Leading Article: British politics requires more thought

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Like management consultancy, think-tankery is a thing of parts. One part is charlatanry, another is opportunism and a third part is chutzpah. Both the consultants and the think tanks rose to their present eminence in the Eighties. Then, if you needed a cover story for mass sacking, you called a consultant; if you needed a fig leaf for a prime minister's whim, such as the poll tax, you whistled up a think-tank report. This was not all bad. It was the decade that taught the Tories to think, and to respect ideas - including foreign ideas. And the right-wing think tanks had real political influence. Without their chutzpah and, at times, their charlatanry, the Thatcherite programme would have lacked some of its internal self- confidence and determination.

Today, however, the think tanks of the right are in decline. They are facing leftish think tanks, which don't seem to have the same influence on Tony Blair as the Conservative ones had on Margaret Thatcher. And now, in a strange turnabout, David Willetts, formerly of the Centre for Policy Studies and now a Conservative minister, has published a CPS pamphlet to denounce - of all things - thinkers and think tanks.

He selects eight gurus (including the unguru-like editor of this newspaper) and chastises them for creating a climate of opinion which is un-British and may help Mr Blair's new Labour. Unlike the home-spun wisdom of the Tories, Blair, it seems, is surrounding himself with thinkers influenced by foreigners, including that dreadful Chinaman Confucius. Once he might have sought to explain how an Austrian, Friedrich von Hayek, could both have profoundly influenced the German social market economic model and been hailed by Lady Thatcher. Nor, we seem to recall, was Milton Friedman a yeoman of Sussex.

At any rate, confronted by the proposition that British politicians are being drenched with fresh thinking from home or abroad, we can only say: "We wish." The Institute of Economic Affairs and its aficionados have spun a tale about how Mrs Thatcher was captured by its free-market ideas. It was, in truth, always a little more complicated and duller than they made out. The Thatcherite Tories respected Hayek and Friedman more than they read them. But the evidence of Blair and his colleagues mopping up books of political theory is scant by comparison. There are occasional respectful references to handy bestsellers and the thinkings of American Democratic pundits. Terms such as "stakeholding" have proved useful for a speech or two. Political reform was put on to the party's agenda by the campaigners of Charter 88 and frustrated Labour activists. But the stronger influences on Labour's thinking are the current mood of the tabloid and Conservative press, with a nod at the Liberal papers. Labour shows no great relish for ideas. Indeed, we rather fear that Mr Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, is as strong a current influence on the party as any liberal pundit or modish economist. It's certainly the case that Mr Willetts, as an opponent, is paying more respectful intellectual attention to the alleged Blair gurus than Blair does.

That, however, is politics. Authors and think-tank directors would love us to believe that there is an old-fashioned intellectual hegemony which can be spun together and will trap the dominant politicians of the day. But the times when a coherent intellectual movement has swept through a capital have tended to produce bad, sometimes bloody, politics. Leninism was coherent and, up to a point, intellectual. So was the ''Republican revolution'' in America, which is now lying smashed by the force of its own logic. These days, the left is relatively unintellectual compared to the hard-edged thinkers of the right. The left's ideas are kinder, gentler and vaguer. Even the most kindly disposed friends of the Institute of Public Policy Research would admit that it is low-key. Demos, that enfant terrible of recent think tanks, is a great predicter of trends and tendencies. But we need to distinguish ideas that actually make it into policy (which are few) and ideas which shake things up by flipping over the prism of perspective.

The ideas on offer to Labour now are simple and starting points only. "Globalisation" does not get us far, but at least it points to the dependency of workforces, even regions on the ever-faster velocity of capital: insecurity is a real and common feeling. Political reform is not an idea imported from Germany, or anywhere else, but a common-sense reaction to the failings of the British political system over the past 20 years - failings felt by most observers, specialist or not. The centralisation of government is an observable fact. On social policy, there are as many remedies as thinkers, but a new toughness on welfare among some on the left is not intellectual, so much as a reaction to the lives and opinions of Labour constituents. These ideas are in the air and will influence Labour not because some people have written books, but because they correspond to common feelings, repeated in newspapers and MPs' surgeries.

Does this mean that the gurus and their enemies are equally irrelevant? Not at all. Thinkers, never a terribly popular lot in Britain, have a role and responsibility in arming and equipping political leaders to subvert and challenge public opinion, but also to educate and inform it. Whether they congregate in tanks or move like free spirits along the M40, we all need more, not less, thinking.