Vantage Point is a Cast From Clay series on how think tanks are perceived from the outside.
Tom Harwood is a journalist and commentator, based in Westminster. He is a senior reporter for Guido Fawkes, has a weekly column in The Telegraph, and writes for The Spectator and Conservative Home. In 2015 and 2016 he chaired the national student wing of the Vote Leave campaign. He is listed as one of the 100 most influential Conservatives in the UK in LBC’s authoritative index.
It is clear that think tanks have become a more contentious and recognisable feature of politics in recent years. Perhaps not so much because their influence has changed, but more because the country has endured a heightened state of polarisation, and general political awareness.
The new post-Brexit political settlement of this country has certainly taken some heat out of the public discourse, yet people remain more politically aware than before. This has the potential to generate a more participatory democracy – one in which think tanks have a bigger role to play.
A number of new factors have led to the role of think tanks perhaps being enhanced in this post-Brexit world.
The increasingly clear reality of a less rabidly ideologically driven Labour Party opens new opportunities for outside policy recommendation to flow to the top of the party. Conversely, over the last five years, Leader of the Opposition’s office gatekeepers acted highly suspiciously when it came to organisations not within its particular narrow ideological orbit.
Equally, the UK’s relatively new, not overtly ideological, prime minister may be more susceptible than many to compelling outside pressure. This has been evident through third-figure campaigning, most prominently from Marcus Rashford.
This ‘the gentleman is for turning’ trait could certainly be applied to less overt policy influence. Although his cabinet is dominated by figures from the more Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson has defined his political career by placing pragmatism above ideology.
Yet, not all think tanks are created equal. As would stand to reason, think tanks seen as ideologically closer to the party in power almost always hold more sway with the government of the day.
A pertinent example of this would be the Adam Smith Institute, which went from having weekly meetings with special advisers and its president, Dr Madsen Pirie, being on the Prime Minister’s advisory panel, to being out of favour with the Government for 13 years following the 1997 election. Now that the Tories are back with a majority, once again figures from the ASI sit on Government advisory bodies – from Freeports to the Strategic Trade Advisory Group.
It is often for this reason that at Guido Fawkes we engage with think tanks and their work when it is likely to affect ours. Work that may materially affect political machinations in Westminster, perhaps inspiring private members bills, Parliamentary rebellions, change in policy or personal fortune for known entities, is of interest to our readers.
Equally, as campaigning journalists we do team up with think tanks. For example, we recently aligned with the Taxpayers’ Alliance to advocate reforming the way MPs are paid, linking in to the news of their repeated above-inflation pay rises, particularly at times of recession. This cooperation fits the brand of the site and hits our newsworthiness threshold.
There are, however, think tanks that may carry less sway with more political players – pertinently, those that paint themselves as non-ideological are often viewed with suspicion within Government departments.
Senior figures in Government have been wary of bodies that are presented in the media as impartial, yet may seem less so behind the scenes. For example, the Institute For Government, despite its wider reputation, has been seen as having anti-Brexit leanings, with Government figures having noted funding from the campaigning Lord Sainsbury as well as the personal positions of staff on totemic constitutional questions.
Arguments over funding are useful only in this narrow context – where think tanks profess to be impartial. They offer no value to understanding an organisation with a clear ideological view, such as the New Economics Foundation or the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The donors of these organisations matter to their aims as much as the donors of the Church of England or Oxfam do to theirs. No one seriously suspects that, were a wealthy socialist to donate to the IEA, it would suddenly recommend state intervention in the economy.
There are many legitimate arguments for protecting the privacy of donors, especially at a time of political intimidation and violence. A more important point of transparency is the philosophical grounding of any particular think tank. Far more is lost by concealing that than by protecting the privacy of donors.
And many do conceal their ideology – perhaps inadvertently because they do not realise they have one.
Yet the ideological leaning of think tanks can be thought of like accents. It is a mistake to think that one does not speak with an accent, just because it is the mainstream or norm in one part of the country or among one dominant group of people. So, too, with policy.
Debate is enhanced by more voices offering different approaches. Westminster can so often present nuanced policy questions as binary, so having third organisations step in with research and reports can enhance and expand the two-dimensional nature of Parliamentary politics.
New approaches can be particularly valuable when they are proffered from outside the political mainstream of the day.
Reports looking into the effectiveness and harm of different approaches to drug policy, for instance, are still taboo (although less than they once were) for elected politicians. Policy researchers, however, can offer more reasoned analysis and, frankly, advocacy than Members of Parliament will ever be able to, given democratic constraints to controversy.
While the public is generally wary and weary of too much politics intervening in their lives, the idea that organisations they have never heard of, and have no public-facing wing, are influencing government is an unsettling one.
Those who want to be engaged may be a small proportion of the country as a whole, however, it should be as easy as possible for the periodically politically interested to understand think tank research.
With the Brexit process completing at the end of last year, Ministers will no longer be able to hide behind the shield of Brussels to avoid scrutiny and criticism of policy choices. Being in control of more policy levers opens a more direct line of accountability, which in turn increases the importance of domestic public opinion when it comes to policy influence.
Therefore, it not only builds trust to engage in public-facing activities, but also is more likely to influence and inform newly more responsive decision-makers.
When it comes to good work being done by think tanks, it is important to reference policy successes. No matter how intrinsically important work may be, it does not count for much if it is not widely read, shared, and discussed. At the very least in the corridors of power.
To this extent, a valid measure of good work is that it goes beyond think tanks themselves.
Policy Exchange’s planning reform work has been particularly important given how much it has informed and influenced transformative Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government policy. Similarly, the Institute of Economic Affairs’ research into Public Health England surely influenced the recent abolition of that quango.
Not only national governance, but also civil society, would be worse off if it were to lose the rich tapestry of analysis and policy options provided by think tanks of all flavours. More outreach and public-facing work will help to maintain this vital artery of public policy discussion.
We now live in less politically fraught times, compared to the last three years. This will help to reduce the tension from opposing tribes attacking each other over work they disagree with. A better world of think tanks comes from more public discussion, more research, and more debate. Not less.