The Original Right-Wing Gramscians (Part II) | Jake Scott


The Think Tank Archipelago

Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society was obscure, it was also highly influential. In many ways, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the ‘proto-think tank’, in that it was dedicated to the production, refinement and dissemination of ideas, but certain features of what came to be ‘think tanks’ were never achieved. For one, it did not produce a publication, and it consistently failed to raise the money it wanted. Moreover, a fracture between Hayek and Friedman led to the Mont Pélèrin Society declining in unity and effectiveness.

That being said, the Mont Pélèrin Society’s greatest legacy is not what it achieved directly, but what it spawned: the think-tank archipelago. Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society may have a limited legacy in itself, there is no doubt that it became the prototype of a new kind of right-wing activism that sought to influence government policy by developing ideas and policy proposals, researching those ideas and their potential impact, before taking them to governments and political actors as a ready-made policy package that those actors could then use for their own governance.

In recent history, much of the intellectual heft of the British political scene came from inside the party system, not outside: Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill were Members of Parliament, as were, of course, Gladstone and Disraeli. Likewise, Harold Macmillan and Enoch Powell both wrote leaflets, pamphlets and books as backbenchers, with Macmillan’s The Middle Way book of the 1930s acting as an explicit repudiation of the extremism of the continent. It is often forgotten as well that Powell wrote extensively on the need to reimagine the market as a better form of goods provision in the 1950s. Likewise, on the Left, the British Labour Party had the Fabian Society, and these loose groupings of intellectuals were intended to produce specifically party-sympathetic literature.

But those who, like the Mont Pélèrin Society, wanted to change the way politics worked in Britain, refused to associate with any specific party at the outset. Indeed, they believed that the parties were part of the problem and instead sought to influence receptive individuals who may or may not be in parties.

What Does a Think Tank Look Like?

This is only a footnote in a sense, but an important one. Think-tanks were highly professional bodies: their appearance mattered, as they needed to be respectable and gain the sympathetic ear of the political elite. Do not forget that 1970s Britain was very different to today; people typically wore suits, bowler hats, and so on, and whilst activists today can get away with jeans, to attempt to do so as a professional in the 1970s would have been ridiculous.

But aesthetic appearance aside, location mattered. Many people will have heard of Tufton Street in London, which is only a stone’s throw from Westminster; in many ways, Tufton St. is a product of the think tank revolution. Think tanks intentionally positioned themselves closely to the centre of gravity they were seeking to influence, again due to the constraints of the age, specifically technological, and the need to hand-deliver many policy proposals, but also the ability to network, have ‘chance’ encounters, and appear omnipresent.

There is another important thing to note with regards to the appearance and style of think tanks. Given that they operated in the political world, one would be forgiven for thinking they operated according to political principles, such as accountability and so forth; indeed, many other activist organisations had internal elections, membership fora, and so forth. Not so with think tanks. Instead, they had (and still have) highly corporate structures, with a ‘Director’ and managerial staff, and – this is quite notable – a very high turnover of staff, mostly interns (that don’t need to be paid). This is because there was a specific, new goal that the think tanks took upon themselves: as Benjamin Jackson writes, ‘Harris and Seldon stressed in 1959’ that ‘neo-liberal activists like themselves worked as brokers who mobilised and connected four important elite groups: business, sympathetic intellectuals, journalists, and politicians’.

As I say, the think tank world was spawned in many ways by the Mont Pélèrin Society, a fact we can understand by looking at the first ever Mont Pélèrin Society meeting to take place in Oxford – in 1959. The fact that it took the Mont Pélèrin Society twelve years to organise a conference in Britain speaks to three main facts: first, Britain as a political culture was deeply unreceptive to the Mont Pélèrin Society’s goals. The post-war Consensus meant that the party system was not looking for pro-market ideas, and though the party system was not the Mont Pélèrin Society’s target audience, as I mentioned, it shows how much the political culture was against them. Second, the Mont Pélèrin Society was right to recognise that this was going to be a long process; they knew the political climate was against them, but they also knew they had to be patient and chip away at things. But third, and encouragingly for the Mont Pélèrin Society, it meant their movement really was as transnational as intended.

Of course, we might make a joke about how long it took – but they certainly achieved it in the end.

Again, it is worth considering attended the 1959 Mont Pélèrin Society Oxford conference. The two most notable individuals in attendance were Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris, the two young men entrusted to run the new British free-market think tank, the ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’ (IEA). Amongst the initial roster was also Arthur Shenfield, who knew Hayek personally and had helped to set up the IEA. The IEA itself was founded by Antony Fisher, the businessman who made his fortunes by introducing battery farming hens to Britain; Fisher, inspired by Hayek, established the IEA and employed Harris and Seldon to run it, as a ‘scholarly research organisation’. As one businessman commented to Harris, in the 1960s and 1970s the perception was that universities were producing resources for unions, so there needed to be something that produced ‘bullets for business’.

Alongside the IEA, there were several think tanks set up in the 1970s, foremost amongst them the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). Founded by Madsen Pririe and the two brothers Eamonn and Stuart Butler at the University of St. Andrews, the ASI took its name from the moral and political economist Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations is seen as the great liberal economics manifesto (perhaps erroneously). The ASI was markedly different from the IEA; whilst the latter aimed at more ‘intellectual’ pursuits, the ASI aimed at producing direct and ‘bold’ policies, and is widely regarded as one of the foundational think tanks of Margaret Thatcher’s economic programme. Still operating today, the ASI is increasingly libertarian, nicknamed the Adam Spliff Institute by anti-cannabis legalisation activists. It is telling, however, that Pririe was referred to as ‘a sort of right-wing Trotsky’ – he had energy, vigour, and a real desire to see the system overturned in favour of what he wanted (and in many ways, he is the most successful political activist of Britain’s recent past).

But a particular development of the 1970s was the establishment of the first ever Conservative Party think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Founded in 1974 by Kieth Joseph, and supporting Thatcher’s bid for leadership, the CPS was explicitly pro-market, but aimed to codify and bring together many of the pro-market publications and writers in the Conservative Party to develop an actual policy programme.

As a footnote, whilst these were the major groups, there were many (at the time) smaller ones: the Taxpayers Alliance; the Aims of Industry; my personal favourite, FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco); and the wonderfully-named NAFF (National Association for Freedom).

Thinking the Unthinkable

The aims of the think tank archipelago must never be mistaken for coherent. Part of the philosophy that inspired almost all of these think tanks was a decentred approach to intellectual production, and so there was almost never a collaboration of aims, which makes the general consensus between these think tanks all the more remarkable. That being said, there was still a broad development of the aims pursued between 1950s and 1980s: originally, the think tanks sought to oppose anti-competitive business practices, encouraging businesses to be more competitive and see each other as rivals in the marketplace; yet later, there was an increasing emphasis on the ‘problems of government’, in which the think tanks sought no longer to criticise businesses, but instead saw their role as defending them from the State, as the source of anti-competitive practices.

There are two key reasons for this change, that we can see: first, the erosion of liberty; and second, the self-interested nature of government institutions. On this first point, the continual expansion of social democratic institutions was seen to be eroding individual liberty and economic efficiency in favour of that which Hayek defined as welfarism, as the belief in the State as the only source of minimal economic provision. In Jackson’s words, the think tanks ‘diagnosed the fundamental problem as an excess of politics over economics’.

They wanted a return to non-coercive economic practices, spontaneous market mechanisms, and individual liberty and responsibility.

Entwined with this, moreover, was the second important critique of Statism: the  think tanks portrayed democratic collective agencies (such as parties, the State itself, civil service, etc.) as primarily self-interested, given that they ‘sought to expand their own power rather than serving the public’. A really interesting question to ask here is, why? Was it because they hated this, and thought it was corrupting of the British pluralist state? Or was it because they actually liked this, and considered it a useful mechanism for advancing things, as a lesson taken from self-interested market mechanisms?

I think it is a combination of the two. I think, it begins with the first, and translates into the second: bearing in mind that the original neo-liberals did not reject State action, but saw it as a fundamental support to the functioning of a free market. In this regard, perhaps the neoliberals of the 1950s to 1980s believed that the neutral state was really a myth and, if state power was going to be used, better it be used by them. But, if so, then what they decided to do to remedy this was to take market economics and inject them into the functioning of State bodies, in order to make them more efficient and dynamic.

Marching to the Institutions

The strategies open to the neoliberals were quite varied, but the specific one that they chose was very much informed by the Mont Pélèrin Society’s stated goal of addressing ‘opinion formers’: for instance, the IEA wanted to ‘bombard university students, school teachers and university lecturers’ in order to shape how politics and economics was taught, especially the relationship between them. But a more successful strategy was to influence the views of the ‘small metropolitan media and political elite that shaped policy debate in Britain’.

Whilst judging ‘success’ is difficult, when it comes to think tanks, we can do so in two regards: did they influence policy? And did they succeed in attracting donors?

As I said above, these think-tanks did not align themselves with any particular party, but the most receptive to their message in Britain was the Conservative Party. This being said, they did attract some specific apolitical allies: the Duke of Edinburgh was a fan of the IEA, for instance. But where they definitely made their success was in informing the political economic programme of Margaret Thatcher, mostly through her chancellors and advisors. Sir Geoffrey Howe, for one, was a long-time member of the IEA, as well as the Mont Pélèrin Society, and communicated with the ASI throughout the decades. Another tangible success for the IEA was that they advised Keith Joseph on how to set up the Centre for Policy Studies, which became the unofficial pro-market think tank of the Conservative Party, and is still active today (more prominently known through its publication, CapX).

As for donors, we know for a fact that the IEA was extremely successful. In 1968, it had £47,264 in donations; in 1981, that figure was £267,040. Likewise, in the same period, the income from sale of publications rose from £13,926 to £38,320. But the biggest rise come from corporate sponsors:

  • 1974 – £76,574
  • 1975 – £161,979
  • 1979 – £210,343

Donations came from extremely important titans of industry, such as BP, IBM, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Tate and Lyle, and Unilever, as well as many major newspapers and high-street banks.

But these figures hide a more important story. As Jackson details, these think tanks could only exist thanks to donations: they never sold enough of their own works or publications to even cover their running costs. This matters because it is not simply a case of the donors paying and the think tanks doing as they asked: in reality, whilst the donors, corporations and businesses that funded them wanted a pro-market intellectual presence, Philip Mirowski makes it clear that many of these donors did not know exactly what kind of economy and society was in their best interest. As Harris and Seldon put it at the Oxford conference: sometimes the worst enemies of the free market are businessmen.

In many ways, lobbying is the think tank weapon par excellence; a lot of wining and dining, but with the intention of convincing potentially receptive political actors of their policy and political programmes; and, of course, throwing a lot of money around. Yet ultimately, the best expression of this think tank revolution’s success comes from the fact that so many think tanks still exist. They have become an institutional feature of government, and are still a go-to choice for new attempts to influence policy.

The Drowning of the Think Tank Archipelago

I do not want this article to be mistaken: I do not consider think tanks to be an effective method of altering the way in which British politics works anymore. For one thing, they have become highly institutionalised, and instead of challenging the establishment’s method of thinking, they do the thinking for them, and as it was once said that ‘whoever is in government, it is the treasury that’s in charge’, I think it is more accurate to say that whoever occupies 10 Downing Street, the thinking is done on Tufton Street.

But the problem goes further. The excellent Herbalis substack explains that the formation of what we call ‘the Blob’ emerges from think tanks recommending the existence of a funding body, from which those think tanks then receive funding; meanwhile the substack SW1 Forum takes the theory put forward by Herbalis and finds its clearest expressions. And very often, these think tanks, by virtue of being unmoored from a political party or philosophy, can so easily endear themselves to whoever is in power that it truly does not matter who they are trying to influence, only that there is someone to influence at all; consider the fact that the ASI, thought of as Thatcher’s greatest think tank allies, became so wedded to the Blaire governments.

What I aim to have shown in this article is that right wing Gramscianism is a viable option. I am not trying to urge the creation of another think tank archipelago; that particular form of Gramscianism is exhausted, and probably for the better. But the form should not be mistaken for the strategy, and the exhaustion of one tactic should not be mistaken for the exhaustion of the army. As Napoleon said, ‘you must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war’.

This is the second part of a twopart essay on Right-Wing Gramscianism. Part I can be read here.


Photo Credit.

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