On the IEA and Mark Littlewood

Biscuits

For years, whenever I set foot in Italy, our UK Conservative Party used to experience, with what became an almost gratifying regularity, some minor spasm of leadership crisis. These were rarely more than a surprise resignation or sly bit of positioning, admittedly, but welcome all the same, providing as they did enough good, unwholesome fun to avert post-holiday blues.

So having recently spent three days in Venice, gazing thoughtfully at scraps of Byzantine stonework and nibbling oddly-shaped Venetian biscuits, what did I find upon my return? Only that forensic Googling has usurped the traditional duties of selection panels, and that Mark Littlewood has been appointed as Director-General of the IEA. Ciao!

It’s this last piece of news, irrelevant though it is to the Tory Party’s sorrows, that’s done most to drive away lingering longings for the so-called Lesser Islands, motoscafi and lagoon-lapped leisure. Not least, it’s a bit of a shock. For who would have predicted, as the obvious successor to Lord Harris of High Cross, Graham Mather and John Blundell, a chain-smoking 37-year old ex-spin doctor for the Liberal Democrats, albeit one with a reputation within his own party as a right wing extremist, no shyness in waging the battle of ideas — not always figuratively, either — and sporadic links to Lord North Street’s ancien régime?

Certainly, when Blundell’s retirement was announced, I didn’t foresee this conclusion. Nor, for that matter, did most of those who’ve been discussing the issue compulsively ever since — although in fairness, Guido Fawkes, clearly a better soothsayer than I am, fancied Littlewood’s chances from the start.

Perhaps inevitably, reaction to Littlewood’s appointment has been what journalists euphemistically call ‘mixed’ — which is to say, variously euphoric, bitchy or depressive, the chief variables in this case being the commentator’s existing status within the IEA family, degrees of academic fastidiousness and, perhaps most importantly, personal knowledge of Littlewood himself.

Foremost amongst the enthusiasts is, as it happens, Fawkes, who in his pre-blogging incarnation once shared an office with Littlewood, back in the days when Littlewood was director of the human rights group Liberty. Proximity, here at any rate, seems to have left a positive impression. In his recent post on the subject, Guido salutes Littlewood as ‘an across the board libertarian on social and economic issues’ before concluding:

‘The board of the IEA clearly wanted someone who could raise the media profile of the original Westminster think-tank. With a change of government coming, the call for dusty policy papers read only in academia to be replaced with agenda setting policy ideas became widespread amongst  IEA donors. The centre-right think-tank sector is more widely enjoying a burst of increased funding and activity as the expectation that their ideas will be sympathetically received in government increases.’

This sounds about right, at least after one nervously appends to it the proviso that, as a research and educational charity, the IEA cannot, by the logic of its own terms of reference, engage in actual lobbying — although obviously Fawkes, untiring scourge of the Sith, ahem, Smith Institute, hardly needs this topical reading from the Ladybird Book of Ultra Vires Rulings. Still, the broader point’s worth making. Older observers may recall, no doubt wincing as they do so, the fact that not all IEA directors have managed to tread with equal precision the blurry line that separates campaigning (bad) from education (good). The resulting mishaps were not only unpleasant for those involved, but also, to the extent that they spooked donors, sowed distrust amongst the IEA’s staff and generally distracted everyone from more serious issues, clearly also deeply damaging for the Institute itself.

Mindful of this warning from history, then, Littlewood will presumably wish to avoid raising expectations — whether amongst subscribers, donors, opinion-formers or indeed under-informed drive-by critics — that the IEA is likely to become the sort of high-profile pressure group that Littlewood’s Liberty sometimes was, or that his No2ID rightly sought to become. For if the IEA can claim a lot of credit for demolishing exchange controls, prices and incomes policies and retail price maintenance schemes, amongst a host of other interventionist horrors too easily forgotten now, that process was a gradual one, constituting not some single-issue campaign, but, rather a calculated attempt to re-educate the entire British polity regarding the nature of economic reasonableness — for the emphasis on liberty, as opposed to economic truth, was to some extent an afterthought — however long this might take.

In fact, as the past year has demonstrated all too clearly — an insight reflected in Littlewood’s comments on his appointment — re-education on both these points remains an ongoing project. There are, admittedly, reasons for optimism. Not least, the prospect of engaging with an amoral, intellectually barren and ideologically aimless government offers the IEA remarkable opportunities. The key here, however, lies in presenting fully developed, satisfyingly coherent strategies of economic thinking, intellectual pedigree firmly attached, not just more ad-hoc, feel-good solutions to whatever supposed ‘crisis’ currently animates the ‘Today’ programme. And this, in turn, requires more than just an able communicator — it requires something worth communicating, too. This is a point to which we shall return in due course.

Let us consider first, though, something marginally more contentious. Not everyone, it appears, shares Fawkes’ optimism regarding Littlewood’s appointment. The objections are various, but tend to coalesce about a similar set of complaints. Loudest and most easily understood, perhaps, are the lamentations of those who backed a different horse. It’s telling that when Fawkes first announced Blundell’s departure, in almost the same breath, he started listing potential successors. Nor was he alone in doing so. Over the past few months, those know and care about the IEA — what is it about specialist interests that breeds this kind of obsessiveness? — have lavished on the Institute’s future all the pained solicitude, paranoia, utopian fantasies and glassy-eyed, sweaty-palmed, apparently insatiable voyeurism generally reserved for party leadership contests. Some observers backed old friends, others conjured up conspiracies of marvellous complexity.

In the end, however, Littlewood won. The others lost. It would, frankly, be odd if there were no hurt feelings, bruised egos and shattered aspirations. Homo economicus, it turns out, subsists on the same little hopes and vanities as the rest of us.

Yet once the dust has settled slightly and the paddock has emptied, it’s possible to view all this in a vastly more positive light. Not least, the superabundance of strong candidates — rarely a problem in party-political leadership contests — surely ought to be a source of encouragement to all of us who, for whatever reason, value the work of the IEA, cherish its history and desire its future successes. In a very real sense, this implacable chorus of failed candidates and their backers constitutes both Littlewood’s greatest challenge, and his greatest potential asset. Many of those who put their names forward have shown huge merit in particular areas — as academic economists, teachers, communicators, network-builders, journalists, through their practical achievements in finance or business, or indeed the dark arts of think tankery itself. Some can demonstrate decades of commitment to the IEA and its projects. All have something to offer the IEA, most of which the IEA may well urgently need.

Human nature being the cankered thing it is, therefore, it is natural to make comparisons. Does Littlewood, for instance, have the depth and breadth of economic knowledge enjoyed by some of the candidates? Clearly not. His academic record did not feature in the press release announcing his appointment, prompting suggestions that it wasn’t fit to see the light of day. In fact, this seems as much untrue as it is unkind, since my sources suggest that Littlewood read PPE at Balliol, gaining a perfectly respectable 2:1, before progressing on to a law conversion course at City University. If true, then, while hardly another Prof. Arthur Seldon — which, admittedly, would be asking rather a lot — Littlewood is hardly an intellectual embarrassment. Still, the point remains. In some quarters, Littlewood is dismissed as a mere media performer, not a serious thinker, with the ‘dumbing down of the IEA’ an increasingly prevalent catchphrase.

But that’s not the only objection. As far as that goes, does Littlewood have the sort of hands-0n experience of business or finance that still matters to plenty of IEA donors — something easy to claim for Sir Anthony Fisher, semi-plausible for Graham Mather given his Institute of Directors background, much sparser thereafter? Once again, clearly not. Littlewood seems to have spent most of his career involved either in policy or, worse still, elbow-deep in the forbidden fruits of politics per se — Liberal Democrat politics at that. Whether talking to some captain of industry or, surely equally important, to the owner of a small family business plagued by over-regulation, how soon would he be seen to be out of his depth?

And this, in turn, opens the door to other concerns. Is Littlewood too political? The intoxicating stuff of conspiracy is, after all, famously addictive — Littlewood has now given up his membership of the Liberal Democrats, as IEA rules require him to do, but does he really have what it takes to go cold turkey? More specifically, is Littlewood rather too keen on civil liberties, while knowing far too little about economics? Again, possibly so, unless he has the wit to delegate — a matter to which we’ll return in due course.

More to the point, though, is Littlewood just that little bit too good at picking fights, causing rows, exacerbating splits? Time, perhaps, will tell. One particularly perceptive observer of this situation predicts that we might be doing all this again in a year or two. Just to scribble twice over the obvious in yellow highlighting pen, that scenario is not, repeat, not what the IEA needs, especially at a moment when Britain so clearly needs the IEA.

Most importantly, though — is Littlewood one of us? By this, I mean quite a lot of different things, difficult to unpick, because by its very inchoate nature this question will resonate differently in the heart and head and bowels of each long-time IEA enthusiast.

Let us try, however. Did Littlewood, for instance, ever make it to one of the proper, old-style Hobart lunches? Did he ever compete to come up with an even better title for an IEA publication than that of Linda Whetstone’s classic pamphlet,  A Market for Animal Semen? Did he ever pass an afternoon chatting with Mike Solly, Ken Smith or Peter Jaeger? Given Littlewood’s relative youth, it’s too much to expect that he might have met Hayek or the Friedmans there — but does he really care about the place as much as we do, or is this just some sort of job for him? A lot of the distrust, I suspect, boils down to this basically tribal point. Littlewood isn’t, as far as a lot of IEA old timers are concerned, really part of the IEA family. Why, then, should he inherit the role of patriarch?

Perhaps I should add, before we go much further, that I’ve never knowingly met Littlewood. A friend of mine is quite friendly with him, but in itself, that hardly constitutes acquaintance, let alone the basis for reasoned enthusiasm. Littlewood’s Liberal Vision blog, a sort of libertarian cuckoo insinuated with no great subtlety into the fractious Lib Dem nest, remains a favourite of mine, if only because the juxtaposition of high intellectual aspiration with irrepressible flippancy renders it congenial, while the high ratio of new friends to old non-friends definitely gives it the edge over ConHome. The views that Littlewood has expressed there, coupled with the tone in which he has expressed them, constitute much of what little I actually know about him first-hand. For what it’s worth, then, on the vanishingly few occasions where Littlewood and I have engaged online, I’ve found him intelligent, relatively literate and always polite — that last point all the more surprising, given that my comments at Liberal Vision are so clearly those of a Tory trespasser on an explicitly Lib Dems Only blog.

None of this, though, is conclusive. There are, heaven knows, a legion of literate, intelligent and polite folk whom I wouldn’t wish upon any think tank, let alone the IEA — a place, I should probably also add, where I have worked on a variety of occasions, in a variety of capacities, with varying degrees of contentment. Whether Littlewood will succeed there or not remains unclear. Does he have the personal skills to make the magic work? Does he have the maturity necessary to make peace with old rivals, to smooth over political differences? Never having knowingly spoken to him, my judgement on this score is, not surprisingly, even worse than usual. So he might well be a disaster. Who knows?

At the same time, I’ve got to admit that when I first heard the news, via a text message interrupting a pre-dinner siesta on my last day in Venice, I felt less despondent than, well, surprised and almost excited. True, old friends of mine were amongst the losers here. Let’s not be glib about this. I’d have loved to see what these people would have done with our much-loved, much-traduced IEA. That I shall not see this remains a source of sadness. My old friends, of course, either have other excellent projects underway already, or will soon find them — real value usually is found out, although, for ‘information problem’ reasons we all know too well, this doesn’t always happen immediately.

But Littlewood’s appointment continues to fascinate me, for one very simple reason. Whatever else he may be, Littlewood appears to be far and away the most explicitly libertarian figure ever given real responsibility at Lord North Street. For some, Littlewood’s Lib Dem background masks this — some critics remain convinced that he’s a social democrat in modish Orange Book clothing, intent on some hideous act of entryist profanity — while others fear that his interest in real-world party politics precludes ‘real’ libertarianism of the sort these critics value. To the latter, I’d only suggest that Littlewood’s sharply truncated sojourn in Cowley Street tends to suggest that his libertarianism is, if anything, a little too ‘real’ for party politics, while the former are simply, albeit for comprehensible reasons, barking up the wrong tree.

For this, as far as I can see, is the truly surprising feature of Littlewood’s appointment. The IEA, although for decades an infinitely congenial berth for passing anarcho-capitalists, objectivists and the odd vitamin-scoffing transhumanist, has generally steered towards the respectable, John Stuart Mill-quoting, ‘classical liberal’ end of the spectrum, reserving the more outré stuff for bibulous late-night arguments or seminars held at a considerable distance from Westminster, hence unlikely to frighten the donors. Of course the IEA is, at its best, a very broad church indeed, and one might make too much of the conservative / liberal, liberal / libertarian distinctions — had they not mattered so much in the IEA’s history, so often and so deeply, at least in terms of style, presentation and tone.

For this ongoing existential conflict turns out to be very much part of the IEA’s heritage. When it came time for the IEA to choose Lord Harris’s successor, there was a moment where the Institute’s fate dangled briefly between the contrasting charms of the late Chris Tame — that gifted Elvis-enthusiast whose greatest joy lay in fighting for the legalisation of everything most likely to appal Daily Mail readers — and those of Graham Mather, a Conservative ‘Christian gentleman’ whose career path led him from the provision of legal advice on the Grunwick Dispute, to jobs with the Freedom Association and the Institute of Directors. Mather won, of course, but the mess in which his tenure ended had as much to do with issues of style — the free-market think-tank equivalent of going to war over altar rails and monstrances — as it did with some fairly rancid personal antipathies.

Perhaps in reaction to this trauma, Mather’s successor John Blundell, though a Conservative, came to the job brandishing more obvious allegiances to an international, but perhaps also specifically trans-Atlantic brand of lingua-franca classical liberalism, than to any existing UK political party, old friendships with David Davis MP and others notwithstanding.

During John Blundell’s time at the IEA, interesting work has been published, persuasive research aired and hymns to liberty incanted in a variety of keys and intonations. Bonds have been strengthened with think tanks elsewhere, donors courted, new generations of classical liberals identified and nurtured. Much good has been done.

Occasionally, however, just the slightest whiff of liberal fundamentalism has been noted emenating from Lord North Street. This, it goes without saying, is hardly a good thing. For even my favourite liberals — which is to say, those who, while they don’t quite agree with me that liberalism is simply a minor heresy within Anglican protestantism, to be regarded with eirenic ecumenism and just a little condescension, are at least polite enough to put up with me nonetheless — would accept that liberalism is rarely at its best when it’s at its most rigidly doctrinaire. Perhaps, indeed, they might even go on to add that there’s something particularly wrong with the sort of academic liberalism that hesitates to venture out and engage with the real world, afraid that its immaculate abstract purity would end up besmirched with the messy stuff of person history, self-knowledge, relativism and contingency, however hesitant they might be to draw any sort of Tory-type lesson from this discovery.

Or to put it another way, recalling my own crucial ‘why I am not a liberal’ moment, there’s something wrong with a lexicon of liberty that doesn’t stretch to discussing why it is that Britain, for all its inconveniences, remains by common consent a nicer place to live than Somalia. It’s not, I hasten to add, that classical liberal texts can’t be made to deal with this sort of question — in the right hands, they certainly can — rather, it’s that a certain sect of liberal fundamentalists prefer to concentrate on meditating over the Gospel According To Bastiat. Again, the problem here it isn’t so much that this preference is, in itself, somehow silly or wicked — although both these things are, quite possibly. More to the point, this concentration on ideas as ends in themselves can be, and often is, terminally alienating. All of which is a long way of saying that if the IEA’s trustees have chosen as its next director-general a non-intellectual hell-bent on applying fairly radical libertarian solutions to real-world problems using means including, although not restricted to, mainstream political advocacy, I am not about to start rending my hair, gnashing my teeth and wailing at the news. On the contrary, an admixture of interest, conditional support and genial regard seems the more appropriate reaction.

Littlewood’s political background doesn’t frighten me, if only because I remember with what serendipity the original IEA founders — which is to say, an entrepreneur, his proto-Thatcherite economist friend, a Powellite public school boy with experience in the City plus a serious academic economist who just happened to be a lifelong Liberal — managed, through combining and thus diffusing their various strands of political engagement, at once to re-channel and yet transcend the political currents of their own day.

The genius of these founders resided, more than anywhere else, in the success with which they merged their almost alarmingly disparate abilities.Littlewood might, with sufficient humility, take from this the lesson that, whatever his merits or deficiencies, there is no way that he’ll ever be able to run the IEA single-handed. If communication is what he does well, well then, that leaves plenty to be done by others, or possibly organised in an amicable and collegiate fashion — which is to say, overall strategy, academic responsibility, commissioning and publishing, fundraising, educational outreach, digital presence, relations with think tanks here and elsewhere, balancing the books, logistics and catering.

All this is, self-evidently, much easier said than done, because delegation requires not only diplomacy and tact, but also sufficient self-knowledge to know what it is that one cannot do well, and what someone else could do better. But difficult or not, it’s what Littlewood must do if he wants to be remembered for something other than presiding over the death of one of the world’s most respected free-market think tanks.

Since liberalism all too frequently lacks a sense of irony, it’s with a certain wry diffidence that I shall now seek to offer Littlewood — a man who has, after all, run successful campaigning organisations and organised communications for a major political party — a word or two of semi-detailed advice on how to do what will soon be his job. He had better get used to this, by the way. Backseat-driving the IEA has, for some years now, constituted one of the most innocent yet genuine joys available to mature, right-of-centre humanity — so much so that I never really understand why no one has yet produced a version of it for the X-Box, to be sold alongside games in which one simulates editing the New Statesman, restructuring the BBC or, perhaps more modestly, just picking favourite panels of guests for ‘Newsnight Review’.

In any event, I trust that Littlewood will accept this advice with good humour, realising as he must that a measure of control-freakery in respect of the IEA is, for most of its long-time friends, an awkward trope for saying how much we love the old place, and wish it well. Doubtless, Littlewood wishes it well, too. And for what it’s worth — and in case I haven’t made this plain already in what I’ve written above — I wish Littlewood well in the challenging, maddening, perhaps someday even rewarding task that now lies before him.

1. Outward and visible signs

The IEA’s greatest unique selling point is, without a doubt, its heritage. The IEA is the living ancestor of virtually all free-market and classical liberal think tanks functioning today. Within the UK, it can boast a profound impact on the mainstream understanding of economics, whether amongst academics, politicians, or simply ordinary human beings.

At some point in the 1990s, the decision was made to jettison quite a lot of this heritage. The IEA’s famous Library — during my own sojourn actually working there, back in the early 1990s, it was by no means unusual to glimpse foreign visitors, especially from Eastern Europe, quite literally in tears at the sight of it — was either sold off or crated up and sent off to some US university, rather as Napoleon despatched so many of Venice’s treasures, the still-potent emblems of conquest and civic authority, off to the distant Louvre. The hallowed Board Room, wherein generations of earnest youths, emboldened by slightly greasy glasses of warm sauvignon blanc, had so often discovered themselves in vehement discussion with Nicholas Ridley or Enoch Powell, Alan Walters or Keith Joseph — every last one of these now dead, it now occurs to me, a realisation that gives those conversations, when recollected today, a particular hallucinogenic quality — was re-decorated and re-consecrated to other uses. Even the names of these rooms were altered. The new names reflected very welcome donations, I suppose. All the same, something was lost.

Oddest of all, though, was the decision to change the IEA’s logo. For what is, after all, in large part a publishing house with a very recognisable colophon, this was no small revolution. But there it was. The letters ‘IEA’, previously outlined san-serif, tall and austerely elegant, were henceforth to appear in a charmless, badly-kerned lower-case Roman font version — all too clearly trying to catch up, only a decade or so too late, with David Hillman’s 1988 Guardian re-design. Meanwhile, the writing-paper was suddenly headed not ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’, but rather ‘iea.org.uk’, which in retrospect makes about as much sense as using a fax number, postcode or GPS coordinates as the brand identity. Although redolent of its time, these decisions were, to use the most polite expression that occurs to me at the moment, jaw-droppingly catastrophic.

Like most self-conscious attempts to appear contemporary and forward-looking, these changes have dated with catastrophic speed, while if anything, the original 1950s version has acquired, in addition to its historic resonances, a sort of pre-Mad Men clunky glamour. Well, there is nothing much to be done about the Library, nor probably about the Board Room — no literal quadriga to be repatriated, no Lion of St Mark to replace on its ancient column. How better, though, to signal ‘Under New Management’, while at the same time implying an ongoing commitment to the IEA’s traditional values and priorities, than by re-instituting the old logo, fonts and that much-loved fuschia-coloured colophon?

But the real point here is, as ever, a slightly broader one. Put bluntly, if modishly, today’s IEA could desperately use a bit of competent curating.

A few days ago, for instance, in the course of writing this, I tried to  find an online list of IEA publications — not just the ones still in print, but all the publications the IEA ever produced. The IEA’s own website, however, doesn’t include this — nor does it feature, at least in any casually-accessible way, a potted history of the Institute, biographies of its founders, a list of the speakers Hobart lunches or any similar historical apparatus. Nor, for that matter, does there seem to be a list of present-day managing trustees. Why on earth not? The IEA’s blog isn’t bad at all, but sometimes seems strangely unconscious that some of the arguments it raises have been made before — often in IEA publications of some seriousness, albeit ones published a few decades ago. An IEA more conscious of its heritage might make something of this, while the present IEA seems content to provide a forum for intelligent, sensible young people, not always fully engaged with the tradition in which they write.

But there are other ways in which the IEA is sometimes casual in exploiting its hard-won advantages. The Institute is, for instance, unique amongst British think tanks in owning the freehold of a beautiful, if much hacked-about early Georgian townhouse, only a few minutes’ walk from the Palace of Westminster and Downing Street. A couple of decades ago, the lights at the IEA invariably burned late into the night — not because work was being done, of course, at least not in any very literal sense, but rather, because the building was constantly in use — if not for actual IEA functions, then for meetings of the No Turning Back Group, the Wincott Foundation or any of a dozen other groups vaguely associated with IEA personnel, friends or fellow-travellers. Odd to recall, in fact, quite a few people used to drop by the IEA after work, casually hoping to run into a friend, discover some diverting right-of-centre event, or hatch some new conspiracy.

At moments of high drama, emergency or tragedy — the murder of Ian Gow, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher — the IEA was a natural congregating-point. Day and night, the doors of each individual office remained open, not only so that employees could shout to colleagues across the way —for such, my children, were the realities of pre-email office life — but because the unceasing concourse of people up and down the stairs invariably turned up friends, acquaintances and passing celebrities, easily intercepted for a chat, dismissed with a glare or at least scrutinised in passing. If all this makes the IEA of the 1970s and 80s sound like a sort of drop-in centre for underemployed right-wingers, totally lacking in professionalism and card-punching rigour, it does at least describes accurately the atmosphere in one of the world’s most significant free-market think tanks at the time of its greatest public influence. And, yes, we miss it.

For recent years have seen the IEA somewhat altered in this respect. In the early 1990s, the office doors started closing. What would become Civitas left the building, as the Social Affairs Unit had done some years before. Increasingly, non-IEA projects were made to feel unwelcome. Shirley the tea lady retired, and was not replaced. A decade later, the vogue for ‘virtual offices’ and ‘working from home’ meant that a building which had once hummed, as much with sociability as with actual enterprise, now fell silent rather too often. There were evening events, of course, but there was a discernible shift in style and tone. The casual drop-in centre atmosphere had, somehow, been lost. It’s easy to understand, particularly with hindsight, why all these things happened. The Blair era was, for all sorts of reasons, always going to be a tricky time for the IEA. People grew up and moved on. Lean years do, proverbially, follow fat ones.

This was, perhaps, inevitable — maybe even as it should be. While the notion of re-formulating the IEA as an unchanging and hallowed shrine-cum-theme-park commemorating Thatcherism’s birthplace (the more nihilistic of Cowling-enthusiasts will hardly need prompting to provide their own scare-quotes) holds at least as much appeal for me as it surely must for all right-thinking people out there, I can see that this isn’t exactly, strictly speaking, what the Institute was set up to do. Still, in readying himself for future battles, Littlewood would do well to look to the tokens, trophies and standards piled up in the wake yesterday’s conflicts. If the IEA has sometimes seemed to rest on its laurels, at least it has laurels on which to rest. Not every think tank, classical liberal or otherwise, shares its record of achievement.

Littlewood should congratulate himself that the mere fact of his appointment is, in any event, sufficiently strange, surprising and potentially controversial as to render crudely self-conscious attempts at ‘modernisation’ redundant, recalling as he does so the skill with which Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan, among others, once managed to camouflage radicalism by wrapping it in a rhetoric of tradition and conservatism. I write this last, incidentally, not because I particularly desire radicalism myself, but because I don’t like waste. Having been handed this extraordinary organisation, Littlewood should, at least, exploit its unique powers, not — as his predecessors have sometimes seemed to do — ignore them, or seek their decommissioning.

2. Keep your friends close …

Littlewood is, no doubt, aware that he was very lucky indeed to be selected from amongst such a talented, experienced and committed group of candidates. He should also be aware, as suggested above, that some of these candidates, and perhaps even more to the point, their old friends, will view his appointment with varying degrees of bemusement, resentment and downright distrust.

Whether this ought to be the case or not is beside the point. What matters now, from Littlewood’s point of view, is what he can do about it. Nor is the answer, here at least, particularly complicated, although it requires a degree of charm, patience and humility about which not every aspect of Littlewood’s record encourages optimism.

Put simply, Littlewood needs to bring these people on board. For some, this will mean some form of obvious involvement — commissioning a book or a blog-post, arranging a seminar, perhaps even actual employment. As we have seen, Littlewood cannot run the IEA single-handed, and would do well to exploit the wealth of ability thrown up by the selection process. Lunch-invitations will no doubt be despatched, dinners organised, overseas good-will visits planned. But for others, re-engagement with the IEA will mean something more subtle and complex, which is to say, being made to feel that the IEA is, whatever else it may be, still a place that needs their allegiance.

Blundell’s tenure at the IEA was, by present-day standards, protracted. In a world cursed with short attention-spans, this was, in itself, enervating. In contrast, change, almost by definition, stimulates a degree of interest. Even the most outrageously unpleasant comments made about Littlewood are, in themselves, evidence of the fact that more people are discussing the IEA now than has been the case for some time — a fact from which Littlewood should, I suppose, derive a degree of encouragement.

The next step is to take advantage of the dramatic frisson created by his appointment. The IEA should, I suspect, now make a colossal effort to get in touch with old allies, subscribers and donors, staging plenty of events, perhaps even making the odd policy-related splash in the middle-brow media. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Littlewood early on is working out how to make as many people as possible think, learn and possibly care about the IEA, what it does and what it stands for. Of course critics will carp, complaining that this is precisely the sort of attention-getting behaviour, all froth and no substance, that one might expect of someone like Littlewood. But in doing so, they will, of course, be discussing the IEA again. And perhaps, who knows, attending the odd event, perhaps bringing along a friend or two …

In the meantime, Littlewood will need to jump through a never-ending series of hoops in seeking to prove to the IEA’s audience — existing enthusiasts, lapsed subscribers and potential converts alike — that his Lib Dem background, however freakish and eccentric it may appear to many of them, is nevertheless unproblematic. Not least, assuming that the Conservatives are back in power next year, he needs somehow to neutralise the fact that he’s spent much of his mature life working for a party that the vast majority of Conservatives regard with near-psychopatic hostility. This may, for all I know, mean saying and doing things not because they are right, but because they are vaguely Tory-friendly. It may even, at least for a little while, mean holding fire when Tories say or so something catastrophically stupid or nakedly mendacious. Constitutionally unfit to do either of these things myself — one of the many reasons why I’d be absolutely useless at running a think tank — I remain certain that conditions exist in which these are, alas, the things that need to be done.

Littlewood will, I further imagine, have friends of his own — people whom he knows, respects and trusts — whom he will wish to work alongside him. Undoubtedly, some of these, too, will be Lib Dem party members. If he decides to involve them closely in the running of the IEA, he had better be sure that their ability is above question — and also that they have at least a few friends outside Lib Dem circles, plenty of charm and notably thick skin. Lib Dems are, by definition, sometimes rather more interested in being pure than they are in being effective. All of which is perhaps just as well, as far as their electoral fortunes are concerned — but it’s not a habit of mind that will do anyone much good, once ensconced within the panelled walls of 2 Lord North Street. Lib Dems are also sometimes culpably bad at realising that it is indeed very much possible to be a libertarian without being in any sense a liberal — but although in that respect, at any rate, they may well be in the majority, here again, they’ll need to try to be a bit more open-minded and, well, tolerant.

All of which, in a sense, brings us back to my previous point regarding the importance of style to the serious work of the IEA. Presentation does, after all, matter. If Littlewood wishes the IEA to regain the sort of influence it had in earlier decades — not only in politics, either, but on the mainstream economic consensus as well — he absolutely must make it as broad a church as it was in the days of its greatest glory. The herbivorous reader of John Stuart Mill must be able to dine with the David Freidman-spouting anarcho-capitalist, the unregenerate Tory top up the glasses of both of the mildly self-righteous Lib Dem and the disillusioned New Labour supporter, the glossily successful entrepreneur make gentle fun of the persistently struggling academic. The idea that these people believe the same things about the economy, government or liberty is, of course, a fantasy, but the truth is that they will, ideally, believe some of the same things. Often, that’s enough to effect real change — those ramshackle, unlikely yet undeniably potent coalitions of the Thatcher and Reagan years offering yet another instructive vignette for Littlewood’s consideration.

Of course, getting these people into the same room in the first place will require a degree of legerdemain. It’s one thing to have a message — another to enunciate it in a way that appeals not just to those who are already convinced of its validity, but to others as well. What I am saying, really, is that in order to succeed, Littlewood will need to demonstrate that he is, in fact, something very like the sly, unprincipled creature of subterfuge and cunning his detractors suspect he might be — while simultaneously showing that he’s considerably more calm, patient and peace-loving than anything in his previous career has encouraged them to believe. Will he rise to the challenge of proving these people at once both right and wrong, while at the same time winning them over? It won’t be long, I suppose, until we all find out.

3. Make the IEA dangerous again

The perception that today’s IEA, while eminently serious and sensible, is at the same time a considerably less vigorous, exciting and even dangerous place than it was in the 1980s has, no doubt, more than a little generational nostalgia tied up in it.

It’s a fact of life that the dramas of youth often seem to leave a deeper mark than those of maturity, the ideas encountered in our teens and early 20s generally stir the waters more profoundly than those encountered thereafter. (On a slight tangent, if I seem to go on about the mysterious Rory Stewart rather a lot these days, it’s because The Places In Between is one of the very few books I’ve read as an adult that, for reasons it’s hard to express, actually did matter as much as the books I read back before the demands of adult life dulled my responses to mere language — a book that makes me feel about twelve years old again, I guess, but agreeably so.) Which is to say, doubtless if I’d first known the IEA in the late 1960s, I’d have found the 1980s version flashy and superficial, while if I’d first known the IEA in the late 1990s — enjoying all the minor vanities of forming lively new friendships, talking to adults and being taken seriously — I’d regard it as beyond criticism.

Still, there may perhaps be an objective case for saying that the present-day IEA lacks danger. Part of the problem, clearly, is that the present-day IEA lacks profile. By the late 1980s, pretty much anyone who was interested in public affairs — not even economics, particularly, so much as public policy in general — had heard of the IEA. For many, it was one to file away with the Freedom Association (then widely regarded as the last bastion of highly-decorated colonels of startlingly right-wing views, contemplating the logistics of coup attempts and the joys of imminent martial law, although actually rarely this much fun in practice) or indeed the Economic League (original source of the pleasant fantasy that our left-wing fellow students would never find proper jobs, which made more sense in the days before e.g. an ex-NUS president ended up as home secretary).

The Libertarian Alliance was, of course, consistently more interesting, because infinitely more diverse and daring, and also probably considerably more dangerous, but because it included at least a smattering of left-libertarians, there always remained the possibility that it was, well, nicer than the IEA somehow. The Adam Smith Institute had, for its part, invented privatisation, but its building wasn’t as good, while the Centre for Policy Studies retained, probably purposefully, a rather low-key and amateurish air, for all the world like some provisional wing of the Conservative Research Department, which in a sense was what it was. The point, though, is that back in the late 1980s, all of these places possessed some degree of public profile, some standing in the hierarchy of the struggle for freedom or, alternatively, the demonology of Thatcherite wickedness. Which one of these one believed was a matter of upbringing, experience and inclination, but the point was that one did, if one followed public affairs, take some view on all these things.

For what is hard to remember, now — although, for a younger generation, the problem is less one of memory than of sympathetic imagination — is the infectious, in some ways thoroughly entertaining contentiousness of those days. In accepting as broadly uncontroversial and mainstream so many of its central economic and even social propositions, New Labour at once paid the IEA a lavish if tacit compliment, and effectively neutralised its ability to shock. This explains much about the IEA’s relative lack of vigour over the past decade or so, as well as the fact that one now fairly regularly meets self-confessed classical liberals and libertarians who, despite being literate, convivial people and in some cases even likely potential donors, claim never to have heard of the IEA at all.

A new Conservative government, though — frightened of the media, lacking in rigour, neither really principled nor populist, resentful of their leader yet lacking the nerve to confront him — offers a new set of opportunities. How hard could it possibly be to sound principled, rigorous yet more than a little scary, when compared with this wet lot? How difficult could it be to arm them with some apparently systematised, intellectually defensible set of economic politics already in congruence, whether they realise it or not, with what most of them would instinctively wish to do or believe in any event, given the least bit of encouragement?

Yet at the same time, it’s pleasing to note that whatever his faults may be, Littlewood at least owes not the tiniest, most thoroughly subconscious or instinctive modicum of tribal loyalty to the Conservative Party. He will, I hope, be more than willing to stand up to the Conservative leadership, and indeed to polite consensus opinion, if that’s what’s needed. If he’s made obvious mistakes in the course of his public career, these have stemmed from being a little too ready to shock — from being insufficiently cool, cautious and sensible. His instincts appear to have been libertarian — not in the reasonable, source-citing, academic sense, either. His stomach for real-world fights is hardly in doubt.

All the same, he may, in all sorts of ways, turn out to be a disaster. Whether he possesses even most of the qualities essential for the director-general of the IEA remains to be seen. I may possibly end up deeply regretting having written anything positive about him at all. Perhaps, if things get bad enough, I’ll end up blaming it all on the sybaritic need to enjoy a leadership contest of some sort, any sort — all the adrenalin, the hopes, the inevitable disillusionment! — as an antidote to those post-Venetian blues.

But when it comes to danger, at least — with Littlewood at the IEA’s helm, that shouldn’t be a problem. There should be plenty of it, and what’s more, that’s no bad thing.

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9 Comments

Filed under picking fights, politics

9 responses to “On the IEA and Mark Littlewood

  1. We shall see. I have high hopes.

  2. File this under “posts I wish I had written”.

    A joy to read – many thanks.

  3. Me, too, Guido — and gosh, Moros, thanks — glad you enjoyed it!

  4. DavidNcl

    Great post. Loved: “I never really understand why no one has yet produced a version of it for the X-Box, to be sold alongside games in which one simulates editing the New Statesman, restructuring the BBC”
    I want to play the BBC game! I do hope it includes a Gabbian style “shred the records and plough the fields with salt mode”.
    Yes, I too have hopes for Littlewood, though I know him not and merely rely on Guido’s recommendation. Oh, and now yours.

  5. Interesting post. Just for the record, the list of Trustees is in the “About” section of the website and the chronology of the IEA is in the same section. I think that is where one would expect to find it. I can send you a list of all 4,000 IEA publications and articles if you wish. A decision was taken not to put this on the website because we would not be able to cope with the requests for photocopying etc. However, we are considering scanning the whole back archive. On the issue of the breadth of liberalism, if you take the three consecutive Hobart Paperbacks of “Towards a Liberal Utopia?”, “Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy” and “Prohibitions” I think you see that we are publishing across the full range of liberal opinions. And those publications have certainly had traction. But all comments, noted with interest as I am sure they will be by Mark.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Philip. Of course you’re right about the ‘About’ section, where I now discover both the list of Trustees and the chronology. I’m delighted to find that these are available online.

    Still, it’s interesting to reflect that, having explored the IEA site on a variety of occasions over the past week or so, looking rather hard for both these things, I was unable to locate either of them. I didn’t even see the ‘about’ section, whatever ‘one would expect to find’ therein. When I entered ‘trustees’ into the search bar – which is how I tend to search for things on sites – the list of trustees did not feature very prominently.

    Perhaps, of course, I am simply either less good at using the internet, or less deeply interested in thinking about the IEA, than most visitors to the site. Alternatively, perhaps the site is not laid out as well as it might be.

    As for the IEA publications and articles, I certainly tried to make it quite clear that I thought much of value had been published by the IEA in recent years, the Hobarts you mention no doubt included. Do the examples you cite, however, totally disprove my subjective judgement that the IEA has, at times, seemed to give off ‘just the slightest whiff of liberal fundamentalism’? Not entirely.

    But in any event, I don’t really see the point of bickering about this. Mark Littlewood will, no doubt, make up his own mind about whether the IEA is perfect as it is, or whether, alternatively, over the past few decades, it has lost a degree of its earlier vivacity and significance, and hence might seek to improve its functioning — even if that means having to accept a tiny bit of criticism, friendly if plain-spoken, at least of the impression the Institute creates at present amongst those who might reasonably be expected to take an interest in it.

  7. Dave Atherton

    Firstly can I say sincerely, what a well written article.

    With Obama charactured as a socialist Joker and the European Union a Social Democrat, protectionist, benign dictatorship one can only welcome Littlewood’s appointment and his undeniable libertarian and free market credentials. It is very arguable that the free market has increased incrementally the world’s wealth over the last 60 years, only for the left to squander it on state control, regulation and pseudo corruption.

    I can only hope and expect under Littlewood’s tenure that a fresh intellectual impetus will spearhead free market capitalism and wealth creation. His undeniable media skills will no doubt allow the message to be heard to a broader audience, not only in the UK but Europe and America.

    My expectations are high.

  8. I’m not sure how the announcement at the most recent Hobart Lunch that, “this is the last one,” which no one had seemingly informed the chairman of the IEA’s trustees, will fit with reassuring the funders.

    My conclusion from the way this happened is that one of three things may be happening:

    1) the Trustees don’t know what they’re doing;

    2) someone is out of control and thinks Mark Littlewood joining is a good opportunity for empire building;

    3) killing the Hobart lunches is something both the Trustees and Mark support, but they’ve tried to make it look like it wasn’t their decision.

    My expectations are very low, but not due to any flaw in Mark’s character or his abilities. I think the job is impossible in the current context. Either something changes or the IEA slides further.

  9. The ‘last Hobart’ incident is, indeed, mysterious. I have absolutely no idea why it happened, or indeed, why it happened in the way it did.

    Those close to the IEA often comment that the IEA isn’t always great at communication. Perhaps, for all I know, there was some excellent reasoning behind this. If so, though, perhaps that reasoning ought to be conveyed to a wider public?

    I’ll try to investigate this, Antoine. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to know what you mean when you write that ‘the job is impossible in the current context’ — do elaborate, if you want to.