A week in books

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The Independent Culture
Shortly before the third Thatcher government took a scalpel to the NHS, I interviewed a young thinker at the Centre for Policy Studies. Quick of mind and glib of tongue, he waxed lyrical about patient choice and internal markets. Half-convinced, I watched his ascent with interest. And rise he did - though anyone who pens self-incriminating memos when they bend the rules probably deserves the nickname "No Brains".

As David Willetts' fate confirms, policy intellectuals in Britain often flake when they come too close to office. For two decades, alumni from the Tory think-tanks have withered in the corridors of power; this year, we could well see how much house-room Labour allows to its own finest minds. Even if the answer turns out to be "not a lot", this still looks a good time for the research group Demos to publish an anthology edited by its director Geoff Mulgan, Life After Politics: new thinking for the 21st century (Fontana, pounds 7.99).

Demos steers clear of overt alignment, and the selections from its work here cover essays by paid-up Tories as well as by liberals and radicals. Yet it would be idle to deny that the Demos bandwagon has rolled down roughly the same road as the modernisers of the left. Indeed, its style carries echoes of that piquant moment in the 1980s when Marxism Today magazine hosted a quick-change act by former revolutionaries who briskly remade themselves as postmodern policy wonks. One of the MT trademarks was reverence for Thatcherism itself: here, Mulgan calls it "a bold project of national renewal which tackled head on many deep structural problems". Oh yes? Many historians now think that the lady's electoral sleight-of- hand masked drift and inertia.

Far from looking ahead, this reflex side of Demos thought harks back to the intellectual modes of the late 1980s: the "globalisation" mantra, adulation for the Pacific Rim, belief that the private sector always get things right. Mulgan claims that the exhaustion of politics-as-usual condemns us to "gridlock" or "underperformance": the metaphors of a traditional, growth-obsessed progressive.

The Demos papers really shine either up among the Big Ideas, or down among the details. The best close-focus analysis includes three essays co-authored by Mulgan himself: with Helen Wilkinson on young people; with Andrew Adonis on high-tech democracy; and with Robin Murray on ways to link tax to services. Strong broad-brush pieces range from Zygmunt Bauman on "ethics after certainty" to Sam Brittan's foray into evolutionary psychology - proof that Darwin has filled the Top Thinker vacancy left by the demotion of Marx and Freud.

The Demos voice grows firmer the farther it moves from 1980s fads. It may still take the end-of-an era shock supplied by a new government to break that decade's spell for good. Then, Demos could flourish mightily. But I don't imagine it will ever tell us why the research director calls himself Perri 6. Could he be a relative of R2D2 from Star Wars? Or just a very terse scion of the Six dynasty of Amsterdam? Either way, if he ever re-programmes himself for the old politics, "64MP" would save a packet on those printing bills.

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