The wonks are coming of age

Rarely have think-tanks had such an opportunity to influence policy

They thought they had got over the worst once they had struggled through their eight-minute presentations on "Can there be a Third Way in foreign policy?" But there was one more hurdle. "Would you go ahead and publish a report if the No 10 Policy Unit and the Foreign Office didn't want you to?"

This was the awkward predicament faced by candidates applying for the position of director of the new Foreign Policy Centre. With luminaries such as Tony Blair and Robin Cook on the letterhead, and with Cook's special adviser and an adviser from the Policy Unit acting as chief inquisitors, such a blunt question about political allegiance should have come as no surprise.

The centre is not the only think-tank where you can detect high-level political "interest". Demos is seeking a new director to replace Geoff Mulgan, who resigned in October to spend more time with the No 10 Policy Unit. There are concerns that Mulgan is having a tough time severing his umbilical link to the organisation he helped found, and is lobbying hard for his chosen successor.

At the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) meanwhile, a new Blairite director has recently been appointed to replace Gerry Holtham, a clever, Eeyorish man, who resigned in June to re-seek his fortune in the city. Early applicants received a quickie interview, taking less time than it would to hire a new secretary. A shortlist of three was drawn up. Then nothing for a month. Candidates waited for the second round. It never came. In October Matthew Taylor was anointed.

Taylor is seen by many as an Identikit Blairite: shorn hair, sharp suit and quivering bleeper. He has the CV to support the image: assistant general secretary of the Labour Party and director of policy during the election. It is a whispered secret that he was offered a post inside No 10.

Taylor's appointment may seem to confirm No 10's footballing tendency to delineate the world into on- and off-side factions, ousting awkward types, such as Holtham, and replacing them with the tried and trusted few.

But the reality is somewhat different. Realeconomik as much as Realpolitik influenced the selection of Taylor. Although some trustees were unhappy with the candidates, there was financial pressure not to grind through a further round of interviews: the IPPR needed a cash injection after the fund-raising lull left by Holtham's departure and Taylor, among his other skills, looked best able to deliver.

The biggest headache for think-tanks is that they offer a salary of only £35,000 or so but want to attract people with an unusually wide range of skills: political savvy, academic credibility, ideas and the ability to hustle for funds. Chatham House had to call in headhunters to find a new director. The increasingly influential new Centre for European Reform was lucky to attract Charles Grant as its director, after he took a pay cut from the Economist. The Foreign Policy Centre appointed 24-year-old Mark ("Cool Britannia") Leonard, formerly a Demos wunderkind, only after a trawl through the foreign policy community had failed. Many of those rumoured to have applied for Demos are already associated with it, such as Tom Bentley, a 25-year-old researcher, Helen Wilkinson and Ian Christie, the current deputy director. Demos hopes to appoint someone by Christmas. (Put your money on Bentley.)

Once in place, though, there is a real opportunity for think-tankers to become highly influential by engaging with a government whose thinking is still relatively inchoate on many issues. A tone of constructive criticism is more likely to pay dividends (and internal wages) than desultory shin-kicking.

In their pursuit of influence, the various think-tanks are adopting very different approaches. Though he passed the political loyalty test, Leonard thinks that "trying to second-guess what the government's agenda is may confer short-term influence, but ultimately this influence is limited because you are not changing the public debate. Think-tanks often work best by being outrageous, not second-guessing."

Leonard hopes to use the media as a "battering ram" to force through new conventional wisdom in foreign affairs, and wrestle influence away from the leather-armchair elites of Chatham House.

At the Fabian Society, the general secretary Michael Jacobs argues that "influence cannot be the criterion for how you choose what work you do". Jacobs, an environmental economist who landed the post last year after fighting off younger, newer Labour contenders, is some way from being an Identikit Blairite. Instead he recognises that he must tickle his members' ideological tastes as much as the government's, as they provide one-third of the society's cash. He describes his relationship with government as a hokey-cokey, "half-in and half-out".

Matthew Taylor, however, is keen to move the IPPR to the heart of political debate; he wants to shift the focus away from micro-policy on to bigger-picture projects, such as new technology, and to raise the institute's media profile.

The danger, as Eamonn Butler of the pro-free market Adam Smith Institute sees it, is that the IPPR will go the way of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). "It became so close to the government that it in effect became part of the Policy Unit and disappeared." As for his own think-tank, it does not seem to be suffering from a similar identity crisis: "We have the same relationship with this government as we had with the previous one," he claims.

Over on the right, the Institute of Economic Affairs is equally dismissive of all this talk of repositioning.

"We never position ourselves according to what the government is doing," explained David Green, the director of the health and welfare unit. "We want to encourage discussion about liberty and the market economy. We keep ploughing that furrow."

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!