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Mark Littlewood and the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs

The Institute of Economic Affairs is the mothership of the free market think tanks, certainly in Europe. Or, it was. Because now, the IEA’s reputation is almost entirely based on the stir that it managed to make when it was presided over by the stellar duopoly that was Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon. Those two men ensured that the classical liberal intellectual tradition remained alive in Britain, and they brought it, and the developing tradition of Austrian school economics, to bear on the failed Keynesian consensus of the 1960s and 1970s, laying the intellectual foundations for the Thatcherite economic rescue act of the 1980s.

Harris and Seldon had always been very careful, first, to ground their activities in pro freedom scholarship. The intellectual war was what they cared about most. Seldon fought that war. Harris, although also a considerable warrior himself, concentrated on making sure that the war effort was paid for. Second, they were careful not to get too closely intertwined with the Conservative Party, to the exclusion of any others. They always kept their lines open to anyone who was willing to listen to what they had to say and to help them say it, of any party or of none.

However, when age inevitably caught up with Harris and Seldon, the IEA then chose a man called Graham Mather as its new boss, who proceeded to use the place as his personal campaign office to turn himself into a Conservative MEP, while declaring that “the intellectual arguments have been won”. Mather was hurriedly dumped, and under John Blundell’s leadership the IEA then did rather better, even if it never really lit up the landscape like it had in the old days. To switch metaphors from fireworks to aviation, under Mather, the IEA was crashing earthwards and was about to burn up completely. Under Blundell it glided near horizontally, not at all disastrously, but without any upward impetus that I could see. When I heard that the Institute of Economic Affairs had, however long ago it was, appointed as their new boss Mark Littlewood, whose previous job was as a media relations person for the LibDems, I reacted with indifference. I hardly, that is to say, reacted at all.

Mark Littlewood has clearly always understood what classical liberalism and libertarianism are all about, and has done as much of them as he could, given the day jobs he has had. He has always been a friendly and civilised presence, albeit rather too EUrophile for my liking, at the various Libertarian Alliance events I have seen him at over the years, at quite a few of which he has spoken. Nevertheless, I assumed that in hiring such a person, the IEA was merely going to throw a big chunk of its still impressive stash of money at a pointless media-based charm offensive, which would achieve nothing. Pick a nice chap, with lots of contacts in politics and in what they used to call Fleet Street, hope for the best and get nothing very much. After a few years, Littlewood would move on. In due course, the building would be sold and the IEA would move from Westminster to somewhere or to nowhere. Its few surviving supporters would become even more geriatric. Another member of the Political Class, more unscrupulous than Mark Littlewood and cut from the same cloth as Graham Mather, would move in and hoover up all the remaining money, and that would be that. Way of the world. Old order giving place to new. Such is life. Such is death.

I never really thought any of this through, apart from the Mather episode, when I became tangentially involved as a junior advocate for the team that ousted him. I merely realise, now, that the above sentiments about Littlewood were what I was thinking, insofar as I was thinking anything at all. The point being that as far as the IEA was concerned, and like many others, I had pretty much stopped thinking.

So it was that when I got invited to a Libertarian Alliance dinner about a fortnight ago, at which Mark Littlewood was to speak about how he was setting about his various IEA tasks, I did not, as they say, jump at the invitation. I merely, having nothing else fixed, said yes and went along, expecting little more than some nice food. But as soon as Mark Littlewood started talking, I realised that I had been seriously misjudging him. He began by talking, not about the media, but about academia. The relationship between the IEA and academia must be reinvigorated, said Littlewood, as indeed it must. Freedom friendly academics must all be identified and made much of. Students, undergraduate and post-grad, ditto. It must be made easy for such people to meet and talk and network and learn, at the IEA itself, and everywhere, amongst themselves.

The thing is, it is useless to talk about relationships with the media, or for that matter about turning the ground floor of the IEA into a meeting place and/or coffee bar, or about whether a different part of London might make better sense as a meeting place and/or coffee bar, all of which Littlewood later did talk about, unless you start by talking about what will be said to the media and in that coffee bar, and by whom. Start with content. If you start only with form, then content will never happen. Soon, form itself will melt away. At the heart of the IEA must be the cultivation of a community of approximately like-minded academics and aspiring academics and intellectuals influenced by those academics some of whom will establish themselves within academia and others of whom will sally forth into the world outside of academia and shape how it will be run, many of them doing both of course, and all of them been able and willing to dig in for a long intellectual battle. Mark Littlewood, thank goodness, seems to understand all this. I had assumed that the IEA was seeing the academic/media nexus as an either/or thing. The IEA, having spent a couple of decades presenting an intellectual face to the world, but of gradually diminishing appeal, and having spent a couple of decades in a state of obscurity in terms of its media impact, I feared that the IEA was now turning anti-intellectual, in a desperate bid for media attention and nothing else. Happily, this is not so.

Samizdata readers will be pleased to hear that the recent, disastrous identification of the IEA with monetarism, that is, with a particular theory about the exact way to run the nationalised industry that is the world’s banking system, got a thorough and thoroughly critical airing. Littlewood’s attitude was that the monetarists are part of the broad free market picture, and the IEA need not take sides. It can merely make sure that the argument takes place, in particular at the IEA. I, like most others present, am confident that, provided the IEA does not (as it now does with its disastrous Shadow Monetary Policy Committee) skew the debate disastrously in the wrong direction, the right side in this debate will prevail. And Littlewood had earlier said that when it came to the recent market turmoil, the free market movement in Britain had failed to measure up, or words to that effect, which didn’t sound to me like a ringing endorsement of that Committee.

The point was also made from the floor, or rather the table, that the hunt for like-minded academics should not be confined to Britain. There is a world out there, still burdened by many of the errors of development economics. Good point.

Once I had heard Mark Littlewood talk about the academic and intellectual content of the IEA operation, I was then quite ready to listen to him talk also about the media relations angle. Him having spelt out the message, then fine, and given that this is his particular area of expertise, what does he want to say of the media? By now, he had my full attention.

This discussion can actually get quite subtle. The media problem is this. Suppose you round up your free market intellectuals, and it turns out that a surprising number of them are, I don’t know, theologians and historians of theology, wanting to research into and write about the history of free market thought among the medieval Christians. Great. Such people must absolutely not be made to feel like second class citizens in the republic of liberty. Quite the reverse. The idea that such persons should be bullied out of studying theology and into writing tedious screeds about monetary policy of a kind that their hearts are not in, is the reverse of what should happen. We need our people, as the late Chris Tame used to say over and over again, everywhere, in every academic speciality, in every institution, in every kind of economic endeavour, living many different lives. And the IEA needs to find people in as many different academic and educational niches as possible. Theology? Terrific. However, as Littlewood pointed out, media organisations are not exactly falling over themselves to interview free market theologians on a daily basis. What they want to know is stuff like: what the hell’s up with this credit crunch? And now: how the hell should government spending be cut in a way that is even approximately fair? What Thomas Aquinas might have said about such dilemmas is less high on their list of things to have talked about.

The answer to such tensions between academic inclination and the questions being put by the media, it seems to me, is another twin track approach. Encourage the theologians to continue with their theology, but also ask them, in such places as that hypothetical downstairs IEA coffee bar, what they think about the government’s current economic policies. It could be that, having listened to their more statist-inclined theological friends talk foolishly about such things, they have become interested in contesting such foolishness. In fact, which is part of the point of Chris Tame’s we-need-our-people-everywhere doctrine, maybe they have already been having such conversations during the informal bits of their theology gatherings, and are actually quite well primed to go on the radio or the telly what they have already said, or at least thought, in the course of personal debate like this. You may say, but isn’t that a bit unrealistic? Do such twin-trackers really exist, deep into the political subtexts embedded in Japanese comic books or the history of pre Robert Peel policing, and able to hold their own in a ruckus on early morning radio about bank bailouts or taxation policy? The short answer is: yes.

To illustrate that, let me tell you about someone else I met at that Libertarian Alliance dinner. He must be around twenty, although to my now senescing senses he seemed about fourteen and looked like one of those cherubic boy band child-men who appears on TV talent shows. I’ll call him Sam, because Sam is his name, Sam Bowman.

My conversation with Sam began delightfully, for me. He started it by saying, as I recall it: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, that is, for all those Libertarian Alliance pamphlets that the LA cranked out in the 1980s and 1990 in that faraway time when only scientists had the internet, and the rest of us had to make do with paper, and which we then shoved up on the internet as .pdfs for the likes of Sam Bowman and his friends to read and ponder, in some faraway spot in Ireland that I didn’t catch. Sam said he and his mates particularly enjoyed reading the stuff about libertarian tactics. This child, I thought, certainly knows the way to my heart. Are you leaving now? Me too. Let’s walk.

I asked Sam what he is doing now. The answer turned out to be twofold. He is working in some capacity or other at the Cobden Centre, which is the recently founded advocacy enterprise trying to push Austrian economics into the heart of the UK political policy debate, one of the Cobden Centre’s leading spirits being this newly elected British MP, already noticed here in this posting, and another being this guy. Sam made it sound like he makes the tea and answers the phone, and maybe he does do that as well, but his job, its title and description anyway, is actually (I later googlearned) a bit grander than that. But see also the picture of Sam here (he’s number three in that list), and you’ll see what I mean about the boy band look.

Okay, the Cobden Centre. Great. But, anything else? Any studying? Yes. Sam Bowman is also doing post-grad study of the history of Zaire, the Belgian Congo that was, at SOAS, which stands for School of Oriental and African Studies. I was effusive in my praise for this choice of subject (mentioning this Samizdata posting as proof of my genuine interest in such things), and for the fact that Sam was studying at SOAS, rather than just anywhere, SOAS being a prestigious place, and one which I believe to have foisted some seriously bad policies on a seriously large number of places. As we made our way towards Sam’s tube station, I told Sam of the Chris Tame doctrine, and of how Sam studying Zairean history at SOAS was a perfect implementation of it. He seemed pleased about this, hinting that others had said he should drop his Zaire enthusiasm and study something more “relevant” like, I imagine, privatising Britain’s railways or cutting waste in the public sector. I said: No! No! No! We need our people everywhere!

Sam Bowman is a perfect example of the sort of person the IEA ought to be making much of, and connecting to other like-minded academic-stroke-political-stirrer people, of his own rank and of all other ranks.

In order to prove to you that the IEA under Mark Littlewood’s leadership is serious about cultivating such people, as well as their academic superiors of course, let me also tell you some more about Dr. Stephen Davies. Yes, the very same Stephen Davies who featured in my posting here on Monday, about his lecture to the Libertarian Alliance. Because you see, Stephen Davies has just been appointed the Education Director of the IEA, starting in September. His job will be, among other things, to hunt down potentially IEA-sympatico academics in the UK in particular, and in general throughout the world in such places as the British Commonwealth. Davies will, until he starts at the IEA, continue with the similar job that he has been doing for the last year or two for the Institute for Humane Studies, having previously been a history academic in the UK. After his LA lecture on Monday night, I asked Davies about all this. It all sounds, I said, a bit like a footballer transfer battle. Was it amicable? Yes, he said. The IHS entirely sees the point of Davies moving to the IEA, and he will, he told me, continue to work for the IHS part-time. More to the point, the experience of working as an academic-hunter for the IHS will enable him to hit the ground running at the IEA. In fact, email being email, cheap international phone calls being cheap international phone calls, I would guess that he is already jogging along nicely on the IEA’s behalf. This is because the US free market think tanks, and in particular the IHS, now know better than the IEA does, or than it did until recently, where freedom friendly academics are to be found, anywhere in the world. They even know more about freedom friendly academics in the UK than UK think tanks like the IEA do. And if you think that reflects rather badly on how the IEA has been doing its core job in recent years, then I agree with you.

Stephen Davies is the perfect man for this job, I think. As I explained in this recent posting at my own blog, Davies is actually a lot more friendly and good humoured than his rather severe demeanour suggested by my recent photographs of him. He relishes all company, not just company like me that agrees with him about everything. He is very tuned into the way that affinities can develop between intellectuals who are apparently situated in very different parts of the intellectual spectrum, having, like Littlewood, no particular tribal loyalties towards the Conservative Party. So, for instance, in his talk on Monday he mentioned a book called The Fiscal Crisis of the State which, Davies noted, was written by a Marxist. Wrong cure, said Davies, but very shrewd diagnosis. At other points in his talk, Davies mentioned other interesting intellectual linkages that also took us beyond the terrain of the usual suspects, so to speak. This is exactly the attitude, catholic in the secular sense, that the IEA needs to adopt in its outreach towards academia.

It’s a plus that Littlewood is not a member of the Conservative Party, any more than Davies is. But Littlewood is a LibDem and there is always the danger, when you listen to a Liberal Democrat say things to you that you agree with, that you are being told what you want to hear, even as others are simultaneously being told entirely opposite things that they want to hear. However, the Stephen Davies appointment tells me that all the talk from Mark Littlewood at that LA dinner about cultivating academics was more than mere talk, more than just a think tank politician telling us what we wanted to be told. This was made clear on the night, because Littlewood told us then that Stephen Davies was about to be appointed to his new academic outreach job, and a few days later this was, see above, duly confirmed. In short, I think Littlewood both thoroughly understands and meant what he said. Which means that there is now considerable reason to be optimistic about the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs. I for one am extremely pleased about this.

9 comments to Mark Littlewood and the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs

  • guy herbert

    Mark was a LibDem. So serious is the IEA about its mission that its senior staff are expected to resign any party membership. It is a good thing they don’t frown on football partisanship, or they would never have been able to recruit him.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Seconded, Brian. Very encouraging all round.

  • Owinok

    Brain, Glad to read that you think the IEA is regaining influence and this makes you enthusiastic about the IEA. Thanks to A Singleton, I visited the IEA and met Blundell during a fellowship in the UK four years back and was greatly impressed. A gift from Blundell I value to date is the book on Anthony Fisher. Its my libertarian recruitment tool where I live. And many find it more palatable than Rand philosophy (my apologies).

  • Jeff Wood

    “We need our people, as the late Chris Tame used to say over and over again, everywhere…”

    It is the complaint, by people interested in liberty, on both sides of the Atlantic, that for at least half a century, academic institutions have been infiltrated by enemies of the Open Society and the ideas it depends on.

    In those institutions, fifth columnists have been brainwashed and then sent out to run the country in capacities small and great.

    In particular, much of the teaching profession is now on the side of the enemy.

    Not even their fault in many cases – it is a matter of being exposed to the dominant ideas of the places where they are educated – ideas which slip plausibly into the brain, and out onto the tongue or the pen with ease.

    At root, we are the victims of trahison des clercs. It makes me angry because my taxes pay for these people.

    And so, good luck to the project. I am no intellectual, but appreciate that those who are should be on our side.

  • Littlewood is doing well on the Social Media / Facebook / Twitter side of things too. He’s not doing it in an ostentatious way, but just wading in and getting stuck into the argument, which is good to see. (He is mark.littlewood1 on Facebook and MarkJLittlewood on Twitter, for people who are interested).

  • Robert Scarth

    Brian, thanks that was interesting.

    “We need out people everywhere” – indeed. I’m currently reading The Gothic Enterprise. There is an interesting section in this about the development of the church’s regulation of the process of canonization and how the increasing regulation lead to an increase in the cost of becoming a saint as well as a change in the type of people who became saints; there did not seem to be any evidence that saints became any holier as a result (although to be fair mad stuff like this was happening, something that the regulations sought to stop). More generally I think a comparison with the medieval church and the modern state would be quite interesting.

  • I suspect Mark will reinvigorate the IEA for the 21st Century. Wait and see.

  • I think Mark is exactly what the IEA needed… i.e. a firm kick in the squishy bits. I have a lot of time for the guy.

  • Paul Marks

    Antoine Clarke left me a message to read a wonderful article by Mr Littlewood – but I was in a hurry to get to Ulster (where I now am) so I will have to find out what article I was supposed to read.

    I will judge the IEA by what it does.