I think, therefore... by Peter Wilby

28 Jun 07
The new prime minister is an intellectual heavyweight, with strong views of his own on public policy. So where does this leave Britain's burgeoning think-tank industry? Peter Wilby reports on the people and institutions vying for political influence

29 June 2007

The new prime minister is an intellectual heavyweight, with strong views of his own on public policy. So where does this leave Britain's burgeoning think-tank industry? Peter Wilby reports on the people and institutions vying for political influence

Another Monday morning edition, another splash to find. News is sparse on Sundays and all papers struggle to fill space for the following day. A few weeks ago, the Daily Telegraph settled on a 'damning report' that showed schools being 'ruined by political meddling'.

Children, it reported, were reading Osama Bin Laden's speeches in history lessons, debating abortion instead of learning physics and chemistry, and studying 'politically correct' modern poets while neglecting Milton. No major subject area had escaped 'the blight of political interference'.

Who says? 'An influential, independent think-tank', that's who. In this case, it's Civitas, which subtitles itself 'The Institute for the Study of Civil Society' and aims to 'discover solutions to social problems'. Behind this anodyne exterior lies an agenda, focusing on family, crime, immigration and schooling, that many would regard as distinctly Right-wing. But Civitas prides itself on its non-partisan character. Its website informs you that its director, David Green, was once a Labour councillor in Newcastle, albeit 25 years ago.

This example tells you a lot about the role of think-tanks. No overtly partisan pressure group would command so much space in a national newspaper even on a Monday morning. Although some of Civitas's authors are academics, no university research institute would publish something so starkly unbalanced. No political party would dare be quite so categorical.

'Think-tanks live in the space between academics, policy-makers and the media,' says Nick Pearce, director of another think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Or, as James Cornford, one of Pearce's predecessors once put it, they're 'the performing fleas of the body politic'.

The US is their spiritual home the term 'think-tank' was originally attached in the 1950s to the Rand Corporation and its military experts and it has been said of Washington that it has think-tanks the way other towns have fire stations.

But now London is going that way. There are probably at least 50 in the capital now, ranging from the venerable Royal Institute of International Affairs (founded 1920), known as Chatham House, to brash new kids on the block such as Civitas (founded 2000), Demos (founded 1993) and the Henry Jackson Society (founded 2005). You can learn a lot about them by looking at who's on the board: Labour peers for the IPPR, conservative-leaning (strictly small c) professors for the Institute of Economic Affairs, Telegraph and The Times journalists for Policy Exchange, leading Tory politicians for the Centre for Social Justice.

Think-tanks come in and out of fashion as often and as bewilderingly as the lengths of skirts: Demos is said to be down after its heyday in the mid-1990s while the centre-Right Policy Exchange is thought to be on the up. Everyone is watching the Smith Institute, which used to hold seminars in Number 11, with Gordon Brown regularly dropping in. But it has been almost invisible in the media.

Just now, though, all think-tanks have a glint in their eyes. 'It's a good time for us,' says Ann Rossiter, director of the Social Market Foundation, 'because all three parties are having policy reviews.'

But do the think-tanks have sufficient expertise and intellectual firepower to seize the moment? Do they have enough independence and credibility? And, crucially for those on the Left in particular, does the new man at Number 10 want their ideas?

'The trouble with Gordon Brown is that he's his own think-tank,' says Richard Reeves, who has worked at the IPPR and the Work Foundation. 'He's very smart about policy and he's been in government for ten years. I can imagine him saying to himself: what can these teenagers at Demos and the IPPR tell me?'

Brown is well-known for his voracious reading, but also for ignoring evidence and arguments that don't suit his predetermined purpose. That, in the eyes of many wonks, makes their role all the more important. 'Brown might like to be in control,' says Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, 'but there are occasions when political leaders need something they can't control.'

There's also the suspicion that Brown rates any idea more highly if it comes from across the Atlantic. The London think-tanks lack the authority and influence of their big US counterparts. As political science academics Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett point out in their book, British think-tanks and the climate of opinion, the US versions have a clear role, thanks to the non-ideological character of the country's political parties and the relative openness of its administrative service. Presidents look outside their parties for ideas and outside government for their policy chiefs. Think-tanks routinely supply both. The British ones are beginning to play a similar role as parties cast away their ideological baggage and 'special advisers' become more common in Whitehall. They have sent a stream of people to Westminster: Patricia Hewitt and David Miliband are among the Labour ministers who started at IPPR while, on the Tory side, David Willetts once worked at the Centre for Policy Studies.

But there are still important differences between Britain and the US. For one thing, power is more dispersed in America and a think-tank that's out of favour at the White House can still strive to influence state governors or key members of Congress. In our more centralised system, think-tanks of the 'wrong' political hue can soon find themselves on the margins, as most Thatcherite ones did after the Tories lost power.

Most important is the difference in funding. The US bodies have substantial assets and endowments $302m in the case of the Brookings Institution but ours have to hunt out dribs and drabs of money in charitable grants, donations from business, and research contracts from councils and government departments.

'A lot of the energy here goes into just surviving,' says Mark Leonard, a youthful veteran of think-tanks, who started at Demos, founded the Foreign Policy Centre and now runs what he calls a pan-European think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations. 'Not much is left for coming up with big ideas.'

Inevitably, this low funding also makes them vulnerable to corporate capture, or at least to the suspicion of it. The Sunday Times, using undercover reporters, last year 'exposed' how the IPPR told potential sponsors it could get them access to ministers, possibly through private seminars (the IPPR denied it). Grants for think-tank projects tend to steer them towards issues in, say, transport rather than social exclusion. When the SMF decided to look at road-user charging, Rossiter says: 'We had more funders coming forward than we needed'.

And the think-tanks' value to political parties being at arm's length from the political process and providing authority for ideas that might otherwise seem partisan or outrageous works equally well for the private sector. A call to break up British Telecom lacks political and media credibility if it comes from the PR company for Cable & Wireless. If it comes from a think-tank report, it's different, even though C&W is still paying.

The British think-tanks that come closest to the authority of their US sisters tend to be specialist, non-partisan and non-ideological: for example, Chatham House, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the King's Fund. The IPPR approaches the same status because it is thought to have the ear of ministers.

But is that the right kind of success? 'In some ways, opposition is the best time for think-tanks,' says Leonard. 'That's when they do for party leaders what the civil service does in government. But once their party gets into office, the life is sucked out of them. They become more technocratic, more sucked into the conventional. Yes, they're richer and better-resourced, but they're less interesting. Demos's most creative period was when it had £5,000 in the bank and just a dingy office in Victoria.'

Reeves broadly agrees. 'Just as the danger for the civil service is that it gets politicised, the danger for think-tanks is becoming bureaucratised,' he says. 'The IPPR has become more rigorous, less ideological, better on policy than politics. Yet what the Left really needs is for ten bright people to sit in a room rethinking social democracy. That's where the lack of endowment funding matters.'

It's hard to say with confidence what think-tanks have achieved in the past because, as Denham and Garnett observe, they tend to claim credit for ideas that politicians might have adopted anyway. The IEA and the Centre for Policy Studies were outriders for the Thatcher revolution, but it's not clear how much direct influence they had on policy.

Vouchers for education, one of their favourite wheezes, never came to pass, and even the CPS's founder, the late Keith Joseph, eventually had to admit they wouldn't work. Denham and Garnett argue that think-tanks provided ideological fellowship and intellectual credibility rather than specific policy advice or rigorous research.

The problem is the same if you try to assess their influence on new Labour. Demos brought the idea of communitarianism to Britain and introduced its US guru Amitai Etzioni to Labour leaders, thus sparking the mantra about how rights should be matched with responsibilities.

The IPPR did much of the groundwork for the Child Trust Fund (or 'baby bonds') and other ideas for spreading wealth, such as savings gateways. The Social Market Foundation proposed ballots for places in oversubscribed schools and these are now recommended by the government's admissions code. Katwala claims that the Fabian Society's proposal for a hypothecated health tax led to Brown's 1p levy on national insurance to help increase NHS funding.

At Policy Exchange, Anthony Browne, the director, says its report on Islamic groups (not, interestingly, by a Right-winger but by the New Statesman's political correspondent Martin Bright) had 'an amazing impact' in persuading ministers to deal with more moderate and representative Muslim voices. But for every such example, you could find dozens of bright ideas that were completely ignored. For example, countless reports have been published on strengthening local democracy, to precious little effect.

Think-tanks are excited by the possibilities of a Brown premiership, but uncertain as to what might be required of them. Katwala says: 'We're getting some traction on inequality, which is something we keep going back to. The language is shifting.'

Given Brown's uneasiness about his predecessor's approach, the IPPR is looking at new ways of tackling public service reform, as well as how government is run, locally and nationally. Demos talks about developing ways in which households and communities can build new houses for themselves. From the 'democratic Left' (which means well to Blair's Left), Compass has revived the constitutional agenda, demanding more powers for Parliament and more devolution to local councils, along with citizens' juries and participatory budgeting.

At the Royal Society of Arts, chief executive Matthew Taylor a former Number 10 adviser and IPPR director is developing what he calls a 'citizen-centric' strategy, whereby communities develop ways of encouraging 'prosocial' rather than 'antisocial' behaviour. Almost all the think-tanks are keen to find a magic bullet that settles the issues around immigration, multi-culturalism, social cohesion and Britishness.

But Wilf Stevenson, director of the Smith Institute, an old friend of Brown's and the think-tanker probably in the best position to influence the new premier, says: 'We shan't be giving him anything for particular use over the next few years. A think-tank shouldn't look to do a project and get a result. The time scale should be longer. We aim to get ministers and civil servants to look ten or 15 years ahead, rather than ten or 15 minutes.'

To some extent, argues Taylor, the government itself has usurped the think-tanks' role. Brown bypassed them at the Treasury by setting up supposedly independent reviews on health, pensions, climate change and so on, usually designed to come up with the answers he'd first thought of. Expect more of the same at Number 10 and expect, too, a stronger direction for Downing Street's internal think-tanks such as the Strategy Unit. Unlike Tony Blair, Brown won't be a prime minister casting around for a big idea, he's got plenty of his own.

Wonkery is becoming such an overcrowded field that the savvier ones are looking for a new role. 'We're a talk-tank,' says Stevenson, 'giving ideas oxygen.' 'We're becoming a do-tank,' says Taylor. 'We've got research capacity, but we've also got 27,000 fellows from around the world, who could be an activist network, talking ideas out, arguing for them, implementing them.' The RSA is sponsoring a city academy while Civitas already has a private primary school in London as well as supplementary schools at evenings and weekends, all concentrating firmly on the basics and no doubt keeping modern poets and Bin Laden speeches well out of sight.

But Will Hutton, director of the Work Foundation, says think-tanks have a bigger role than ever to play. 'Civil servants, particularly outside the Treasury, have become better at delivery, but much less good at writing white and green papers and pushing out policy. In the departments, the number of officials with an interest in being policy innovators is very few. The civil service has been hollowed out. Academics are focused on narrower and narrower areas of research. I'm always struck when I spend time in Oxford and Cambridge by how disconnected they are nowadays from policy and Whitehall.'

That leaves a big space for think-tanks. Whether they are capable of filling it, and whether Brown will allow them to fill it, are different matters entirely.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman


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