Good Ideas Take Time

David Cameron was furious. The report just released by his favourite think tank was “insane”, “barmy” and “rubbish from start to finish”. The Tory leader went on to demand that the person responsible should leave Britain: “The sooner he gets on the ship the better.”

Well, that was in 2008 and the person so exiled was me.

The crime I was guilty of was to commission, edit and publish a report on urban regeneration policy. Its conclusion was simple: Politicians should allow thriving places to grow and failing places to shrink. They should also give power to local communities to take charge of their own affairs.

Unfortunately, these messages were not only common sense, backed up by good research, but also political dynamite – hence Cameron’s attempt to distance himself.

We generated more than 500 news stories with our report, I gave 25 radio and TV interviews in a single day, and we managed to upset the whole country.

The North of England felt insulted, the South of England did not want to accept any Northerners. All major parties and church leaders condemned the report. We were flooded with hate mail, two councils passed motions never to employ us, and Facebook groups were set up to mock the authors.

A few weeks later, the world’s leading expert on urban economics, Harvard professor Ed Glaeser, reviewed our report. He came to the conclusion that despite all the controversy, we were right. By then, unfortunately, it was too late. Everyone had concluded that the report was indeed mad, insane and rubbish.

Fast forward seven years. The Economist just reported on a speech by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Tory party’s conference. The headline said it all: “George Osborne’s plan to let boomtowns boom and failing towns fail”.

According to the article, Mr Osborne took inspiration from the very report which caused such a stir back in 2008. In fact, he made many of our recommendations his policy.

Measuring think tank success is hard. It takes years to change public debates and longer still before your proposals become policy.

The great sociologist Max Weber was right when he called politics a “slow boring of hard boards”. Think-tanking can be even slower – and it can be painful as we found out.

Yet eventually good ideas are more powerful than political posturing. I presume Mr Cameron would not call his Chancellor’s views insane now.

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 9 October 2015