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
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.