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Tory think-tanks’ tangled web

Right-leaning think-tanks play a big part in David Cameron’s Tories, writes Hartwig Pautz

February 23, 2012
7 min read

Two recent scandals showed how closely knit the networks between politics, public relations and lobbying companies, the corporate world and think‑tanks really are. First, there was Liam Fox and the now defunct think-tank Atlantic Bridge. In October 2011, Fox lost his job as defence secretary over the questionable connections between his party, US-American neo-cons, big business and the think-tank – which he helped set up in 2003.

Second, in December, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism broke a scandal about the practices of professional lobbying companies in Britain. One agency, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, stood out with its claims about the ‘dark arts’ of manipulating politics and politicians. Managing director Tim Collins, a speechwriter and aide to several Tory leaders and MPs, emphasised his company’s excellent links with the Conservative Party to undercover journalists posing as potential clients.

The latter scandal led to a short-lived debate about adequate mechanisms to control lobbying. What is needed too is a debate about the role of think-tanks in British politics.

Symbiotic with the select

The number of neoliberal and right-libertarian think-tanks, in particular, has grown since the early 2000s. Without them, arguably, David Cameron would not be in government, as their intellectual and networking power was indispensable for the policy and image renewal of the Tories. Indeed, the Tory modernisers have lived in an almost symbiotic relationship with a few select think-tanks for the past ten years. For these think‑tanks it has proved fortunate that Cameron, as with Tony Blair and his New Labour acolytes, was so keen on rebuilding his party’s public image by overhauling its policy agenda.

While there are 20 or more British think-tanks to the right of the political centre ground, only a few can claim to have made any difference to the Tories. Among them is Policy Exchange, one of the best-funded think-tanks in the UK with a budget of £2 million in 2010 and £2.5 million in 2009.

Policy Exchange was crucial for the ‘Conservative revolution’, as Cameron put it in 2008. A number of detailed policies thought up at this institution have since become reality or are on the government’s wish list, including the ‘free schools’ on which Michael Gove and Policy Exchange worked together. Gove, of course, is now education secretary. Policy Exchange also moulded Cameron’s ‘localism’ agenda, together with the almost unknown but very active think-tank Localis, which is essentially an offshoot from Policy Exchange.

In addition, Policy Exchange has influenced some of the more lofty ideas of Cameron’s modernisers, which in turn helped the Tories to style themselves as the party of ‘social justice’. Jesse Norman, then an executive director at Policy Exchange and today an MP, contributed to the debate about ‘compassionate Conservatism’ with a book of the same title in 2006. It added to the Tories’ shift towards what Birmingham academic Peter Kerr calls ‘a post-Thatcherite style of liberal Conservatism’, fusing neoliberalism, New Labour and One-Nation Toryism.

Other think-tanks

While Policy Exchange has been closest to Cameron and his modernisers, other think-tanks have also contributed to creating the current intellectual climate in the UK. One of the earliest think-tanks set up to overhaul the Tory party was Politeia. Founded in 1995 with the ‘private blessing’ of John Major, as the Times noted, it was meant to push the Conservatives into rethinking their social policy. ‘After Thatcher and the focus on economics, there was a huge demand in the Conservative Party for thinking on social issues,’ as an analyst from Politeia put it.

However, think-tanks are also victims of fashion. As a relic from the last days of the Major government, and despite its good relationship to with Oliver Letwin, Politeia was not ‘new’ enough to give Cameron and his modernisers the desired air of modernity. More importantly, perhaps, it was off-message with the Conservatives’ pre-election agenda on public services.

As well as influencing policy preferences from the outside, think-tanks also work inside party, parliament and government. The Reform think-tank, for example, was set up in 2001 not only to advocate new policies but to promote the career of one of its founders, Nick Herbert. He became an MP in 2005. While Reform, with its positions on public sector reform and on rolling back the state, did not tow the party line before the 2010 elections, it has functioned well as a revolving door into politics. With the coalition government’s austerity measures, Reform and its recipes are back in vogue. Its income almost doubled to £1.1 million in 2010 compared with 2007.

One of the most important think-tanks is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), set up in 2004 by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. It helped develop an explicit social policy agenda for the Conservatives, thus giving them a more caring public image. Smith used the CSJ to revamp his own political career and to help Cameron become Tory leader. Subsequently, Cameron asked it to take responsibility for conducting the review of the party’s future social policy.

In particular, the CSJ’s Breakdown Britain report in December 2006 delivered the ammunition for the Conservatives to claim that Labour had failed to create a fairer society and that the Tories were better suited to mend ‘broken Britain’ – one of Cameron’s favourite phrases. It was the policy review group directed by the CSJ that convinced the Conservatives to accept the notion of ‘relative poverty’, something that had always been rejected by Thatcherites.

Other think-tanks have been less successful as they could not contribute to – and benefit from – the Tory revival after 2005. ResPublica is a case in point. With his message of ‘Red Toryism’, the think-tank’s founder Philip Blond went beyond what Conservative modernisation could accommodate. While initially Red Toryism worked well to demonstrate how the Conservatives were changing, the combination of economic paternalism and social conservatism had neither the desired impact on Conservative thinking nor on Blond’s career. After an initial flurry of media reporting, ResPublica quickly disappeared from the front pages until, in October 2011, Blond was accused of having ‘raided’ the coffers of his think-tank to finance his expensive lifestyle.

Part of the establishment

The think-tanks that emerged in the 2000s and contributed to the detoxification of the Conservative brand are today part of the Westminster establishment. Since the election, the intensity of intellectual exchange between think-tanks and Cameron and his modernisers has decreased markedly. This is no surprise, as the realities of governing with a coalition partner and with a civil service that has vast resources for policy advice were bound to change the relationship.

Think-tanks have nonetheless continued to be springboards for personal careers. For example, Policy Exchange’s director Nick Boles became head of policy for Cameron in 2008 and an MP in 2010. The think-tank’s chief researcher, James O’Shaughnessy, is today an advisor to Cameron. And still ‘what Policy Exchange publishes goes straight to No 10 because of where they are’, says an envious researcher at the Centre for Social Justice. It is no coincidence that Bell Pottinger offered joint events with Policy Exchange as lobbying opportunities to the undercover journalists.

While not every think-tank and lobbying company is like Atlantic Bridge or Bell Pottinger, the two scandals have demonstrated again how blurred are the lines between politics, business, think-tanks, PR companies and lobbying. Often, transparency – not only in financial matters – is sorely missing, and think-tanks frequently have little ground to stand on when they proclaim their ‘independence’. Accountable to no-one apart from their funders, they feed the leaders of political parties with ideas and are used by politicians to present themselves to the media.

Think-tanks even play a role in electoral strategies and re‑branding political parties; the Tory transformation and the recent project Open Labour, run by think-tank Demos, to ‘re‑brand’ the party, are evidence for this. Internal policy-making processes are deliberately eroded by party leaders who prefer think-tanks’ media-friendly policy work, financed by private money, over discussions with their own members. Whether a parliamentary democracy, with political parties at its core, can live with such a development needs to be debated.

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