Britain’s Dec. 12 election is a bitter fight to shape the country’s future, with voters not only hoping to chart the next steps of Brexit, but also picking between startlingly different visions of the country from right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
However, it isn’t just British voters who are influencing Britain’s future. Some wealthy American individuals and organizations appear also to be having a big influence on this fraught British election.
The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper, reported Friday that 11 Americans have given more than $3.7 million to influential right-wing British groups over the past five years.
One conservative U.S.-born billionaire who was having an outsize influence on right-wing groups across the pond is no longer alive. John Templeton, who died in 2008, was behind a set of foundations that gave $3.3 million to British groups, the newspaper reported.
In a subsequent statement to The Washington Post, Jo Nussbaum, director of communications at the Legatum Institute, said the organization had received money from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, an apolitical organization based in the Bahamas and not the United States.
Templeton World Charity had contributed to the Legatum Institute’s Global Index of Economic Openness, a research program that studies “the impact of economic openness and trade on nations’ growth and prosperity,” Nussbaum said. “This work is not related in any way to the upcoming British general election.”
The John Templeton Foundation, a separate organization linked to the late investor, responded to the Guardian’s article by saying that it was “proud to support academic research and civil dialogue in the natural sciences, human sciences, philosophy, classical liberalism, and theology at leading universities and institutions around the world.”
The report about the donations from wealthy Americans comes amid concern about the transparency of Britain’s political system ahead of the election.
Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, supported by many right-wing think tanks, has been accused of suppressing a government report on Russian influence in the British political system that may highlight donations by Kremlin-linked business executives to the party, the Times of London reported in early November.
U.S. influence is a particular area of concern. Corbyn, who pledges to take the country in a dramatically more-left-wing direction if he can form a government after the election, gave a news conference Wednesday at which he unveiled what he characterized as “secret” British notes on negotiations for a post-Brexit bilateral trade deal with the United States.
“We are talking here about secret talks for a deal with Donald Trump after Brexit. A deal that will shape our country’s future,” he said, alleging that Britain’s beloved but forever-troubled National Health Service would be prey in Johnson’s U.S.-U.K. trade deal.
President Trump has made little secret of his desire for such a trade deal or his preferred political candidates. “He would be so bad. He would take you in such a bad way. He would take you into such bad places,” Trump said of Corbyn during a Nov. 1 interview with Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party.
The American president’s personal unpopularity in Britain could mean that his public interventions backfire. But the influence of donations from rich Americans is harder to gauge.
Phil Bryant, the Republican governor of Mississippi and a Trump ally, has made Brexit a matter of his personal interest, forming a nonprofit organization with Farage called World4Brexit that aims to raise money to support Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Supporters of World4Brexit describe it as a counterbalance to the money from George Soros, the billionaire investor who supports many liberal causes.
Through his Open Society Foundation, Soros — another U.S. citizen — is reported to have donated about $800,000 to anti-Brexit groups, though some Conservatives in Britain have alleged that the real figure is considerably higher.
Donors to a U.S.-based 501(c)(4) organization such as World4Brexit can legally remain anonymous. The organizations can be harder for British authorities to scrutinize.
The political structure regarding donors and charities is different in Britain. The Legatum Institute, for example, was ordered by Britain’s Charity Commission to remove a report advocating a hard Brexit from its website because it was judged to be too politically partisan for a legally registered charity.
For some of the U.S. groups sending money to Britain, the involvement may come from their donors’ personal interests. Templeton, the late investor who made his fortune through the pioneering use of mutual funds, was born in the United States but had strong ties to Britain.
The billionaire renounced his American citizenship later in life and became a British citizen, though he resided in the Bahamas, a Commonwealth nation and well-known tax haven.
With other donors, interest in Britain is more indeterminate. A foundation designed to spread the views of John Stossel, a libertarian television pundit and former Fox Business host, had given $15,000 to two British think tanks. Representatives of that foundation, the Center for Independent Thought, did not respond when asked for comment Friday.
The interest may be because of shared politics rather than personal links. In an account of his decision to become a pro-Brexit campaigner that he gave in January 2017, Bryant, the Mississippi governor, said that watching the fallout from Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. on television the prior year had inspired him about his own country’s upcoming election.
“This is Trump’s first victory,” Bryant recounted telling his wife in June 2016.
Update: This report has been updated to include a statement provided by the Legatum Institute.