The ideological battle lines are shifting. Think tanks are everywhere—except the political frontlineby Tom Clark, Marie Le Conte / March 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Anthony Fisher was the man who brought battery-farming to Britain. It may have been a cruel practice, but it was a transformatively efficient one—it turned chicken from a luxury into a British staple, and made this old Etonian fabulously rich along the way.
His big ideas did not stop there, however. At the end of the Second World War he had been inspired by Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—the original neo-liberal manifesto. He planned to go into politics to bring the book’s message to the mainstream. But when he sought out Hayek, the Austrian economist suggested another approach. In these post-war years, amid ration books and grim memories of the depressed 1930s, a sort of social democratic corporatism had been institutionalised within the universities and the civil service. Hayek thought the fightback had to start among the “makers of opinions;” elective politics could wait. Fisher abandoned his plan to stand for parliament, and instead pursued the idea of launching a think tank.
Fisher masterminded the creation of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1955. He was swimming firmly against the tide, for this was the apogee of the “Butskellite” consensus. Rab Butler, the moderate Tory chancellor, and Hugh Gaitskell, his Labour shadow, seemed equally committed to a mixed economy in which the state took responsibility for full employment. Laissez-faire libertarians were consigned to the crankish fringe. Almost unnoticed, however—in obscure pamphlets and quiet seminar rooms—the IEA began making its case.
“Tank” might seem a misnomer, for the first 20 years were not about blitzkrieg but a grinding war of attrition. Only amid the great inflation of the 1970s did the IEA acquire an ear at the top. Margaret Thatcher snatched the Conservative leadership in 1975, full of right-wing zeal, but not yet a thought-through Thatcherism. Reinforcement arrived in the form of Keith Joseph’s Centre for Policy Studies (founded 1974) and the Adam Smith Institute (1977), and before long the right-wing tanks were road-testing and refining the ideas and policies that would define the politics of 1980s—privatisation, tax reform with deep cuts in top rates, and assorted schemes to expose public services to market forces.