Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph at the launch of the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974

Brain Boxes — How Think Tanks Changed the World

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead

Just over 40 years ago a small group of middle aged men and women met in a London hotel in an indignant mood. Their ire was concentrated on the economic and social decline of their country. They each felt compelled to do something about it. Together the actions they agreed would ultimately transform the United Kingdom and shape the modern world.

Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and Margaret Thatcher decided to to establish what we would now call a ‘think tank’ (at the time think tanks were commonly associated with military research) to foster ideas to challenge the post-war consensus, what Joseph viewed as ‘thirty years of Socialistic fashion, thirty years of interventions; thirty years of good intentions; thirty years of disappointment’ .

The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) was founded in the immediate aftermath of the first of two General Elections of 1974 — which resulted in a hung Parliament and Tory leader Ted Heath being unable to form a coalition — and against the backdrop of a collapsing economy and widespread social unrest. GDP had fallen by -2.4%, inflation in the last quarter, inflation was at 18% and rising and the National Front had emerged on to the streets.

Joseph, Sherman and Thatcher’s indignation was directed not just at their political foes but more particularly at their own Conservative Party who, they believed, were complicit in adopting policies that were contributing to to economic stagnation and social disruption.

Later when asked about how he felt at the outset of this intellectual adventure Joseph proclaimed: ‘we were the surfacing of a new, young, thinking class undertaking work that just needed to be done. We were determined to question the unquestionable, think the unthinkable and blaze new trails’

Over the next five years CPS published numerous reports extolling the virtues of free market economics and policies of privatisation, low-tax government and support for families. Observers at the time noted their blend of the philosophic and practical application. It was, unsurprisingly, Margaret Thatcher who was largely credited with the consequentialism that would became their hallmark.

Accounts of the period evoke images of Joseph, Sherman and their acolytes toiling away in tea-stained cardigans, heads buried in careworn copies of Hayek and Friedman tomes, debating the minutiae of monetarist theory. But it was Thatcher’s improbable ascent to party leader and then Prime Minister that provided traction for their ideas.

There had, of course, been think tanks before the CPS, but none had been so influential. In the decades that followed all successful acts of political revival occurred in tandem with the formation of new think tanks. New Labour discovered it’s intellectual chutzpah with the support of IPPR and DEMOS, David Cameron’s Government’s radicalism was honed by Policy Exchange and the CSJ. No one would be much surprised, given the paucity of ideas generated during the current Labour leadership race, if a new raft of think tanks begin to emerge to incubate ideas for the left.

Brain Boxes will tell the story of how think tanks changed Britain and the world over the past four decades, recounting how they emerged, the people who created them and how they influenced Government of the day. It will also provide an oblique account of how and why Britain has changed as a society and illuminate how each of our Prime Minister’s engaged with new ideas.

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