A think tank is an organisation that carries out detailed research into political policies. They hire experts to carry out this research and to propose potential political ideas. They are often relied upon by political parties when formulating their ideas and in working out what they might put in a future manifesto. Whilst they may often claim to be political neutral, it is clear that many come from distinct ideological positions. So what think tanks are there and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
What are some prominent examples of Think Tanks in the UK?
Some of the most prominent think thanks in the UK are:
Policy Exchange – Founded in 2002 the Policy Exchange is an influential right-leaning think tank. Among its founders was Michael Gove. A number of its policy suggestions have since been taken on by the Government, notably Free Schools and Police and Crime Commissioners. Among its recent reports were a 2019 report in free speech in universities. This has helped to influence government legislation and the Government included the The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill) in their 2021 Queen’s Speech.
Centre for Social Justice – Founded in 2004 the Centre for Social Justice is a right of centre think tank founded by, amongst others, Iain Duncan-Smith. It was particularly influential on the government of David Cameron and the most famous policy associated with it is the introduction of Universal Credit, a single welfare benefit that combined six previous benefits including housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance. The policy was actually introduced whilst Duncan-Smith was DWP Secretary. Recently it has also influenced government policy on Fixed-Odd Gambling Terminals, calling on the government to regulate them more tightly, which they subsequently have.
Chatham House – Founded in 1920, Chatham House is an internationally respected international affairs think tank. It publishes the bi-monthly International Affairs magazine. In 2021 Chatham House published a report called Myths and misconceptions in the debate of Russia.
Fabian Society – Founded in 1884, the Fabian Society is a left-wing organisation which seeks to ‘promote greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity’. The Fabian Society was a founding party of the Labour Party and remain affiliated with it. One of the most significant policy ideas but forward was on the independence of the Bank of England which turned out to be one of the first policies carried out under Tony Blair’s New Labour Government. Recently the Fabian Society published a report called Green and Pleasant: Rebuilding Rural Britain.
Adam Smith Institute – Founded in 1977, the Adam Smith institute is a neo-liberal think tank that proposes free market ideas. The institute had a significant influence under the government of Margaret Thatcher and their research helped to formulate Thatcher’s controversial poll tax policy. Recently the institute published a report called Levelling Down which argued for the abolition of minimum global corporation tax rates.
Institute for Fiscal Studies – Founded in 1979, the IFS is a think tank that focuses on taxation and spending policy. It is generally perceived to be right of centre and focuses heavily on fiscal responsibility. Recently the IFS published a a report on NHS waiting lists and how they could be tackled in a fiscally responsible way.
ResPublica – Founded in 2009, ResPublica is a ideologically centrist group which regularly reduces reports that are noted by the government. Recently ResPublica published a detailed report on lifelong learning.
What are some of the strengths of Think Tanks?
Some of the strengths of Think Tanks may include:
They have significant research strengths – Think tanks are able to carry out detailed and bespoke research that the government may not have the resources to carry out.
They are policy experts – Think tanks carry out a range of research but tend to have a particular area of expertise. This means that their researchers become experts in their policy field, increasing there strengths.
There is a range of groups – Think tanks are wide-ranging and span across the political spectrum. This means there are a variety of competing groups putting forward a range of policy alternatives.
They ignite public debate – When significant reports are published by major think tanks it helps to ignite public debate on key issues. Wide-ranging public debate about policy issues helps to strengthen the democratic process.
What are some of the weaknesses of Think Tanks?
Some of the weaknesses of Think Tanks may include:
Their Funding may lack transparency – The funding of think tanks often lacks transparency and this can undermine their credibility. There is a wide variety in transparency measures by think tanks:
|Think Tank||Annual Income (2021)||Does it name its donors?||Does it declare the amount given by its donors?|
|Fabian Society||£727,253||Yes – All||Yes|
|Adam Smith Institute||Does not disclose||No||No|
|Chatham House||£18,180,000||Yes- All||Yes|
|Institute for Fiscal Affairs||£9,802,176||Yes – All||Yes|
|Centre for Social Justice||£2,689,735||No||No|
The fact that citizens cannot know who is behind think tanks can undermine their objectivity, and therefore, the objectivity of the policies enacted on their advice.
They may be considered undemocratic – Think tanks are often given special access to governments based on the background of Ministers. Think tanks have a special advantage when it comes to access to governments, particularly when the government shares their ideological position. This means that they may be getting an unfair advantage in influencing policy.
They are inherently biased – Whilst giving the appearance of neutral policy investigation, think tanks are politically aligned. This may lead to a lack of objectivity over the policies they are recommending.
Was Liz Truss’ premiership the ‘think tank’ government?
Liz Truss became Prime Minister in September 2022 but resigned just 44 days into her premiership. Her premiership was, without equivocation, disastrous. Her bold and radical economic plan caused consternation in the markets, led to the sacking of her Chancellor and friend, Kwasi Kwarteng and ultimately led to 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady telling her in no uncertain terms that she had lost the support of her party and must resign. Some have suggested that the influence of think tanks in her government was a cause of the collapse of the government.
Some have suggested the the influence of think-tanks in her government was a major cause of her downfall.
There were three key think tanks that were perceived to have a lot of influence of Liz Truss – the Institute of Economic Affairs, Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. Of these, Truss had particularly strong ties to the institute of Economic Affairs.
When Truss became Prime Minister she did not take long before proposing radical policies, many of which had been proposed by the IEA including scrapping the planned rise in corporation tax. In addition, she pledged to end a ban on fracking, something that Adam Smith Institute had actively lobbied for. The policy of scrapping green levies from energy bills was proposed by the Centre for Policy Studies.
It is of course not unusual for a Prime Minister to listen to think tanks. For Liz Truss, who is economically on the right of the Conservative Party economically, it is also not unusual for her to listen to the three particular think tanks listed. However, it the Institute of Economic Affairs had strongly impacted her leadership bid, ensuring a number of MPs supported her. She may have been beholden to them and this may have accounted for the speed of her radical economic policies, such as a removal of the 45p tax rate and the reversal of the planned national insurance increase. The mixtures of Truss policies had a disastrous impact, with the UK stock market losing £300 billion within the first 30 days of her premiership and saw her sack her friend and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Ultimately, the power of think tanks may have influenced Truss in her decision to take such bold economic action.
Think tanks have become an important mechanism in how politics operates in the UK. That can have a number of positive aspects, including enhancing debate in the UK. However, think tanks can have downsides too, they can have too much access to government and there is a lack of transparency over where their funding comes from.
Think Tank – An organisation that carries out detailed research into political policies.