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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era