Daily Telegraph: Today's Tories have forgotten the need for hard thinking

John O’Sullivan, director of the Danube Institute in Budapest and a fellow of the National Review Institute, discusses the foundation of the Centre for Policy Studies and its significance in political history. He will speak at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty on Wednesday 18th June. Join the conversation: #Liberty2014

To read the full article, please visit the Daily Telegraph website

“The Centre for Policy Studies was established under Keith and Margaret Thatcher a week or two after our Ritz lunch. Keith gave the first of several great speeches on policy reform at Preston a few weeks after that. The Times, under the monetarist influence of Peter Jay, reprinted it in full, launching what became known as monetarism. There began to be a small buzz around the CPS, but it was an op-ed buzz, a salon reputation.

In the world of headline politics a divided and directionless Tory party lost the October election. Sir Keith’s initial bid—yes, he wasn’t entirely without ambition—for the Tory leadership fizzled. Most observers assumed that the CPS no longer had a role. Even as the Labour government was re-elected with a narrow majority, however, it was plainly a ramshackle jalopy that would shortly run out of steam. All the energy seemed to be on the Right, and in particular on the Tory Right. Margaret Thatcher duly defeated Ted Heath and became Tory leader a few months later. She met Ronald Reagan in her Westminster office; they agreed to keep in touch. And the CPS became the ideological secretariat of the Thatcherite faction in the Tory leadership.

The CPS was crucial to the success of Thatcherism, even to its survival, in those four years of opposition. Even though Mrs. Thatcher was leader, she and her supporters were a minority in the Shadow Cabinet and wider leadership cadres. Her position would have been untenable, rather than merely uncomfortable, if she had had only the Conservative Research Department for policy advice and support. Under its director Chris Patten, who had nicknamed Keith Joseph “the Mad Monk,” the CRD was a stronghold of Heatho-Macmillanite orthodoxy, fond of corporatism, indicative planning, and incomes policy. The Thatcherites needed a more sympathetic organization for research, analysis, speech-writing, ideas. The CPS was their research department, rallying place, lunch club, and rolling philosophy seminar.

This may make it sound a somewhat forbidding place. Not in the least. Like Sir Keith at the Ritz, it fizzed with excitement. Over a succession of lunches cooked by a series of dazzling debs, groups of economists, entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, shop floor managers, and not infrequently plain and outright eccentrics with whizz-bang ideas argued out their various disputes over the cheese and claret. (The Seventies had not yet discovered health fascism.) A favorite cabaret for many was to watch Alfred Sherman—“the eminence grise to the eminence grise” as Keith’s main advisor was known—tormenting some more conventional economist with the brand of savage polemical questioning he had learned as a teenage Marxist in the Spanish civil war. Occasionally even Mrs. Thatcher—who loved debate and the clash of ideas—could be heard saying reprovingly: “Really, Alfred, this time you have gone too far.”

But serious, well-researched, and persuasive reports emerged from this mayhem because there were also solid citizens such as Nigel Vinson, Martin Wassell, Simon Webley, and Gerald Frost (now my colleague at the Danube Institute) on the premises and ensuring the CPS’s productivity. This stream of pamphlets argued for limited government, reduced public spending, control of the money supply as a means controlling inflation, an end to prices and incomes control, the abolition of exchange controls, the privatization of industry, the scrapping industrial subsidies and the wider dispersal of wealth. Study groups, at one time numbering more than twenty, were set up. One of them, the Trade Union Reform Group under the chairmanship of Sir Len Neal, a former trade union leader, laid the foundation of the legislation later introduced to reform trade union law. Another pamphlet was inspired by Keith’s vision of the wider ownership of wealth; it led to PEPS (later restructured to become ISAs).

Keith took these arguments on the road, giving speeches to large student audiences. The audiences were not always friendly, but Keith usually won them over by his combination of sincerity and argument. Over time the CPS and fraternal institutions such as the Adam Smith Institute became the center of a growing Thatcherite student movement. Keith had achieved the aim he revealed over lunch. By taking the arguments of the IEA more directly into the political arena he changed the political agenda and brought about a remarkable sea change in the direction of British politics.

His task was easier because although the CPS flew a Tory flag, it was independent of the Party ideologically and organizationally. It could engage with relative safety in kite-flying, and if its kites attracted too much flak, they could be disavowed as “independent” of the Party (though this very rarely happened in practice.) Nor was this independent pose entirely a pose—at least in Keith’s case. One of his speeches began: “I thought I was a conservative. In fact I have only recently become a conservative. I now realize that I was in fact a socialist…” Such speeches did not endear him to most of his Conservative colleagues. But Keith, Mrs. Thatcher herself, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, John Nott, Norman Tebbitt, and Cecil Parkinson were in fact shaping the new, sharper, more critical conservatism that we later learned to call Thatcherism.”

To read the full article, please visit the Daily Telegraph website

Date Added: Sunday 15th June 2014