Think Tanks

The role of Think Tanks Link to BBC film

Think Tanks Podcast.mp3

The Politics Shed Podcast Think Tanks

Think tanks are groups of experts from different backgrounds who are brought together to investigate particular topics and to offer solutions to complicated economic, social or political issues. For example, the shift of Conservative Party thinking towards a more overtly free-market-orientated approach in the 1970s owed a great deal to Margaret Thatcher's patronage of right-wing think tanks, such as the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute.

Think tanks are an alternative source of ideas to the civil service, with more time and expertise than political parties to carry out research. Some have a definite influence on government policy. For example, the Centre for Social Justice was set up by former Conservative Party leader, lain Duncan Smith, in 2004 to look for new solutions to the problems of people living in disadvantaged communities. Duncan Smith's appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary in the coalition government six years later enabled him to implement some of its ideas, notably the 'universal credit' plan that seeks to reduce the dependence of poor people on welfare benefits.,  Another example  was the Institute for Government in June 2022 issued ‘How metro mayors can help level up England’. Also in June 2022, the Adam Smith Institute released a paper entitled ‘Countdown: reforming the Cabinet Office’, which outlined how to make the Cabinet Office more efficient and effective. This paper reflected the Adam Smiths opposition to bureaucracy and its ideology of small government.

When Boris Johnson was PM the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Legatum Institute tried to influence Brexit policy, including the decision to withdraw from the customs union and the single market when leaving the EU. The Policy Exchange published a  document ‘Rethinking the planning system for the 21st century’ this formed the basis of the government's proposals to reform planning laws.

Think Tanks can also influence the wider priorities of political parties. For example the 2019 Conservative election manifesto was co-authored by Robert Colville and Rachel Wolf, both of the Centre for Policy Studies, and Munira Mirza, then working at Number 10’s Policy Unit. The Labour manifesto in 2019 worked with the Institute for Public Policy Research and the New Economics Foundation in its sections on economic and environmental policy. The think tank Autonomy  proposed a 4-day working week which appeared in Labour's Manifesto. Another example of Think Tanks influence on public debate is that  political catchphrases can originate from think tanks. The Think Tank  Onward came up with the phrases ‘red wall’ and ‘Workington man’, while the expression ‘levelling up' came  from the Centre for Policy Studies.

Think Tanks also provide the personnel (see Revolving Door)  for example In 2022, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng  were all ministers in Boris Johnson's government having bee former employees of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Priti Patel sat on the advisory council at the Henry Jackson Foundation from 2013–16. She has also accepted funding from the Henry Jackson Foundation and hosted an event for them in parliament.


However, in government it is necessary to make compromises, so the less politically practical ideas dreamed up by think tanks are often ignored. The work of think tanks is often said to lack the academic rigour expected in university circles. Typically, think tanks are staffed by young, ambitious individuals who see their time there as a springboard to a political career. For example, David Miliband went from working at the centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research to become an adviser to Tony Blair, then an MP and eventually a senior minister in the New Labour governments. The planning law changes proposed by the  Policy Institute were largely rejected by the Sunak government after back bench opposition.

Think tanks are public policy research organisations that seek to influence government policy. 

Key features of think tanks:

The main output of think tanks is the publication of their research and policy work, often accompanied by conferences and seminars. You'll often see pieces from key think tanks published in newspapers and reported on by television and other media.

Examples of think tanks:

"Neutral / Independent" Think Tanks

"Centre-Right-Wing" Think Tanks

"Centre-Left-Wing" Think Tanks

"Liberal" Think Tanks