Can you say the unsayable when Downing Street is your client?

Ann Treneman on think-tanks

Share
Related Topics
There is nothing that riles the new deputy director at Demos more than to ask whether the think-tank has become too close to the Labour government. "Why would you think that?" demands Ian Christie. Well, for starters, there is the fact that Demos director Geoff Mulgan is also an adviser to Tony Blair's policy unit. Can you have Big Ideas and be Labour luvvies at the same time? Shouldn't a think tank be out there ploughing a lonely furrow?

"That is the wrong view. During their heyday in the Seventies and Eighties, the right-wing think-tanks weren't ploughing a lonely furrow. They were having dinner the whole time with Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Demos doesn't do that," says Mr Christie. "Speaking personally I've never been to a new Labour luvvie party. I wouldn't know what the inside of a Terence Conran restaurant looks like. None of us at Demos live in Islington. But there is no point in ploughing a lonely furrow. The point is to be influential. So if we are influential with the Government, we are absolutely delighted."

Demos is not alone in being so delighted. The Institute for Public Policy Research is its think tank stablemate on the centre left, and soon it is faxing me a list of people who have gone from the institute into government. There are seven names on the list but there may be more. It's the kind of thing that is hard to keep track of these days.

More surprising, perhaps, is that the Adam Smith Institute is also pleased to be influential with the new government. The institute's newsletter is brutally pragmatic. "After 18 years of working with a Conservative government, the obvious question is 'How will the Adam Smith Institute adapt to working with a Labour government?' The answer is 'smoothly'."

Its director, Eamonn Butler, immediately starts dropping the names of Labour ministers who are attending the institute's new lecture series, "Achieving Labour's Aims". Can this be the same institute that once advocated the virtual abolition of government? "We prefer to think of ourselves as promoting the values of a free society," says Mr Butler. "Our job is to work with the politicians of the day. If governments change, then we have to work with them. There are many things in the Labour manifesto one can agree with. So much is in the the presentation of policy. We have to work with everybody."

A few years ago such a statement would have shocked but this is the new age of bendy centrist politics and so it only brings a laugh or two. "There is a lot of cross dressing now because the political centre has moved so much to the right," says Tessa Keswick of the Centre for Policy Studies, which was set up in 1974 by Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph. She, at least, is not pretending to be influential with Labour, though she does think there are areas where the two might have interests that overlap.

All of this makes very interesting viewing for the likes of Lord Harris of High Cross, who ran what was the most influential think-tank of them all in the Eighties, the Institute for Economic Affairs. "The IEA started with a wholly academic board and we were principally concerned with the economic systems of a free society. We then became quite acceptable," he says with masterful understatement. But he stresses that the IEA was never keen to be part of the inner circle of the day. "You've got to pursue the analysis with vigour and ignore what politicians say."

This is perhaps the toughest lesson for think-tanks like Demos and IPPR. After all, both are too young to have ever been close to power before. The IPPR, in particular, does not see its links with Labour as a conflict of interest.

Gerry Holtham, the director, points out that its role has always been more towards solving specific problems than speculating on big ideas. He even talks about what it was like to be in opposition and compares the role of a think-tank to that of the civil service. "Before the election we asked ourselves, will our function have to change a lot when Labour win? Surely, we thought, they will have civil service that will do a lot of the policy analysis that we in the past have done. But these last few months have shown us that it is not true. There is scope for our problem- oriented approach simply because the civil service is working on the current agenda and doesn't have the capacity to deal with the future."

Demos sees things differently. The think-tank was founded only in 1993 with the goal of breaking through the traditional boundaries of left and right, and Ian Christie has no desire to change this. He is full of plans: a big new area for Demos will be the environment and future work will be much "crunchier" (ie aimed at providing specific solutions). Independence is key.

"Many of our publications could be adopted by the Tories," he says, gesturing towards the pamphlets in Demos's distinctly untrendy offices near Fleet Street. "We want to be influential with the Conservative party. It's no good to this country to have a Conservative party that is as intellectually bereft as the Labour party was in the early Eighties. Part of what Demos is about is to give a home to Conservatives who want to rethink what they are about."

Geoff Mulgan agrees. "The Tories are very important to us. Don't get aligned. That's what stops thinking." Such a statement would carry a bit more weight, of course, if it wasn't being delivered by an adviser to Tony Blair, and many onlookers are watching to see what happens next. "If you've sold yourself as a think-tank that is independent then you lose some of your legitimacy once you take the inside track," says co- founder Martin Jacques. "This is clearly a problem for Demos."

Yesterday Demos sent round a press release clarifying Geoff Mulgan's role. It said he was taking leave from his post as director but that he would remain involved in Demos' work. It is a compromise but still a tough line to walk. The job of an exceptional think-tank is to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable and to care about little else. After all, politicians come and go but a great thought can last forever. Or at least that's the idea.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job ? This is a new post...

Primary General Cover Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: We are looking for Primary School ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album