Think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs once shaped the political agenda. But their successors have failed on today’s big issues
“Too late,” Benjamin Disraeli observed mournfully, are the saddest words in politics. How apt, considering the desperate, bitter scramble to find a solution — any solution — to the quagmire that is Brexit. Britain could well leave the European Union in a few weeks’ time, after 45 years of membership, yet at this infinitesimally late hour, suggestions are still being tossed around like candy in a playground: no-deal, stay (for however many years), second referendum, junk the backstop, stick on the customs union, twist with the single market.
A frustrated Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, infuriated nearly everyone by asserting that there will be a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely”. You can see his point; as a negotiator, Mr Tusk must have long given up trying to discern any consistency in Britain’s shifting demands. But as a Remainer, and even an atheist, I have also reserved my own special place in hell for those who spent years not making a positive case for Europe, before resorting to the entirely spurious “Project Fear” at the last minute, and thereby losing a referendum that should never have been lost. Only over the past two years have some of them finally found a voice, convulsed into action by the adverse vote in 2016; too late, far too late.
Many have taken the country’s political class to task over Brexit. David Cameron’s “essay crisis” politics might have contributed to hasty decision-making. Some detect the malign influence of Oxford University’s PPE degree. This trot through the basics of philosophy, politics and economics, so the argument goes, equips politicians with just enough knowledge to blag their way through Westminster while dulling their capacity to empathise with, or even register, the sort of visceral feelings — of betrayal, anger, alienation — that led to the Brexit vote.
Maybe, but it is also true that London’s extensive network of political think-tanks and para-politicians, particularly on the centre-right, has been missing in action. The capital’s thinktocracy is bigger, more prominent in the media and probably better funded than it has ever been. But it also seems to be dangerously adrift. This has made a discernible difference to the Brexit mess, and should provoke a debate as to what purpose these institutions serve any more, how they could improve — and why we might need some new ones.
Consider an earlier era, the 1970s. The problems confronting the centre-Right then were no less complex or threatening than today: over-mighty trades unions, rampant inflation, heroically inefficient nationalised industries, crippling levels of taxation. Yet a handful of think-tanks had dedicated themselves to finding long-term, market-led solutions, thereby setting a radically new agenda for what would later come to be known as Thatcherism. Above all, they were insurgents, part of a wider insurgency against the conventional wisdoms of the day — the now barely-remembered Butskellite consensus. It is often said that Mrs Thatcher was the beneficiary of a “peasant’s revolt” in the Conservative Party; those who led that era’s think-tanks were very much on the side of the peasants.
These were men like Anthony Fisher, Arthur Seldon and Ralph (later Lord) Harris, who together set up the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in the mid-1950s, probably the most influential think-tank of the lot. Sir Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s intellectual mentor, later founded the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), in 1974, with the help of the impish Alfred Sherman, a barely house-trained journalist who liked nothing better than to provoke establishment types, the posher the better. The Adam Smith Institute (ASI) was founded soon after by Dr Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler, both still at the wheel. Others included the Selsdon Group, largely an internal Conservative Party faction, supported by many who had been heavily influenced by the IEA.
Over years, or decades in the case of the IEA, these think-tanks beavered away at producing a coherent, robust and in the end immensely rich critique of consensus politics, how to defeat it and what to replace it with. They had three main tasks. The first was to distil the thoughts and ideas of renowned political economists — such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman — into accessible, relevant prose. This was principally the task that the IEA set itself, issuing hundreds of pamphlets setting out the case for a market economy. Another task was to provide the more detailed policy planning that ministers would need to put these ideas into action. This became, principally, the domain of the ASI. The last, but equally important task, was, as Sherman put it, to “articulate” peoples’ instincts in political form. His main subject, of course, was Mrs Thatcher herself, but the same principle applied to her peasant army as well. The men (and they were almost all men) in these pioneering institutions had little ambition to climb the greasy pole themselves. A few from the CPS migrated to the Number 10 policy unit when Mrs Thatcher won power in 1979, but they did not last long in Whitehall. Lord Harris much enjoyed the House of Lords, but no one held it against him.
The contrast with today could not be plainer. The insurgency of our own time — against the EU, against immigration, against London and the south-east, against globalisation, all exposed by the Brexit referendum — largely by-passed London’s think-tanks. They managed occasional, one-off interventions, but none of them developed the sort of systematic critique that characterised their work in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nigel Farage and other insurrectionists were inspired by Enoch Powell. The subjects that they worried away at — sovereignty, English exceptionalism, immigration — found few echoes in the thinktocracy. Rather than thinking the unthinkable, more often than not these think-tanks have become part and parcel of what people rebel against, merely conveyor belts of talent into the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, with all the conformity that implies. Policy Exchange, for instance, provided personnel and some ideas for David Cameron’s makeover of the Tory party in the 2000s, and is now probably the most influential think-tank on the right of centre. But it has had none of the wider impact on politics across the board that the IEA used to have.
The only outfit to have provided a bit of intellectual heft for Brexiteers is the relatively obscure TaxPayers’ Alliance, founded in 2004. Its founder, Matthew Elliott, went on to lead the Leave campaign in 2016 and a former chief executive, Jonathan Isaby, now runs BrexitCentral, an online portal. The other most effective anti-EU groups were more closely aligned with the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, notably the Bruges Group. Over the past year or so the European Research Group (ERG) has emerged as the leading intellectual and political convenor of the parliamentary Brexiteers. The ERG has its own whip, produces research papers, and probably wields more power and influence than any of its forerunners such as the Bow Group or No Turning Back Group.
Of the traditional think-tanks, the IEA has belatedly tried to recover lost ground, elbowing itself to the front of the Brexit debates. But at this juncture in time, such work carries the risk of breaching the Charity Commissioners’ code of political neutrality. Last year the IEA was told to take down its Plan A+: Creating a prosperous post-Brexit UK report from its website. On February 5, the commissioners issued an Official Warning against the IEA for the report, and more specifically its well-advertised launch with David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa Villiers. The watchdog warned that the IEA had “sought explicitly to change government policy on an issue unrelated to the charity’s purposes — furthering education”. The Legatum Institute has also been ticked off by the commissioners.
Think-tanks can cite mitigating circumstances for their loss of influence. Some have long been as divided by Brexit as the Conservative Party itself. At the IEA, for one, Harris was a Brexiteer before his time, while Seldon, the founding chairman of the Bruges Group, was a staunch European. In an internal poll of the IEA’s staff taken in 2016, half were for leaving the EU, but 38 percent wanted to remain. Like everywhere else, these splits have not encouraged coherent advocacy. The Taxpayers’ Alliance was also split on the issue.
Yet there are deeper forces at work. Can the traditional, evidence-based think-tank still function effectively in a populist political arena, where experts are, per se, ridiculed and distrusted? One primary function of the Thatcher-era think-tanks, as we have seen, was to distil the wisdom of meta-experts, as Mark Littlewood, the current director general of the IEA, characterises the likes of Hayek. But how does this work in an era when many voters don’t trust anyone any more, least of all professors, writers and politicians. “There is a huge distrust of people’s motives,” argues Littlewood. “It’s play the man, not the ball, and that is preventing sensible discourse.”
This is a toxic environment for research institutes that seek to influence public discussion with reason and numbers, and that presages another problem. In Channel Four’s recent dramatisation of the referendum campaign, Brexit; The Uncivil War, the writers have Dominic Cummings, portrayed as a mad genius by Benedict Cumberbatch, argue that his campaign will be all about “emotion”, while the Remainers merely deploy statistics, mostly of the fearful variety, and talk about economics. Isaby, for one, talks about sovereignty as a gut instinct. These are areas where the think-tanks have barely ventured, yet which matter more than ever to voters and politicians.
The Left has been as confounded by this shift in discourse as many on the Right, if not more so. The Labour Party’s general campaign in 2015 floundered after Emily Thornberry was caught out apparently ridiculing a Cross of St George England flags. For all the work of think-tanks like Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Left remains most vulnerable on issues of patriotism, nationalism and national identity: issues they are usually afraid to address, and which think-tanks toil to say anything sensible about. Think-tanks are further disadvantaged by social media. Opinions and reactions are recycled instantly, often at the expense of longer-term thought.
There are lessons here. At its purest, a think-tank is an act of insurrection, not a career opportunity. The Fabian Society was created to transform capitalism, just as the IEA was founded to end socialism. Would that characters as spiky and dangerous as Sherman be allowed to flourish again in the thinktocracy. Too many think-tanks today play safe with public policy research. They should be more ambitious, applying their capabilities to the hitherto unfashionable topics that have animated the Brexit debates.
Like any good market, that for ideas should have plenty of churn. Yet very few think-tanks ever fold when their products reach their sell-by-date; many are kept alive out of a sense of duty, or mere nostalgia. This is not what the founding insurrectionists would have wanted. There has clearly been market failure. It is time to clear out some of the clutter.