Think-tanks can benefit politicians, if politicians are willing to do some hard thinking, says Alfred Sherman

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GOVERNMENT disarray and Labour's periodic regression to pre-Kinnock attitudes arouse hankerings for the days of the think-tanks - the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. Though complimentary, this puts the cart before the horse. Think-tanks in their day were not prime movers, but epiphenomena. Our influence - real or apparent - grew in response to our patrons' felt need for a path through the fog.

But unless the politician be driven to seek ideas, whether new appreciations of the existing state of affairs, or recipes for a new one, no think-tank can lead him to thought and thence to action. Without a politician-patron, or a public seized with the daemon of rethinking, the smartest premises become sepulchres, their study groups and leaflets born to blush unseen. No think-tank can be better than its patrons.

Since the quest for new ideas risks implicitly admitting shortcomings in the party's existing stock and in policies associated with them, politicians seek ideas only when they have exhausted all other expedients, ie, when they have nothing to lose. Otherwise, what is 'politically on' ensures that policies will be judged by their immediate political acceptability rather than their eventual fruits, hence politicians remain prisoners of the status quo.

This need for new ideas, however, is likely to decline in proportion to the politicians' renewed successes. So think-tankery contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The genesis of the Centre for Policy Studies, its ascendancy and vitiation, faithfully reflected this sequence. By the mid-Seventies, a decreasing minority of Conservatives believed that Butskellism could ensure permanent re-election, party harmony and national affluence - in that order. But it took the shock of Heath's defeat to bring the party to a point where it would stomach radical rethinking.

In 1974, Keith Joseph, piqued at being denied the Shadow Chancellorship, launched a modest rethink. Emboldened by the pent-up response, he was open to urgings by me, among others, to be still bolder, against his own natural inclinations. His admission, 'we were wrong', at Upminster (summer 1974) provided the essence of Thatcherism; all the rest was gloss. Let me disclaim any originality. All we did was to direct attention to the relentless workings of causality: 'necessity' as Hegel called it.

We generated intellectual excitement, questioning the unquestioned, and saying on behalf of political leaders what many people had been saying or thinking for years. We questioned not only neo-Keynesian orthodoxies, but the whole post-war economic consensus, Friedman included.

In our early days we made waves, as well as making thinking respectable in the Conservative Party, which had hitherto demonised it. But underneath the surface, much remained as before. As it took over the party and then the government, the Thatcherite nucleus was assimilated and shaped by them. Our ideas bounced off the impermeable carapace of Civil Service self-assurance and immobilism, reinforced by party fear that the public would not give up its bird in the hand for any number in the bush, and by the vested interests which decades of socialism and corporatism had created.

Above all, we were defeated by human nature itself, as economic man was suborned by political animal, believing compulsively in magical costless solutions which politicians felt constrained to compete in offering in order to survive.

Few ministers, birds of passage, wished to take on their permanent civil servants, and fewer still had the ability to do so. In 1980, we prepared a scheme for studying the health service's costs and performance as a basis for reform. The bureaucracy opposed this because they felt more comfortable so long as their performance could not be assayed. Hence the debate on NHS reform still lacks adequate data.

Any think-tank could have warned against boom policies in early 1985, the certain catastrophic failure of the exchange rate mechanism and the poll tax.

With the cult of the personality, the mood to heed critical ideas evaporated. In 1983, the CPS was neutered lest it appear to criticise government sins of commission or omission. The IEA found itself honoured but again ignored, effectively back in the wilderness where it had spent the first two decades of its existence laying down the basis for the Seventies revolution.

Things have not changed for the better in the age of stagnation. John Major sees no need for questions, only expedients. His 'cold baths' doctrine of fighting inflation brushed aside considerations of the causes of inflation as superfluous. The political classes will take a think-tank seriously only if it has the ear of politicians. But you could no more establish a client relationship with politicians on either of the front benches than you could sell condoms to an impotent man.

The condition for the effectiveness of any new think-tank will be the elaboration of techniques for generating demand for its services, and ensuring that its patrons' successes will not make it redundant again. Otherwise, imminent calamities may come and go without intellectual shock.

The writer was co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974.

Beatrix Campbell is away

The writer was co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974.