How right-wing think tanks laid the foundation for the coalition’s agenda

I wanted to recover this piece I wrote for the popular Liberal Conspiracy blog back in 2010 now that site has gone offline

In recent months it has become ever more common to see the interventions of think tanks reported upon within the mainstream media.

While most political actors were left transfixed by the playing out of a once in a lifetime financial crisis, it seems that many pro-market think tanks seized upon unfolding events as a rather unique opportunity to further their longstanding interest in redefining the role of the state within the British economy. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”, as Rahm Emanuel famously said.

Witness a small selection of their recent output:

1. Reform have released 7 reports since the start of the year. They have attacked the “near-monopolistic public services” which they claim are responsible for endemic waste in the public sector, argued for environmental policies driven by “economic efficiency”, advocated privatisation of the motorways and suggested the abolition of the 50p rate of income tax. In perhaps the most concise statement of the austerity agenda the authors of the last report claim that “the money has run out” and that “Government will have to do less; and what it does do it will have to do better and at a lower cost”.

This means we must accept “government as commissioner not provider” i.e. all service provision should be outsourced to private companies. They argue that their agenda is necessary in order to “address the structural causes of inefficiency”. The fact this will hand billions of pounds of tax payer’s money to private contractors is presumably a small bonus.

2. The Adam Smith institute have released 12 reports (and 11 ‘think-pieces’) since the start of the year. They have argued for a 27% reduction in Whitehall and QUANGO staff. They criticise the recent budget as not going far enough and call for cuts to “be achieved by fundamentally re-thinking the role of the state”.

They claim that there is “no compelling evidence to suggest that public subsidies to higher education have any economic benefit” (n.b. emphasis added) and that government intervention in higher education needs to stop for the skae of “one of the UK’s most important service sectors”. Their director has called for a “a law to stop the splurge”, effectively arguing for the legal imposition of the austerity agenda.

3. The Institute of Economic Affairs have released 9 reports since the start of the year They have advocated £167 billion in budget cuts (described as a ‘modest’ goal), suggested up to 50% cuts in education spending and claimed that “Government has become so dysfunctional in every area that we should start from scratch”.

They have argued that banning the display of tobacco will harm the economy and damage public health. In a recent speech their director said free marketers “need to find ways of tapping into [the] growing antipathy towards and scepticism about politicians of all stripes” because the agenda they propose is “about removing politicians entirely from whole swathes of public life”. While this is a particularly explicit formulation of this notion (what the Economist once called ‘insulating policy from politics’) it is important to stress that the sentiment is far from uncommon.

4. Policy Exchange have released 29 reports since the start of the year. They have argued strenuously for immediate cuts in public spending and attack a straw man Kenysianism as “a “crude and out of date view”. They have advocated ending national pay bargaining in the public sector because local negotiations would be “more efficient” and suggested that “we should consider the future role of trade unions in the public sector”.

They have attacked the influential book The Spirit Level in a report which suffered from serious methodological errors and appeared to misunderstand some of the book’s arguments while blaming African Americans for poverty.

5. The Tax Payers Alliance have released 16 reports since the start of the year. They have published a Town Hall Rich List naming and shaming highly paid public sector workers. Tellingly their objection does not seem to be that high managerial salaries are unfair to other workers but rather that the salaries are “insulated from economic reality”.

There’s a similar attack on Trade Union leaders which is explicitly geared towards defeating unions in the media because, as they argue, “overcoming that opposition will be key to the Government’s ability to cut spending and avert a fiscal crisis”. In another report they fall foul of the most elementary rule of social science methodology (correlation does not equal causation) to argue that “that GDP in 2010-11 is already £111 billion lower than it would have been without the increase in spending since 2000″ (and more generally that there’s a inverse relation between economic growth and government spending).* * * * *

As fewer journalists are asked to produce ever more copy, it’s not difficult for such organizations (well funded and with permanent staff) to plan strategic interventions which often quite successfully shape the media agenda.

They are providing the intellectual infrastructure which the Coalition is drawing upon in pursuit of its agenda.

In late 2009 the philosopher Slavo Zizek argued that, “the central task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative which will place the blame for the meltdown not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations (overly lax legal regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, and so on)”.

The events of the last six months seem to suggest that this task has been accomplished with a degree of alacrity that seemed impossible while neoliberalism was experiencing its first widespread legitimation crisis.

The parameters of political debate have been narrowed so dramatically that ‘dealing’ with the ‘fiscal crisis’ has become a near-unchallenged motif which is always reinforced by the central maxim of the neo-liberal era: there is no alternative.

In a follow-up I’ll examine how the left can respond.

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