How the Lib Dems Lost Their Think Tank

A piece I've written for the new issue of Liberator (#384):

Last year, there was much surprise when CentreForum, the liberal think tank, announced that it would be abandoning its political mission in favour of a much narrower focus, as the renamed Education Policy Institute. This culminated a decade-long transformation from one-time Liberal Democrat-affiliated think tank, to billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Marshall’s plaything. And with Marshall having severed his links with the party in 2015 around the same time he came “out of the closet” as a Brexiteer, CentreForum soon followed. But it didn’t have to end this way. 

One might raise the question of what any think tank is for. There is a very real, urgent place needed in public debate for the overlap between rigorous, in-depth academic analysis, and an appreciation of the topical urgency of political issues. Unfortunately, many think tanks struggle to do both — or either. The Tax Payers’ Alliance, for instance, hires more press officers than researchers, making it clear where its priorities lie. Or if you visit the Henry Jackson Society’s website, you will see staff biographies routinely place primacy on “Media Profile” over “Publications”. Today’s UK think tanks are usually poor at filling the very space they are supposed to occupy. 

Liberals like ideas. It’s often been one of their biggest weaknesses as well as their biggest strengths. And as a way of refining and communicating ideas, the old Liberal Party had a vibrant pamphlet culture, from its eighteenth century roots to the merger with the SDP. From Ramsay Muir to Michael Meadowcroft, pamphlets continued to act as a vehicle for ideas among twentieth century Liberals. Yet this fell by the wayside, a victim of the 1990s demise of print culture, before the internet started to (partly) fill the void a decade later. 

In the meantime, there were the think tanks — a curious, mostly post-war invention, born out of frustration at university thinking being too theoretical, and encouraged by successive leaders of the “big two” parties, not least as a way of circumventing the formal party policymaking apparatus. The old Liberal Party conspicuously lacked a think tank (though the SDP had the Tawney Society) — and I would suggest the reason for this was the vibrant print culture; liberals didn’t need such an organisation to outsource their thinking to, when they had pamphlets to think aloud and respond to one another. And Liberal pamphlets weren’t an exclusively “elite” activity — activists and councillors up and down the country would pen them, comparing reflections on campaign strategy and tactics as well as philosophy. 

The mid-1990s had become an age of think tanks — lobbyists desperate for an entrée into both the Conservative government and resurgent New Labour frequently found that funding a think tank was a perfect vehicle to getting inside access; and the Lib Dems felt a noticeable lack of heavy artillery on this front. Additionally, by 1997, the growth of the Lib Dems to 46 MPs meant that it was felt they would benefit from such resourcing.

Early in the merged Liberal Democrats’ existence, there were some attempts at unofficial Lib Dem think tanks — the much-missed LiNK (Liberal Information Network) pre-dated merger, and did much to bridge the thinking of the merged party and the breakaway Liberals. Other laudable but under-resourced attempts, like the John Stuart Mill Institute, or the Liberal Institute, regrettably seem to have become dormant. 

The Centre for Reform was launched in March 1998, a spinoff of party magazine The Reformer which had launched five years earlier. It was primarily the brainchild of ex-SDP Lib Dems close to Charles Kennedy, keen to reach out across the political divide to other progressive politicians. It enjoyed modest funding of an annual £50,000 from former Liberal MP Richard Wainwright, and was headed up first by Dr Richard Grayson, then Anthony Rowlands. Grayson recalls Wainwright being “very much” at arm’s length, with their only ever meeting twice, and Grayson being given a free hand at the Centre. Despite its strong party links, the Centre’s original incarnation promoted genuinely independent and radical ideas. Publications like Francis Wilkinson’s The Leaf and the Law (2000) made the case for cannabis legalisation in the context of wider European drugs policy, followed by a look at Heroin (2001). Meanwhile, Ross Laird’s Education Outsourcing: A Privatisation Too Far? (2002), inspired in no small part by the author’s experience shadowing education on Labour-run Haringey Council, one of the first British authorities to outsource education, took a position it is hard to imagine later CentreForum pamphlets taking. Not all publications were so subversive — many, like Ed Davey’s 2000 pamphlet on the mechanics of budget scrutiny, took a more technocratic, even “safe”, approach. But by and large, the old Centre for Reform was creative, bold, left-leaning, and yes, occasionally bonkers. (It memorably published a 2002 “State of the Union” address by Tony Blair, as edited by Norman Baker. Yes, you read that right.)

All this changed after its fifth anniversary. With the death of Richard Wainwright in 2003, the Centre found itself desperately in need of a new “sugar daddy”. Enter Paul Marshall. Marshall, though politically involved since the days of the SDP, as Charles Kennedy’s one-time research assistant and the 1987 parliamentary candidate for Fulham, had until this point been a relatively marginal figure in Lib Dem politics, but this was about to change with his de facto acquisition of the Centre. Guaranteeing three years of funding from 2004, he rapidly set about transforming the think tank in his own image. Moving from a room rented from the Wildlife Trust on Horseferry Road to a large suite of penthouse offices on Dartmouth Street, the Centre’s politics noticeably shifted to the right, matching Marshall’s own free marketeering instincts which at times seemed to border on fetishism.  Staff were recruited from unlikely quarters such as GoldmanSachs, and Thatcherite think tanks like the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute. As reported by Lib Dem Voice in 2009, and recounted in Donnachadh McCarthy’s The Prostitute State (2014), the Centre became “the source of opposition in the party to the Tobin Tax”, and a slew of publications started to make the case for slimming the state. There was also a noticeable rise in the Centre’s longer-standing technocratic tendencies. 

Even the name changed — in 2006, Centre for Reform became CentreForum, a conscious effort to stress an ideology of the centre rather than the more left-leaning, radical direction of Charles Kennedy’s party leadership. Predictably, it was swiftly lampooned in the pages of Lib Dem News as the Centre For, Um?

The changes also coincided with Marshall co-editing the controversial Orange Book of 2004 — not the cogent articulation of a shift to the right often argued, though its editors sometimes claimed it to be precisely that, despite the rather bland collection of essays largely failing to match such ambitious goals. 

The newly renamed Centre undoubtedly professionalised its operation, but arguably at the expense of the quality and innovation of its output, which became formulaic, even predictable. The impression given was of a think tank that spent the next decade going through the motions: the obligatory fringe events at conference, a slew of publications which no doubt generated ongoing employment for the Centre’s staff but which seemed light on new ideas and, in some cases, appeared to simply be reiterations of the Centre’s pre-existing publications. 

CentreForum did have some successes. In its final years, it became a model of transparency— a “Who Funds You?” assessment of think tanks gave them only a C-rating in 2012 after they initially refused to list their donors; but by 2015, the think tank had achieved a coveted A-rating for transparency over whom they received funding from. Such welcome transparency unfortunately made it all the more obvious what was going on: Marshall had only guaranteed funding for the first three years, and while he continued to play a dominant role through its Advisory Board, it would be wrong to characterise the Centre as having been “owned” by him, as was sometimes claimed. Instead of depending on Marshall for money, as the Centre had done in 2004-7, the think tank increasingly funded part of its output by providing producer-interest pamphlets funded by the very bodies they were analysing. Examples included Access and Equity: Positioning Alternative Providers in Higher Education Provision (2014), co-published with Bimm music academies and the private HE college GSM London; The Liberal Case for Aviation (2015), which acknowledged “generous support” from Gatwick and Heathrow Airports, Let Britain Fly, Heathrow Hub and GTMC; and Reforming Retail Energy Markets (2015), supported by Such publications were not always as one-sided as their titles might suggest, sometimes offering balanced lists of the pros and cons of issues. And of course, this was all standard practice across the think tank sector, and funding from an interested party was fully declared. It was no worse than any other think tank. But that was the problem — it had ceased to be a think tank seeking distinctively liberal solutions, and the whole advantage of being a genuinely independent think tank had been forfeited. The cumulative effect was to give it an increasing air of a “hired gun” agency.

With Marshall’s increasing estrangement from the party after the fall of the coalition, and with the influence of his long-term interest in education (he runs ARK Academies — whose top team is beginning to resemble a JobCentrePlus for former coalition policy wonks), it is therefore unsurprising that the Centre decided it had limited mileage in its pre-existing model. Given the position it had found itself in, the move away from a party political think tank, and towards a niche education policy study group, made perfect sense — if one’s only concern was the continuation of a think tank, rather than the flourishing of liberal ideas. But it was an abandonment of the Centre’s original mission.

So farewell, Centre For Um. Good luck, Education Policy Institute — you’ll need it. What the EPI face is the same perennial question: “What is a think tank for?” If it is simply a device for party leaders and a circle of donors to circumvent a party’s policy-making apparatus, by deploying resources to develop alternative policy without wider membership input, then I don’t see much political ‘buy-in’ for that. If, on the other hand, it is to bring analytical rigour combined with topical relevance and political sensitivity, then think tanks would need to follow a very different model to CentreForum’s. 


Dr. Seth Thévoz of Nuffield College, Oxford is a political historian. He sits on the Council of the Social Liberal Forum.