Mary Dejevsky: Our think-tanks are failing the interested public

People are hungry to exchange views and, yes, pontificate on the burning issues
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The Independent Online

Forget the laments you hear about the death of politics. Intellectual and political discussion is thriving in today's Britain almost as much as it is in France. Pretty much any evening, you can find discussions, debates and lectures - which are open not just to writing, chattering "wonks" like me, but to those condescendingly dubbed the "general public".

My experience is that these events are often standing-room only. People are hungry to find out, exchange views and, yes, pontificate on the burning issues. From the NHS, to immigration, to the "special relationship", to Iraq, you can find something to tickle your curiosity. You could almost hail a new age of intellectual ferment. Gordon Brown may be on to something with his promise to broaden involvement in making policy.

Given the amount of discussion going on, you might ask why more policy is not being made from the ground up. The fault, I suggest, lies not with the amateurs - the "general public" - who are doing their level best to participate. It lies with the professionals and the go-betweens - the politicians, the paid "wonks" and strategists - who are not serving the rest of us very well.

For while there is an enormous desire among amateurs to grapple with the big, intractable issues - how to distribute scarce social housing, what rights non-citizens should enjoy, the pros and cons of school testing, to name a few - the professionals are breaking things up into ever smaller details, debated by ever smaller groups of people. The effect of this fragmentation is almost entirely negative. The smaller the group, the more likely its members are to share assumptions. The result is discussion in ever more selective groups, whose members simply reinforce each other's views.

As exhibit A, I cite the conference of Compass last weekend. I have nothing against Compass - which styles itself a democratic left pressure group - the same criticisms could be made of almost any political organisation. But Compass graphically illustrated the trend.

Here is an avowedly left-wing grouping, which tries to accommodate many shades of left opinion. Rather than hammering out the differences, however, with a view to presenting a co-ordinated agenda for the left, which might actually ensure that its voice is heard further afield, the conference spent most of its time in "break-out" groups, a dozen or more running concurrently. Thus one group is discussing "Britishness, citizenship and identity", while another considers "global migration", and yet another "managing globalisation". Meanwhile another talks about "beating global poverty", while "women and global poverty" are kept separate. The result was that participants divided along predictable professional and gender lines and never met, let alone argued with each other. What contest of ideas is this?

As exhibit B, I cite the recent proliferation of think-tanks and pressure groups that - deliberately or not - disguise their allegiances. Compass, you might feel, seems expressly named to leave the choice to you: north, south, east or west. At least with groups such as Foreign Policy Centre or Centre for European Reform, you have an inkling of their subject area.

How would you know, though, that Global Vision is actually hostile to the European Union - as is the European Foundation? Or that Policy Exchange and Policy Network are at opposite ends of the spectrum (guess which is which)? Then you have the "classicists" - Demos, Politeia and Civitas - which betray scant hint of their direction, even if you know what the words mean. Why are they so shy about their genesis and purpose? A similar coyness afflicts the trades unions, who have ditched their trades-linked directness for the feel-good fuzziness of modern branding. Amicus, anyone?

As Exhibit C, I would cite the internet. An instrument ecstatically welcomed as opening up the world to everyone also allows those who choose to do so to exist in a bubble bound by settings that confirm what they already "know". Impassioned debates can and do take place in chatrooms - witness the rival assessments of the G8 summit or the slanging match over parenting inspired by the case of Madeleine McCann. But you can also confine yourself to news and opinion that simply reinforces your world view - as, say, a Bosnian Serb or a member of the US "pro-life" Christian right.

There is everything to be gained by a genuine contest of ideas, and the broader the participation the better. Members of the "general public" have constantly to pit their views against those of the professionals and against each other. Would that the professionals - "wonks" and practitioners - dared to leave the shelter of kindred spirits and risk their own ideas in an equally rigorous test.