Any ideas to spare?

The proliferation of right-wing think-tanks has failed to generate the same volume of ideological power. Indeed, the supply of original thought seems to have dried up, says Polly Toynbee

Bring me your ideas, the message went out to all in the Tory land. The Prime Minister's intellectual arteries are dry and in urgent need of transfusion - ideas donors are required for his conference speech this week. The word is: no more piddling Cones Hotlines or schemes to harass New Age travellers, but Big Ideas, Double Whoppers with maximum beef, please.

This plea, however, finds the world of right-of-centre think-tanks in a state of unprecedented turmoil. Internecine warfare has broken out, competition for funds and backers is fierce, and think-tanks appear to be proliferating in reverse proportion to the number of fresh ideas in the right-wing ether. But whatever the lack of inspiration, there is no shortage of poison leaking down the telephone wires as each think- tank tries to dip the other in a bath of sulphuric scorn.

Centre-stage this week is the Centre for Policy Studies, where there is high drama with the arrival of a new director, Tessa Keswick. She is being given the full acid-bath treatment: rubbished as not clever or educated enough and no thinker. Dr Sheila Lawlor, the CPS's director of studies, has stormed off to found yet another think-tank, to be announced next month but rumoured to have the support of cabinet ministers and solid financial backing.

The CPS, founded by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in 1974, was a flagship of Eighties conservatism, close to No 10, daring to be a little dangerous, but rarely outrageous, a practical tool for ministers engaged in the nitty-gritty of drafting clauses in trade union and social security legislation. Until 1991 the historian Hugh, now Lord, Thomas was its chairman, a maverick academic who gave it a Senior Common Room air, where cabinet ministers loved to lunch and listen to wild ideas, and even to express dangerous thoughts themselves from time to time.

Unwisely, Mrs Thatcher engineered Thomas's exit in 1991, finding him too wet and pro-European, and replaced him with the departed head of her policy unit at No 10, the eccentric lay preacher and now businessman, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach. Insiders grumble that he has packed the board with businessmen, such as Stanley Kalms of Dixons, who prefer management targets to the collegiate intellectual life.

The Centre has fallen on hard times since the departure in 1992 of its clever and imaginative director David Willetts to become an MP, and now a government whip. His successor, Gerald Frost, a defence expert, was ousted last month, mainly for failure to make either a public impression or an impact on government thinking.

Think-tanks have their heydays, rising and falling with the intellectual fashions of the time. The CPS was an ideas factory of the Eighties, but others now scent its near-death. The vultures' claws are well-sharpened for Keswick, former political adviser for six years to Kenneth Clarke at Health, Education, the Home Office and Treasury. This is not only a savagely cut-throat world, but a very male one. These places like to see themselves as mini-Peterhouses, replicas of the old all-male Oxbridge colleges. That partly explains the torrent of shocked abuse that greeted news of her appointment last month, over the heads of ready-made thinkers who applied for the job from the No 10 policy unit and Conservative Central Office.

"Sources" sourly complained she lacked any academic background, with no degree, no intellectual weight, though she was "an ideal dinner-party neighbour" said one snidely to the London Evening Standard. "Jolly girl, not a thinker" another is quoted as saying. Others who know her less well were outraged that anyone so close to Euro-wet Clarke could have seized this citadel of Tory thought. However, she is tough on social policy and deeply Euro-phobic.

On one thing "sources" are agreed. She can solve the financial problems of the Centre at a stroke (she is exceedingly rich) and she will be good at restoring the air of influential conviviality, with her close social contacts with all the big players in the party. These things matter in attracting the liveliest thinkers to write pamphlets, and she may yet trounce her detractors.

However, this is a world of intellectual snobbery lethally combined with fierce personal political ambition and she will need to be remarkably astute to survive. As Lawlor departs to set up her rival outfit, the until-now male think-tank world is chortling. "We'll just stand back and watch the girls fight it out!" said one, smugly.

The shroud of secrecy which covers Lawlor's new venture is partly because some of its founders are afraid of the omnipresent malevolence of Baroness Thatcher: though she has virtually nothing to do with the CPS now, it is still her baby. Others are silent on the new think-tank until the cheques from backers are safely in the bank: they have already scented the Redwood pack on their heels, trying to poach their angels. Most think- tanks have become so afraid of pilferage and plagiarism of their ideas that they reveal very little, like dress designers keeping their clothes under lock and key until the big show.

For ideas are the real gold, and they are all in search of new practical policies that symbolise an ideology: everyone quotes the sale of council houses as that dream two-in-one device. The CPS under Keswick looks set to tuck itself safely into the Major government agenda, with the Prime Minister as its patron. The Lawlor tank claims it will be freer of politicians and able to think wider and broader.

Money is in short supply. Public companies, though, quite like giving to think-tanks as an alternative to giving to political parties, since they are charities and so do not appear in annual accounts as political donations. Most think-tanks pretend to have a lot of money in this world of bluffing. John Redwood's proclaimed aim of raising pounds 2m is regarded as wildly fanciful. His Conservative 2000 Foundation is the most loudly ridiculed by the others as a one-man vanity-product. One competitor said dismissively: "It's John Redwood's bid for the leadership next time round."

In another part of the wood, one influential modern right-of-centre think-tank has stolen much of the CPS thunder. The Social Market Foundation, run with money from David Sainsbury, was supposed to keep alive the ideas of the Owenite wing of the SDP after its demise. But its chairman, economist Professor (now Lord) Robert Skidelsky and director, Danny Finkelstein (ex-SDP Youf), marched promptly rightwards into the Tory party just before the 1992 election.

Finkelstein, who has just departed to become director of the Conservative Research Department, is the archetypal successful policy wonk halfway up the greasy pole to mainstream politics. At 33, he is charming, clever, universally liked and full of ideas. However, now he has gone, the SMF will make a rapid march back into the centre-ground, detaching itself from its Tory associations, trying to re-establish itself in the less partisan world of the much-envied Demos.

Turbulence in think-tankery is nothing new. The old Institute of Economic Affairs, founded in 1957 by Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, hired the clever and agreeable policy wonk, Graham Mather, now an MEP, in 1986 to take over as director - but then failed to resign themselves as promised. Mather finally quit in 1992 in a serious rift over Europe, when the old codgers sponsored the Bruges group and he set up his own successful tank, the European Policy Forum (turnover, pounds 500,000 a year). The IEA's heyday was the triumph of monetarism. It preached the inevitability of capitalism, but now there is no one much left to convince.

The Adam Smith Institute's big ideas were privatisation and competitive tendering for government services. With its impassioned belief that the free market can solve everything, critics say it has marginalised itself by beating the "less government" drum so loud that it has not had enough to say about what government should actually do. However, it is sometimes good at the short, sharp, pithy idea: John Major was reading its Socks Manifesto when its director, Dr Madsen Pirie, was ushered in to Downing Street ("socks" because designed to shock his socks off). It is an abundant and eclectic rag-bag of the mad, bad, silly and sensible, including abolishing most government departments and the BBC while establishing a British space programme.

There is frenetic anxiety behind this jockeying for ideological power. The projects and arguments of the Eighties have become orthodoxy now, so where are they to turn? The new thinking seems to be with Blair, Demos, the Institute of Public Policy Research and others. Apart from the Europe fault-line, there are few ideological divides; it is more a matter of style, tone and personality. The pool of new right-wing ideas is almost dry, and the tanks are scrambling for the last sip of muddy water.

RIGHT-WING THINK-TANKS

Institute of Economic Affairs

Headed by: John Blundell.

HQ: Lord North Street, London SW1.

Founded: 1957, by Arthur Seldon and Lord Harris of High Cross.

Ideology: The mother of Tory think-tanks, set up to expound Hayek-influenced ideas of free market economics. Recently attacked proposed changes to the divorce laws on the grounds that they constituted a threat to the social order.

Status: Swanky seminars and receptions are well attended. Financed by millions made from battery chickens by Antony Fisher.

Triumphs: Thought to have exerted a profound influence on monetarist thinking in Thatcherite governments.

Adam Smith Institute

Headed by: Dr Madsen Pirie and Dr Eamonn Butler.

HQ: Great Smith Street, London SW1.

Founded: 1978, by the above.

Ideology: Vehemently opposed to state interference in anything. Believes residents should be shareholders in the community and town halls should be abolished. Recently called for expansion of Assisted Places Scheme, which provides subsidised public schooling to children from low-income families.

Status: Together with the IEA, probably the most influential.

Triumphs: Its lengthy advocacy of education vouchers and privatisation has seen the light of day under John Major.

Conservative 2000 Foundation

Headed by: John Redwood MP (directed by Hywel Williams, Redwood's former political adviser at the Welsh Office).

HQ: Wilfred Street, near Buckingham Gate.

Founded: 1995 - launched last month.

Ideology: Officially, to serve as "the forum for the Conservative Party in the age of mass democracy", though generally regarded merely as a means of keeping Redwood in the public eye after his failed attempt to challenge Major's leadership.

Status: Weak, even on the right - except among the thin band of Redwood fans.

Triumphs: Recent high-profile trip to meet senior Republicans in Washington, among them man-of-the-moment Newt Gingrich.

Social Affairs Unit

Headed by: Digby Anderson.

HQ: Regent Street, London W1.

Founded: 1980, as an offshoot of the IEA, by Anderson.

Ideology: Ostensibly, to provide the social equivalent of its parent organisation's free-market thinking, though really just a one-man maverick outfit given to wild schemes. Committed to exposing "political welfarists" who indulge in "milking funding agencies and in dissembling their ideological concerns under a variety of benevolent covers".

Status: Overshadowed of late by the newly formed Health and Welfare Unit.

Triumphs: Gave Sunday Telegraph writer Dr James Le Fanu his first break.

Social Market Foundation

New head, after departure of Daniel Finkelstein, yet to be appointed. Chairman: Lord Skidelsky.

HQ: Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1.

Founded: 1989.

Ideology: Now occupies central ground. Had strong links with the SDP before moving further Toryward; now extols the virtues of the social market economy.

Status: Influential writing under the SMF umbrella from MP Frank Field and CBI boss Howard Davies. Originally set up with funds supplied by David Sainsbury.

Triumphs: Lured David Willetts as a writer away from the Centre of Policy Studies.

Centre for Policy Studies

Headed by: Tessa Keswick.

HQ: Rochester Row, London SW1.

Founded: 1974, by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph.

Ideology: Did you say Thatcher? Established to work on free-market ideas, though since eclipsed by other organisations.

Status: Apparently reduced; halcyon days were the late Seventies and early Eighties. Founder member Sir Alfred Sherman recently remarked: "If it still made an impact we would know about it."

Triumphs: Claims to influence the present government's thinking on education. May be ready for a renaissance under Keswick, formerly adviser to Kenneth Clarke.

SCOTT HUGHES

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