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As the old joke doesn’t have it, you wait ages for a Tory think-tank, and then three come rolling along at once.  Last month, FREER launched.  Next month, Onward – or, as this site cannot help but think of it as, Onward! – kicks off.  Shortly before it does so, the revitalised Centre for Policy Studies will put some flesh on its New Generation Initiative, publishing a series of essays by “an innovative group of young MPs”.

ConservativeHome declares an interest.  Rebecca Coulson, one of our columnists, is Director of FREER.  Alex Morton, another one, is the CPS’s new Director of Policy.  James Frayne, another, works with him.  Mention of all three offers the chance to get into ideological differences, personal agendas and future agendas.  We will resist it this morning, and instead ask a question: what are think tanks for?

The obvious answer is: to produce policies that governments take up.  So is that Policy Exchange, for example, lists the following Coalition ones: directly-elected police commissioners, free schools and the pupil premium.  The Adam Smith Institute mentions privatisation.  But claims of this kind are often contested – rather in the manner of Margaret Thatcher’s council house sales, the inspiration for which has variously been attributed to Peter Walker and John Stanley and, further back in time, Horace Cutler and, further back still, Anthony Eden and Noel Skelton.  We add for the record that one senior figure in Theresa May’s government once told that this site that it takes no notice of think-tanks whatsoever.

Another might be: to promote a particular political philosophy.  This is true in some cases.  Perhaps the exemplar is the Institute of Economic Affairs, which sees its vocation as making the case for free markets, low taxes and personal liberty in season and out of season – whatever government may happen to be doing at the time.  But this doesn’t apply in every instance.  A few years ago, Policy Exchange debated whether to define itself through a mission statement, or by what it did – which was and remains eclectic, specialising in judicial power, security, and integration policy projects.  It took the latter route, and remains one of the few think tanks with a foothold in the bigger, better-funded world of its American equivalents.

Another could be: to provide an outlet for politicians for float ideas.  The Centre for Policy Studies is the original model: think Margaret Thatcher and, above all, Keith Joseph.  But many of those who wrote for it during the 1970s weren’t politicians at all: Alfred Sherman, Tim Congdon, Sam Brittan, Anthony Flew.  The IEA was driven from the start by non-politicians: Antony Fisher, Arthur Seldon, Ralph Harris.  Pamphlets by groups of Conservative politicians tended once to come from their dining clubs – the Blue Chips’ Changing Gear or the No Turning Back Group’s The Case for Lower Taxes.  The CPS’s new initiative, with lots of Tory MPs publishing together under a think-tank banner, is unusual.

Perhaps the best answer is: to first make the weather, and then make policy.  The CPS will always be associated with the Thatcherite revolution and its application of market economics.  And though some think tanks aren’t associated with politicians at all, others have been largely driven by them.  One thinks of Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice.  Or, in a different way, of Policy Exchange and David Cameron.  The former gained lift-off because it was thought to have the latter’s ear.  And, certainly, there was back-and-forth between the staff of the two under the Coalition.  Over on the Left, the IPPR had a golden period under Nick Pearce, once head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under Gordon Brown.  The Resolution Foundation is currently making its presence felt.

Since weather necessarily changes, think tanks go out of fashion as well as in.  For example, the CPS has been through some rocky times.  The Social Market Foundation dipped and is now reviving under James Kirkup.  But it is striking how few have closed on the Centre-Right.  Some split off from others and reinvent themselves: so it is that the IEA’s Health and Welfare Unit morphed into Civitas.  Does the Left produce fewer, or is our perspective flawed?  If so, might this be because much of the centre-right has come to think of itself, rightly or wrongly, as a kind of insurgency, taking on a Left well dug into the universities, the bigger charities, the law, and schools?  The Taxpayers Alliance might resist the centre-right label, but it undoubtedly sees itself as anti-establishment.

Mind you, the TPA isn’t, strictly speaking, a think-tank.  It describes itself as a campaign.  FREER calls itself an initiative.  And it has at least one striking resemblance to Onward and to the CPS’s new initiative: all have Conservative MPs to the fore – Liz Truss, Neil O’Brien, Lee Rowley, Alan Mak, Chris Green, Kemi Badenoch, Ben Bradley, Simon Clarke, Alex Chalk, and many more.

Last thought. Making the weather means taking risks.  The IEA were originally scoffed at as heretics.  But their free market beliefs became orthodoxy, and just about remain so in this post-Coalition era.  The CPS and Onward and FREER will all have to chance their arm to make an impact.  The Whips won’t necessarily like that.  Radical ideas are not always a path to promotion.  Still, it is a very encouraging sign for the future that, in a third term of Tory-led government, these new projects are springing up at all.  We’ll return soon to what they might do next.

54 comments for: When think tanks think and when think tanks tank

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