hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Sunday, 4 September 2011

When Think-Tanks Stop Thinking

“A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune and favour cannot satisfy him”. Samuel Johnson

Alphen, The Netherlands. 5 September, 2011. Something strange happened to me last week. A leading London think-tank (which shall remain nameless) asked me to remove my affiliation as an Associate Fellow from my blog because in the words of the offending email, “I do not mince my words” and because my blog may be seen as the official position of aforesaid think-tank. Excuse me!

Associate fellowships, special professorships and the like have proliferated over recent years. They offer institutions free labour during a time of austerity in return for an affiliation that implies prestige. What happened to me is of course immaterial but what it implies is not; that think-tanks stop thinking and challenging for fear of offending the so-called ‘great and good’. Whatever happened to academic freedom?

There are two reasons why this is happening in London (and I have seen evidence of it elsewhere). First, some of the more traditional think-tanks have become too close to the Establishment. Consequently, their instinct is to validate rather than challenge Establishment thinking. As a result they become progressively co-opted by the Whitehall Village and thus add little to it. Second, there has been a host of new think-tanks in London over recent years most of whom support one political party/issue or another. Their mission is simply to justify the political positions of their political/vested interest masters. Sadly, whilst there are a few think-tanks still free to do what they should be doing – thinking, challenging and provoking – they are perilously few in number.

Thinking, challenging and provoking is also the overt mission of my blog. It is not without method or rigour. On occasions (dare I say) I may be wrong. However, when I challenge or provoke I do so after a lot of thought and supported by a lot of facts, and with many years of experience behind me. My goal is essentially simple; to fill with analysis and strategy the expanding gap between the abstractions into which government is retreating and the very different reality on the ground which real people see daily. In other words, I am trying to do what too many think-tanks now fail to do too often.

Implicit in this creeping vine of intellectual entanglement is a wider risk – the more sensitive the issue the greater the pressure for self-censorship driven on by the political correctness that now oozes from every fissure in political London. Of course, one must at all times be sensitive to the impact of ideas and words and I am acutely so. However, that must not stop free thought.

The ‘offending’ blog seems to have been “The Great Immigration Disaster” in which I analysed official figures and considered the impact on Britain’s social infrastructure from uncontrolled immigration. The fact is that Britain is my country and the pace and scale of immigration as confirmed by the official figures and the changes it implies for Britain – both positive and negative - represent one of the most profound and indeed strategic changes to British society ever seen. Thus, I have every right to consider it.

And yet here’s the rub; very few beyond the far Left or far Right are brave enough these days to consider this vital issue. This conspiracy of silence, which is not limited to immigration, reflects a lack of leadership at the very top – both on the Left and Right. It is a failure of leadership itself fuelled by fear and narrow political calculation that opens the way for the politics of hate.

The simple fact is that politicians are scared of dealing with difficult issues for which they have few or no solutions and their fellow-travellers in the think-tanks too often validate rather than challenge this. Cosy elites are always dangerous, but when free thought is either co-opted or simply quashed then there is something profoundly wrong.

Such insecurity also reveals a dangerous vulnerability at the heart of Britain’s elite. The British people still hang on to the now out-dated belief that Whitehall remains capable of dealing with all issues and establishing sound strategy as a result. In fact, the more sensitive the issue the more likely it is that Whitehall avoids it; and the more likely that think-tanks will take their cue from government.

The bottom-line is this; Whitehall’s inability to confront profound and sensitive issues explains why Britain is incapable of establishing sound strategy. The job of think-tanks therefore is to truly challenge orthodoxy, not to ratify it. And that means more than empty marketing slogans that appeal to government and corporate sponsors. All that does is to legitimise the group-think that inevitably leads to failure.

The alternative to moral courage? I see it here every day in the Netherlands the politics of which is dominated by a right-wing populist Geert Wilders. All he has done has filled the vacuum created by the failure of the intellectual class to challenge the governing class on issues of fundamental importance to society and the state.

The world is a safer place when think-tanks think, not merely pander. So, rest assured; I will not stop blogging, the views expressed herein are entirely my own, I will not mince my words and I will confront all and any issue I deem to be of strategic importance.

Oh, and I have also removed the offending affiliation. Their loss!

Julian Lindley-French

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