJS briefing insisted that "the UK is explicitly committed to the bilateral principle entailed in the Oslo Accords" (which Israel is most definitely not) so "it is incumbent upon UK policymakers to join the US in seeking to persuade the Palestinian leadership to return to bilateral negotiations, the only path with a chance of success."

The fact that negotiations have failed the Palestinians miserably for decades is missing from the openly pro-Israel paper. Indeed, the double-speak beloved of pro-Israel lobbyists is evident in the HJS argument; it derides the UN in one paragraph while claiming a few lines later that support for Palestine may have "serious negative consequences… [for] the UN system and international law"; Israel has treated both with contempt for decades.

Donors named by Spinwatch include the Atkin Charitable Foundation, whose support for the Henry Jackson Society went from £5,000 in 2010 to "£375,000 between 2011 and 2013". It is worth asking the charity commission how it believes that such support for the HJS fulfils the Atkin foundation's own charitable objects. This happened on William Shawcross's watch at HJS, so perhaps he could explain this to his colleagues at the commission.

"The Stanley Kalms foundation, named after the Dixons boss, also gave the society £100,000 last year," the Guardian reported. "Baron Kalms, once a big Tory donor, called then shadow foreign secretary William Hague an 'ignorant armchair critic' for criticising Israel's actions in the 2006 war in Lebanon."

Although it claims not to follow an anti-Islam agenda, those who fund the HJS clearly do. One donor, Nina Rosenwald, "also finances the US-based right-wing Gatestone Institute", which uses its foreign status to publish potentially libellous attacks on British Muslims and pro-Palestine campaigners and organisations. Gatestone also publishes the work of HJS associate director Douglas Murray, who said in 2006 that "conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board".

Mehdi Hasan's Huffington Post article updated on 20 September, 2013, refers to Murray's "extreme views" which have been written about at length by Paul Goodman MP.

According to Spinwatch founder Professor David Miller, this is indicative of the HJS becoming "increasingly anti-Islam". The society, he says, expresses views "characteristic of the far right… While it continues to pose as favouring a moral approach to foreign policy, it is dabbling in the politics of hate in an approach which is supposed to be the opposite of British values of fair play and the rule of law."

Not surprisingly, a Henry Jackson Society spokesman (anonymous, of course) denied that the group is anti-Islam, describing such allegations as "scurrilous and unfounded". He then went on to accuse its detractors of "playing the man rather than the ball" without any irony, apparently, given that some of those associated with the HJS are adept at the character assassination of people they disagree with.

Why is the society so shy about naming its donors? They are, said its spokesman, entitled to privacy. "We do not wish to expose them to unwarranted funding requests by publishing their details," he added, very nobly.

It is unlikely though, that such donors would be free of unsolicited funding requests with or without the Henry Jackson Society's stand on this point. Surely the general public and politicians alike are entitled to know the identity of the people trying to influence government policy at the highest levels. Why else would a think-tank with charitable status wish to have two senior officials with House of Commons passes and privileged access to members of committees dealing with security issues?

We are not suggesting that the honourable members of parliament on the committees in question are guilty of any wrongdoing. We do think, however, that it is in the public interest for such information as the identity of the donors behind HJS support to be in the public domain. Crucially, so does the House of Commons Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Hudson. The Henry Jackson Society has opted to cut and run instead of being open and transparent.

According to the charity commission website, the HJS accounts for 2013 list Damian Collins MP as a trustee. His Conservative Party colleague Michael Gove MP, the party's Chief Whip in the House of Commons and a leading neoconservative, was a founding trustee of the Henry Jackson Society. It has friends in high places already, so why has it been trying to extend its influence even further? What are the real "objects" of this right-wing "think-tank" with money to secure parliamentary influence? The public has a right to know who is trying to buy our democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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