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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Apr-18 > Who now will think the unthinkable?

Who now will think the unthinkable?

The ideological battle lines are shifting. Think tanks are everywhere—except the frontline
She drove the real artillery, but it was think tanks like the IEA that fought the battle of ideas for her
PETER JORDAN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Anthony Fisher was the man who brought batteryfarming to Britain. It may have been a cruel practice, but it was a transformatively efficient one—it turned chicken from a luxury into a British staple, and made this old Etonian fabulously rich along the way.

His big ideas did not stop there, however. At the end of the Second World War he had been inspired by Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—the original neo-liberal manifesto. He planned to go into politics to bring the book’s message to the mainstream. But when he sought out Hayek, the Austrian economist suggested another approach. In these post-war years, amid ration books and grim memories of the depressed 1930s, a sort of social democratic corporatism had been institutionalised within the universities and the civil service. Hayek thought the fightback had to start among the “makers of opinions;” elective politics could wait. Fisher abandoned his plan to stand for parliament, and instead pursued the idea of launching a think tank.

Fisher masterminded the creation of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1955. He was swimming firmly against the tide, for this was the apogee of the “Butskellite” consensus. Rab Butler, the moderate Tory chancellor, and Hugh Gaitskell, his Labour shadow, seemed equally committed to a mixed economy in which the state took responsibility for full employment. Laissez-faire libertarians were consigned to the crankish fringe. Almost unnoticed, however—in obscure pamphlets and quiet seminar rooms—the IEA began making its case.

“Tank” might seem a misnomer, for the first 20 years were not about blitzkrieg but a grinding war of attrition. Only amid the great inflation of the 1970s did the IEA acquire an ear at the top. Margaret Thatcher snatched the Conservative leadership in 1975, full of right-wing zeal, but not yet a thought-through Thatcherism. Reinforcement arrived in the form of Keith Joseph’s Centre for Policy Studies (founded 1974) and the Adam Smith Institute (1977), and before long the right-wing tanks were road-testing and refining the ideas and policies that would define the politics of 1980s—privatisation, tax reform with deep cuts in top rates, and assorted schemes to expose public services to market forces.

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In Prospect's April issue: Four writers explain how our relationship with death has changed in as technological and medical advances have been made in recent years. Joanna Bourke explores how modern life is now able to live on through social media sites, Cathy Rentzenbrink explains how (referring to the case of her own brother) a “twilight zone,” in which someone is neither alive nor dead, has been created through medical advances. Michael Marmot argues that we are experiencing a change in regards to our life expectancy—over the course of a series of decades we have seen life expectancy increase, but what do recent decreases actually mean. Meanwhile, Philip Ball writes about his participation in an experiment to create a second brain from his own flesh. Elsewhere in the issues: Jane Kinninmont questions whether the Saudi Crown Price, Mohammed bin Salman, really knows what he’s doing, Daniel Howden charts how European attitudes to migrants might be changing and Jay Elwes asks: Does a Cornish mine hold the answer to questions about the UK’s green future?