Draining the Think Tank

Martin Pugh

  • British Social Trends since 1900: A Guide to the Changing Social Structure of Britain edited by A.H. Halsey
    Macmillan, 650 pp, £45.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 333 34521 5
  • Inside the Think Tank: Advising the Cabinet 1971-1983 by Tessa Blackstone and William Plowden
    Heinemann, 258 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 434 07490 X
  • Lobbying: An Insider’s Guide to the Parliamentary Process by Alf Dubs
    Pluto, 228 pp, £12.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 7453 0137 1

‘It’s a strange thing,’ said Harold Macmillan after becoming Prime Minister, ‘that I have now got the biggest job I ever had, and less help in doing it than I have ever known.’ He referred, of course, to the absence of any significant department for the Prime Minister – the ‘hole in the centre of the system’, as Lord Hunt put it. That most premiers have managed to live with this situation is testament to the strength of the amateur tradition in British politics. Even Macmillan, for all his perception of the problem, still preferred to govern by means of haphazard and short-term expedients, to react to events rather than to anticipate. Yet the idea of a real Prime Minister’s Office had assumed concrete form some forty years earlier in Lloyd George’s so-called Personal Secretariat; and although some of the apparatus associated with his wartime system has survived, notably the Cabinet Secretariat, successive premiers since then have seldom felt the same need for expertise on hand in Downing Street which Lloyd George attempted to satisfy. It was not until after the 1970 Election, when Edward Heath assumed the premiership, that the Personal Secretariat returned to life in the form of the Central Policy Review Staff, popularly known as the Think Tank. What seems surprising is that Heath’s Think Tank, with a basic staff of only twenty, was not much larger than Lloyd George’s.

In the meantime the scope and size of government activity had greatly increased, as had the sheer quantity and sophistication of the information at its disposal. Indeed the volume of data pouring into the system ought to make modern governments extraordinarily well-informed about the society over which they preside. For those citizens who wish to dip a toe into the ocean of statistics British Social Trends since 1900 is a rewarding and absorbing volume. It comes as a sequel to Trends in British Society since 1900, which was published in 1972, and the particular interest of the new book is the picture it presents of Britain during the last 15 turbulent years. This naturally puts the contributors on the spot. For, as Professor Halsey reminds us in his introduction, the statistics do not simply speak for themselves. They reflect certain judgments as to what kind of data is worth collecting and the classification to be adopted. Underlying the whole enterprise is the ‘directing idea’ of Sociology – the social structure. Now whereas in 1972 the analysis of the structure of our society might have seemed sensible, in the chilly climate of the late Eighties, where Britons are individuals, not members of groups, it all seems a shade subversive. Moreover, those closet Disraelians still lingering in the dark corners of the British Politburo who take a surreptitious dip into British Social Trends will discover that Halsey is not just adding to the pile of statistics but using them to suggest an analysis of change.

He points to the winter of 1973-74 as a watershed in the development of our society. From the historian’s point of view this makes a lot of sense: the period of 1940 to 1974 seems increasingly to stand out as a coherent ‘era’ of the sort beloved by authors of textbooks. 1973-74, Halsey argues, can be seen as the point when a thirty-year economic boom gave way to a phase of recession and readjustment. It is now rather startling to see just how low unemployment was in this country over three decades; and depressing to realise that the record of the Eighties – notwithstanding recent modest improvements and manipulation of the official figures by government – is as black as that of the Thirties. Similarly poverty has been on an upward trend since the early Seventies: it is sobering to reflect that by 1983 no fewer than 19 million people, some 36 per cent of the population, were living at or around supplementary benefit level. The same situation reveals itself in the statistics which show how the historic trend towards a modest but sustained reduction in the inequality in income which has characterised most of the 20th century has now come to a halt. While the poorest two-fifths of the population saw a steady fall in their meagre share of national income during 1976 to 1984, the richest one-fifth has enjoyed a sharp increase. During the last 15 years many of the long-term shifts in British society have been accelerating: from the manual working-class to the middle class; from manufacturing industry to service industries; from inner cities to suburbia; from the Northern provinces to the South. And in the process the two nations have begun to resurface in the shape of a prosperous majority and a large depressed minority trapped by age, unemployment, ill-health, residence or ethnic background.

Yet the other great historic handicap – sex – seems less and less significant in the lives of the majority of people. This is not at first glance obvious, for British Social Trends still conforms to a traditional scheme which denies to women the discrete treatment which they merit. Nonetheless the statistics relating to women which are scattered across the 15 chapters of this volume do serve as a reminder that if the ‘Age of Women’ is still a fanciful description, the female sex is certainly at the centre of change in our society. The great world of work, for example, is steadily ceasing to be simply the sphere of the British male, if, indeed, it ever was. Back in 1911 over 93 per cent of men over 14 years of age were among what is called the ‘economically active population’: but by 1981 that figure had inexorably diminished to 77 per cent. In the same period the proportion of ‘economically active’ women rose from 35 per cent to over 45 per cent. Or, if one looks at the composition of the British labour force, whereas women have historically comprised less than 30 per cent, they have now reached 40 per cent. This trend is surely bound to continue, for the jobs that are being lost tend to be those in manufacturing industry occupied disproportionately by men, whereas in the growth areas of professional, clerical, sales and even managerial employment women’s share steadily increases. Indeed, by 1981 women constituted almost half of the non-manual labour force.

Behind this advance lies a long-term progression by girls into higher education in Britain. Between 1962 and 1981 the number of female students trebled and their share of places in higher education rose from 30 per cent to over 40 per cent. Yet the feminisation of the labour force also reflects a change of attitude which has been manifested in the growing participation of married women since the Second World War. Whereas in 1911 less than 10 per cent of married women were recorded as working outside the home, by 1981 the figure had risen to 47 per cent. Historians of the second half of the 20th century will not make the mistake committed by students of 19th-century standards of living, of overlooking the crucial contribution of women both outside and inside the home. The most important single explanation for improvements in family living standards in recent decades must surely be the growth of the two-income family. But what has been the cost for women themselves? The redistribution of domestic responsibilities from female to male shoulders appears to have been modest. Most women have simply added a career to the job of household management and child-rearing.

For the champions of the male Establishment it is, no doubt, reassuring that the progress of women in employment has not apparently resulted in an abandonment of motherhood. Over the whole period from the Thirties to the early Seventies more and more women have married, although during the last decade or so the popularity of marriage has declined a little. Essentially the British in the 20th century have become a much-married (and remarried) nation. One result is that whereas, traditionally, single women outnumbered single men by two to one, it is the bachelors who outnumber the spinsters among the unmarried in the Seventies. It will be interesting to see whether late 20th-century society inflicts upon the unmarried male the combination of wit, scorn and pity which Victorian society turned upon its single women. If there is any truth in the common belief that men find it harder to cope with an independent life, their plight will provide a fruitful field for a new generation of novelists.

One popular myth that dies in the pages of British Social Trends is the belief that working women have lightened their burden by escaping motherhood. One set of statistics shows that between 1911 and the 1960s the proportion of married women without children has in fact diminished. Moreover, the long-term reduction in average family size appears to have been halted in some sections of society. In social classes I and II fertility rates began to rise again in the Seventies; and this group is, of course, growing steadily at the expense of the manual working-class. Consequently those who have been building policies on the foundation of a steadily shrinking child population are bound before long to be forced into hasty reassessments. The Department of Education and Science has already had to think again. It rashly assumed that the rapid reduction in the school population could be projected into a declining rate of applications for places in universities. However, since nearly four-fifths of university students are still drawn from the middle classes a large contraction was never likely. Indeed right up to 1987-88 UCCA applications have continued to rise, the growth being due to extra demand from girls.

Inevitably, ministers choose to see the statistics that suit them, and a policy designed to run down the university sector could best be built on the assumption of a declining market, however flawed. To date, prejudice continues to triumph over the facts. The perennial problem is how to bring the evidence, and professional analysis of it, more effectively to bear upon the machinery of government. In particular, it involves persuading government to see clearly the shape of future difficulties. It was with such admirable aims in mind that the Think Tank was established in 1971. As an antidote to the short-term pressures and accidents which invariably determine a government’s course, the Think Tank attempted to encourage ministers to tackle problems before they became problems. In the early Seventies the only minister who had any responsibility for this area was Lord Whitelaw, who, in his capacity as Lord Privy Seal, was supposed to have the time to muse upon future policies in his bath. Hence the early warning system became known as ‘Mr Whitelaw’s bath’. Alas, the Treasury took the view that most topics were simply too sensitive to be considered even as hypothetical possibilities, and even Mr Heath, it is suggested, found the anticipation of future difficulties so depressing that the early warning strategy was abandoned altogether in 1972!

One should not be surprised. Survival in government is determined overwhelmingly by short-term manoeuvring, and a durable pair of blinkers is an almost obligatory item of dress. Heath at least deserves the credit for initiating the Think Tank. Even Harold Wilson, after some initial misgivings about an institution inherited from his predecessor, found some constructive work for it to do. For the Think Tank members, James Callaghan emerges as the premier for whom it was easiest to work because he never pretended to know all the answers, and positively welcomed a variety of advice. A similiar attitude had been essential to the success of Lloyd George’s secretariat. His constant, even frenetic, search for fresh sources of information, his willingness to listen and absorb, and his refusal to bear malice when advice contradicted his own preferences, enabled his system of government to realise its full potential: the result was an unusually high quality of decision-making at a crucial stage in British history.

Mrs Thatcher, as the account by Blackstone and Plowden suggests, had no such interest in a free currency of ideas. One of her earliest actions was to insist that the members of the Think Tank provide a list of all their outside contacts. This attitude was wholly at odds with the idea of the Think Tank as a means of making government more porous and thereby widening the range of advice on which it could draw. Under a prime minister determined to narrow the advice she received, the demise of the Think Tank was almost a foregone conclusion. It tried to keep out of her way for a time by virtually surrendering the field of economic policy at the outset. But by 1982 it had fallen into an inevitable trap. When asked by the Treasury to assist in the attempt to control annual expenditure by indicating the major options for cuts, the Think Tank responded with a hastily prepared list of items including the abandonment of state funding for higher education fees and the dismantling of the National Health Service. A leak of this information led Mrs Thatcher to announce that the Government had no intention of adopting any of the alternatives suggested. In retrospect, this looks uncommonly like a ploy to blow the Prime Minister off-course by premature revelation of controversial measures to which she was, in fact, attracted. It is hardly surprising that before the 1983 Election she told the Cabinet that the Think Tank was of no use to her, and demanded to know whether their experience was different. No one dared to contradict her, and, with the election in the bag, abolition swiftly followed. It is not altogether unconnected with this development that the Thatcher government of 1983 to 1987 became a particularly inefficient one. The stronger the prime minister, the greater is the need for independent and expert sources of ideas and advice. To eliminate such an element from the process of government is inevitably to promote a poorer quality of decision-making. The dismal result is government by Emperor’s-suit-of-clothes. A classic example of this technique is the poll tax: for the more ministers feel that the scheme is quite indefensible, the more emphatically they protest in public that they see the wisdom of the measure.

It must be admitted, however, that Mrs Thatcher represents only an extreme form of the tendency towards authoritarianism and isolation by which most premiers are afflicted. Perhaps it is naive to expect a body like the Think Tank to flourish in such close proximity to Downing Street. Would not the value of an expert, non-party approach, designed to anticipate policies and problems, be more appreciated at a different point in the system? For example, we have never succeeded in exploiting the potential of backbench Members of Parliament. They still need to be drawn away from the essentially ritualistic activity on the floor of the House of Commons towards a more constructive role in specialist committees equipped – as they are not at present – with effective powers of inquisition. In such a sphere a body like the Think Tank would enjoy full scope, freed from the constraints imposed by the need to keep on the right side of the prime minister. Certainly, that much maligned and undervalued figure, the backbench MP, would be far more likely to make use of its skills. For the MP is apt to find himself swamped by the dubious information fired at him by party, government, press, pressure group and constituents. He is the beleaguered hero of a new handbook on Lobbying by Alf Dubs.

As the former member for Battersea Mr Dubs brings to his subject the qualifications of a gamekeeper turned poacher. His insider’s advice on how to get at one’s MP when he is most amenable or vulnerable is both shrewd and practical. What, perhaps, is missing is a sense of the differences in style, behaviour and habitat of the various parties; and one suspects that his book will be marginally more useful for those who are tackling Labour MPs rather than Tories. But novices will find the book a boon, and even the best-informed are likely to pick up some tips. To prove it the publishers have assembled a battery of tributes by a range of MPs from Robin Squire to Joan Ruddock. ‘Lazy MPs will find it makes their lives much harder,’ says Clare Short. Let us hope that she is right.