The Limits of the ‘Think Tank’ Revolution

Gerry Hassan
8 September 2008

Gerry Hassan has worked extensively with several UK think tanks. In an OurKingdom essay, he argues that, in Britain as in America, the think tank model has worked better for the right than for the left, and calls for new thinking about the kind of institutions that can nurture progressive ideas.

‘Think By Doing: From Local to Global’, ‘Giving Communities More Power to Run Themselves’, ‘Diverse Communities Bring Benefits For All’, ‘Free the Radicals’, ‘Make Life Chances Depend Less on the Lottery of Birth’.

These soundbites represent the range of wisdom on offer from the brightest minds of the British think tank world. These are the cutting edge, hopes, dreams and ideas of those charged with thinking the unthinkable: a series of bland, meaningless, interchangeable phrases which display what is wrong with the narrow world of think tanks and its relationship with the political class.

This is a world where right and left have been transcended and where thinking has become traduced to a narrow bandwidth about micro-delivery, policy-lite ideas and buzz words and concepts such as ‘Nudge’, while the big issues of the age about pensions, the credit crunch or how we regulate modern capitalism go unanswered. Where have been the think tank thoughts about the nature of the recent global downturn, or what Britain’s contribution to it should be?

Once upon a time governments developed their policies through either party avenues such as a composite motion if the Labour Party, or a carefully worded resolution from a loyal association if the Conservatives. Both parties also had powerful research departments, while the civil service was a source of ideas when either party was in office.

This model began to unravel as politics became more technocratic and managerial, and policy more specialist and political at the same time, with the arrival of ‘special advisers’ in the Wilson Government of 1964-70, and even more so following this with the explosion of think tanks around Westminster in recent decades.

This essay addresses the unprecedented explosion in think tanks in the United Kingdom, what the consequences are for our democracy, polity and politics, and where it leaves those of us who care about the state of our democracy.

First, it is important to give a little background on the term and evolution of ‘think tank’. The phrase has its origins in the Second World War in the USA when it was used to denote strategists who discussed war planning. The establishment of the RAND Corporation in 1946 became the first body to be recognisably called a ‘think tank’ (apologies to the British Fabian Society established in 1884, but who were not called a think tank until much later).

The RAND Corporation are one of the key organisations in the making of the post-war modern world and a body which came from deep within the American military-industrial complex, and who gave us such concepts as futures thinking, scenario planning and ‘the missile gap’ between the US and Soviet Union.

Post-war the United States has developed an extensive infrastructure of think tanks – which has been driven by the adversarial nature of US politics, the alternation of bureaucracies with parties in power, and the lack of party resources for policy development.

From the 1970s onward, conservative and right-wing think tanks have contributed to the creation of an influential ‘conservative movement’, which remade the Republican Party, and shifted US politics rightward. The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute are all multi-million pound operations which dwarf the comparable operations of Democrat and centre-left bodies, and have a zealous, ideological drive to push forward their agenda.

Whatever the result of the forthcoming US Presidential elections, this imbalance in political power and finance will continue; the infrastructure of the ‘conservative movement’ and its think tanks, churches and groups will sadly not disappear.

A Short History of the UK Think Tank Revolution

The UK think tank revolution arrived first as a challenge to the ‘Yes Minister’ way of doing things and the Oxbridge consensus of managing decline. This was evidenced by the emergence of a number of right-wing think tanks: the Institute of Economic Affairs set up in 1955 and subsequently the Centre for Policy Studies, established by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, and the Adam Smith Institute, both formed in the 1970s.

These began as ‘outsider’ groups challenging the post-war settlement, the growth of government, public spending and welfare, and played a major part in the thinking of the Thatcher government which came to reshape Britain.

The Labour Party, reeling from three election defeats responded by setting up the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1988, and after a fourth defeat, independent centre-leftists associated with Marxism Today formed Demos in 1993.

These were meant to counter the influence of the right-wing think tanks and replicate their success. This completely misread the situation. The success of the Thatcher government was not mostly due to think tanks, but the failures of the post-war settlement and changes in Britain and the world economy from the 1970s onward. The Thatcher government also had from its beginnings an over-arching philosophy and sense of direction which it had begun to flesh out in opposition.

Labour after four defeats had lost any sense of confidence or direction it had in the post-war era and looked to the think tank model to replace this. Subsequently, the era of New Labour saw an unprecedented explosion of think tanks in the Westminster village. These two facts are related. As the political classes coalesced around a post-Thatcherite consensus, debate about policy and ideas became about technical and managerial matters and issues of delivery.

This suited think tanks and the way they operated. A shark’s infested sea of think tanks paradoxically offered less choice, and more of the same, as they jockeyed for position and told politicians increasingly what they wanted to hear. The UK has spawned such a large number of think tanks that in 2001 Prospect magazine set up its Think Tank of the Year competition which was won in 2006 by Policy Exchange for its ‘zip’ and ‘high impact’, and IPPR the following year in what the judges acknowledged ‘hasn’t been a vintage year in the British think tank world.’ (1)

A little bit of nuance and subtlety should be acknowledged here. It is impossible to tarnish all think tank work with the same brush. The Institute of Public Policy Research did undertake serious, rigorous work in its early years, particularly around the Commission on Social Justice; and Demos in its first years did produce a lot of vibrant and evangelical, if somewhat superficial ideas: ‘joined-up governance’, ‘social entrepreneurship’ and many others.

In the last few years, the most substantial thinking in this world has come from those challenging the conventional think tank world. There has been the idea of ‘the do tank’, moving from just thinking to doing, the ideas of Tom Bentley, when Director of Demos of ‘everyday democracy’, the Young Foundation, addressing issues around ‘community’, and the Centre for Social Justice, set up by Iain Duncan Smith. Most impressive as a challenge to the increasingly dogmatic and narrow bandwidth of political debate has been the work of the New Economics Foundation. What these examples show is that there is something significantly up with the conventional idea of a think tank. (2)

The conventional think tank model is a very Anglo-American model of politics shaped by money and influence, and one we have increasingly exported around the world – as we have proven arrogant enough to sell our view of deregulation and privatisation of even the most basic utilities.

Step forward with pride the UK Government whose Department for International Development has bankrolled the Adam Smith Institute to advise governments across the African continent of the merits of privatisation. Clare Short, supposedly a left-wing minister, said as Development Minister in 2002:

Privatisation is the only way to get the investment that poor countries need in things like banking, tourism, telecommunications, and services such as water, under good regulatory arrangements.

The Lack of Self-Reflection in the World of Think Tankery

What is revealing is how lacking in self-criticism and renewal are many of the people involved in the think tank industry. Richard Reeves, newly appointed director of Demos, has recently argued that think tanks ‘win their influence through intimacy with their principal political ‘clients’ or through independent technical expertise.’ This leads, Reeves believes, to the political class listening to them the way ‘you might listen to your spouse or your GP.’

Reeves did not address why think tanks are the best arbiters and providers of this ‘expertise’, or consider Jim Knight, Labour MP’s point that they are ‘ultimately very elitist, top-down institutions’.

There is now discernable doubt around Westminster about the quality of much of think tank work, the influence of corporate funding, and how success is judged by insider access to politicians and media coverage generated. The think tank world began as a set of outsiders challenging the old establishment. In its place it has become part of the new establishment, defending an even more narrow, undemocratic and doctrinaire view of the world.

This can be seen in the journey of IPPR and Demos. Under Matthew Taylor, IPPR moved from a ‘think tank’ to a ‘speak tank’ which Taylor used as a platform to support his burgeoning career as a media commentator (something he has continued at Royal Society of the Arts). Post-Taylor, Nick Pearce attempted to bring a more serious and thoughtful research ethos, getting into issues which challenged the narrow consensus, and distance IPPR from the wreckage of New Labour. Now it is breaking new ground headed up by a job share: Lisa Harkin and Carey Oppenheim.

So far the world of think tanks has been at senior level a very boys’ environment. Demos post-Tom Bentley has had three directors: Madeleine Bunting, Catherine Fieschi, and now Richard Reeves, with neither woman lasting very long.

Think tanks have also become in recent years more about ‘mood’ than substance, providing ‘independent’ backdrops for politicians to position themselves. Thus, in the last few years, as the limits of New Labour centralisation grew apparent, think tanks grew excited about the possibilities of ‘localism’. This led to David Miliband coining the phrase ‘double devolution’ which the think tank world thought might lead to a realisation of the perils of over-centralism. No real policy change occurred at all as a result of this rhetoric and debate, but some in the centre managed to look better and look like they might consider doing something.

The Tories have caught up with this game under David Cameron. In the early days of his leadership, Cameron showed he was a different kind of Tory by giving an address to Demos, the centre-left think-tank. George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, aiming to outflank New Labour gave a recent speech about ‘fairness’ without any real specifics. All of these examples: Miliband, Cameron and Osborne are about politicians using think tanks not for ideas or research, but to aid spin and perception.

The respective fortunes of think tanks do tell us something about the political weather. There is usually one or two ‘hot’ think-tanks: the Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute in the 1980s, Demos, post-1997, and currently, Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s ‘favourite think-tank’, at least until its recent report on the failure of regeneration of Northern English cities, which he called ‘barmy’ and ‘insane’. Policy Exchange are all by all accounts awash with money at the moment, whereas several of the centre-left think tanks are finding things harder.

It is true that Scotland has managed to create a policy environment around the Scottish Parliament without a think tank industry, with only one properly resourced think tank in operation for the last decade, Scottish Council Foundation, which has not had major influence on government despite its resources. The SNP have come to office without the support of a sympathetic think tank or the resources and networks to establish one, and so far it does not seem to have done them any harm.

The Welsh political environment has witnessed the work of the Institute of Welsh Affairs established by John Osmond. Northern Ireland in the crucial and sensitive transition period of the 1990s had Democratic Dialogue run by Robin Wilson, which ran out of funding when Northern Irish politics ‘normalised’ with the end of ‘the Troubles’.

There is something in the experience of the devolved nations and the absence of a think tank industry as new polity environments have emerged in each place. This is about the smallness of the political class in each, along with the ease of access and lack of corporate funding. It has long been a point of some political observers in Scotland to bemoan the absence of an infrastructure of competing think tanks thrashing out ‘new ideas’ and policies which sink or swim in the marketplace, but from where we sit now and the experience of UK think tanks, Scotland may have been blessed by this experience.

The Emergence of a New Establishment

The think tank industry is an increasingly narrow, incestuous one, emblematic of the lack of difference between the political parties, and shaped by a narrowing and professionalisation of politics, where similar ‘bright things’ inhabit Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems, and the world of think tanks. These oscillate around Labour and Conservatives at Westminster and tend to ignore the Lib Dems, as this is about power, influence and who has the potential to form an administration, not the cerebral pursuit of ideas.

In The Observer’s recent piece on think tanks the meaningless phrases were all fronted by six identikit people (IPPR having two): all of them looking similar like a group from a British version of ‘Friends’: all eager, hopeful, about the same age and vaguely attractive, if also over-earnest and slightly desperate to be your friend and show you the worth of their ideas!

If we were to address think tanks through the lens they see policy, and ask who are they serving, we would find that the vested interests which gain, are the world of corporate interests, accountancy firms and lobbying. If we asked what ‘new ideas’ have they brought forward and advocated in the last decade or so which has benefited the way government and policy is enacted which have aided the general populace, the answer would be threadbare.

After the Thatcher revolution, the think tank industry became a means by which the political class outsourced policy and built a new anti-democratic way of consolidating the new consensus which emerged. The think tank industry is part of the new establishment which has arisen in the post-democratic order and it is even more self-interested and self-serving than the previous one, which while it had faults, was also influenced by ‘duty’ and ‘public service’.

The world of think tanks has spanned an environment of incestuousness, of the blurring of boundaries between government and business, which has resulted in bad policy and government, and the pushing of marketisation, privatisation and corporate influence into previously unheralded areas of public life.

We need to ask penetrating questions about whose interests have been aided by the emergence of this new order, who gains from its maintenance, and who is paying for and perpetuating its existence? What is required of progressives is to imagine how we think of policy and ideas beyond the conventional idea of think tanks.

How can we imagine a more rich, pluralist and democratic network of institutions which think about policy and ideas, and which challenge the orthodoxies of the last few decades and the corporate interests? This is not just a narrow British story, but one with global consequences and implications from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Far East, as the disciples of free-market dogma take their mantras around the globe.

In the UK and even more in the United States, this requires that we think about the kind of agencies and institutions which can nurture, nourish and support progressive values, and the kind of ‘think tanks’ which can challenge the prevailing order, alongside a plethora of other bodies from trade unions, NGOs, campaigning groups and the net.

Think Tanks as Part of the Post-Democratic Elite

The think tank revolution in the UK is a story of the decline of party, which can be seen in the dilution of party research departments. These had a proud record of developing party policies – the Conservative Research Department under Rab Butler played a huge role in Conservative rethinking in the 1940s and acceptance of the Attlee Government’s programme for example.

Nowadays, we can see across all the mainstream UK political parties the dislocation of party leaderships from their party structures, and their shift of attention towards the world of post-democratic elites, of which think tanks are a part. This leads towards the corporatisation of politics and the ultimate outsourcing: the privatisation of policy making.

We have already seen in the United States that think tanks have been better suited to the politics of the right-wing, and this looks like it might be proving to be the case in the UK as well. One explanation of the changing fortunes of think tanks is to see this as a mere cyclical phenomenon: with first the rise of the right, then the centre-left, and now, the centre-right, corresponding to political fortunes. This seems a superficial explanation, with more profound and deep-seated forces at work.

The recent model of UK think tanks has seen the centre-left copying a right-wing model. As Adam Curtis’ groundbreaking series ‘Century of the Self’ showed the Clinton/Blair approach of ‘focus group’ politics and triangulation did not build a new centre-left politics – giving a temporary advantage, but creating a powerless, disconnected citizenry. The same is true of think tanks.

Think tanks are more suited to the politics of the pro-business, corporate world of the right than the left. That is why the interesting work on the left is happening far away from the narrow world of Westminster and the conventional think tank.


1. Winners of Prospect’s Think Tank of the Year are: IPPR (twice), New Economics Foundation, the Centre for Economic Reform, New Local Government Network, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Policy Exchange.

2. It is also true that specialist think tanks such as the King's Fund and the Work Foundation have built up reputations for expertise in their respective areas. Therefore, this emerging critique may be more relevant about the limitations of the conventional, generalist think tank which has no specific expertise and only has its brand and wits to live on.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst. He is the previous Director of a Scottish based think tank and has worked extensively with a number of the UK think tanks. He is author and editor of twelve books on Scottish and UK politics including The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas and After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade. He can be contacted on: [email protected]

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