Opinion: A reminder of our political boundaries

Just like a hypnotist who, with swinging crystals and a soothing voice, can convince you that he is, in fact, the Messiah or Ali Baba, some people are able to persuade you that their quango is actually an independent charity or that their political campaigning is educational. But sometimes sophistry comes a cropper.

"We had a brilliant report from the Charity Commission that concluded there had been absolutely nothing in any of the allegations made against us, following which I can now stand down," declared Wilf Stevenson, the director of left-wing think tank the Smith Institute. So the director, along with the chair, Lord Haskel, resigned because the commission's report was so good. Eh? This was presumably the same report that criticised the trustees for allowing the think tank "to become exposed to concerns it had supported Government policy and was involved in party political activity inappropriate for a charity".

Here's an example from an invitation to one of the Smith Institute's events: "Britain is a better country because of the choices that voters made in 1997, 2001 and 2005."

The commission also chastised the trustees for not considering the effect of holding 27 out of the organisation's 61 events in 2005/06 at 11 Downing Street. These guys may as well have been a Labour fan club. They might have been safer as a non-charitable Labour think tank.

It hardly helps that the trustees - and this is redolent of Stevenson's interpretation of the commission's latest report - seem to have been in a state of denial for some time. As far back as 2002, the commission gave the Smith Institute specific instructions about how to avoid accusations of bias. As well as asking it to consider its regular use of 11 Downing Street, for instance, the commission asked the think tank to appoint extra trustees without Labour Party links. It promptly appointed Paul Myners and John Milligan, both donors, directly or indirectly, to Gordon Brown's leadership campaign.

Independence and political campaigning are tricky issues, but the commission has set a precedent and affirmed the parameters. Hypnotists, beware.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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