Giving think tanks a direct policy role is good for democracy

Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process is undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

 

Alan White is worried by the notion of some policy-making being “outsourced” to think tanks. He shouldn’t be.

Fourth on his target list is my Centre for Crime Prevention. Founded in January, it’s certainly a fledgling organisation whose strong media impact may just possibly be down to strong and newsworthy reports - because I can assure him it isn’t owed to big corporate donors or a large staff.

It isn’t immediately obvious why a report saying something true and interesting should be ignored because it has a single author, and I’m grateful that the press seems to agree. But if the Centre grows to the point of attracting those big corporate donors, I’d no doubt face lots of sneer quotes about how dubious that relationship is (for which see White’s examples 1-3). Perhaps think tanks cannot win?

In fact, White shouldn’t worry on either front. Many think tanks do pay the bills because of wealthy donors like Lord Sainsbury, certain trade unions and some companies. But pay-for-print think tanks soon collapse financially for the simple reason that the credibility of their reports depends on the perception and reality of independence. Big companies are perfectly capable of producing corporate brochures without external help.

In theory anyone can publish a report, but if their figures aren’t demonstrably correct and referenced they’ll be ignored even by “three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience”, let alone by policy makers.

There is controversy in any attempt to derive policy from data, but this is inherent to policy-making rather than a problem created by think tanks.

So for example White sees vulnerability in women criminals and clearly believes our prisons include lots of “women offenders who posed no risk to the public”. By contrast, I look at MOJ data showing 11,531 women with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions went before the courts after committing a serious (indictable) offence in the year ending September 2012. I think of their tens of thousands of victims and compare that to a female prison population of less than 4,000 (which includes prisoners from previous years). I think too of White’s excellent book, and its account of “women who’ll take a thirteen-year-old girl over to an estate in order to be gang raped, because that girl’s said something she shouldn’t”. All this leads me to conclude that sending (even) fewer serious, repeat women criminals to prison might harm the interests of the vulnerable.

There’s an argument to be had, then, and it’s inherently political. Given such policy debates must take place in Whitehall, it may just help to turn to those who came up with the policy ideas in the first place.

There’s a serious democratic point to make that governments are elected on a particular platform and agenda, and voters have a right to elect or reject them on that basis. Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process in pursuit of agenda-free policy-making is therefore undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

White is plainly against scaling back community sentences for serious, repeat offenders and building more private prisons. Likewise, many would disagree with his policy ideas. But stopping governments pursuing particular policies is what elections are for. Long may that remain the case.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.