Warm white wine, peanuts, outer space, celebrities… Marvelous

Alex from Blur at the launch of Demos' space report, 3rd march 2004Colin Pillinger at the launch of Demos' space report, 3rd March 2004
The highlight of the week was on Wednesday. First, fantastic French Vietnamese lunch with parent and wife Juliet, baby Rosa, sarcastic artist Paul Murphy and noted author Yolanda Zappaterra (they don’t have a high-chair but Bam-Bou was probably the most baby-friendly restaurant we’ve ever been to), then to Carlton House Terrace to help Demos launch their latest genuinely cool report on space (which you can download in full here). Think Tanks are pretty dry places and they’re less influential than they think. ‘Evidence-based’ policy-making turns out to be third-way mumbo-jumbo – most public policy is inevitably still cobbled together in the corridors and smoke-filled rooms – usually in the hours before a really tight vote.

Politicians (especially jaded, second-term politicians) care less about the coherence and long-term value of their policies than about the next electoral test. When outsiders do exercise influence the legislative outcomes are usually so compromised and hedged as to barely resemble the original, crystaline thought (hence the messy, slightly desperate programme of ‘government by wheeze’ we’ve seen lately – lots of panicky, irrelevant, second-priority laws making it to the statute book because tougher, more realistic legislation would produce more unsupportable rebellion).

Your average Think Tank thrashes around in its own public policy thicket – housing, science, health. Not Demos. I’m trying to imagine the original meeting: “let’s do space”. “What, you mean like public parks and stuff”. “No. I mean space. Outer space. Beam me up, Scotty. Hubble. Beagle 2” “Bloody hell. Good idea. Bags the jet pack” “All right. But I’m wearing the Spock ears.”

Of course, the best part of the evening was chatting with completely undaunted Colin Pillinger, the man behind Beagle 2, and clever Alex from Blur. Pillinger was mobbed by his fans – mostly male, difident and forty-something. Some were actually asking for autographs. Alex was more-or-less ignored but hung around until he could politely leave. Space was top dog at least for this evening.


  1. I enjoyed the Demos debate very much, but I don’t follow what you’re saying. If we want a more transparent political process, with more influence from ‘outsiders’, how precisely would it help if policy wonks were to enter a competition to see who could produce the imaginative work, on the most surprising topics? I’m a big fan of Demos, but I think there’s a risk that the cosmopolitan hunger for newness can so outstrip the pace of social and political change, that it departs from reality altogether. If you slam your foot too hard on the accelerator, the wheels spin and screech, but the car doesn’t move. Be careful about dismissing fields of policy for being dull, in case, for instance, you start to get bored of poverty as a topic.

  2. I’m making a simpler point. Most TTs worry about a single issue – child poverty, farming, education. The charm of Demos (especially ‘Bentley-era’ Demos by the look of it) is that they’ll tackle almost anything. There’s certainly nothing dull about those single-issue outfits. There is, however, something really cool about space… (and Blur, of course). I’d really be interested in your opinion about the influence or otherwise of TTs on Government policy-making during political troughs like the current one.

  3. You can have long arguments about how/whether think tanks have any influence on Government (certainly, the employees of them can!).

    Do you exert more influence by rivalling Whitehall’s expertise (as the Institute for Fiscal Studies does), or by being hipper than the Government (as most think tanks are), or somewhere between the two (the IPPR for instance)?

  4. The real crux about Demos, surely, is that they have an approach that is fairly applicable across many areas of modern life: complexity, networked structures, open source, the end of command and control etc. It’s like a tool you apply to health, then space, then population or the quality of pop music even.

    If they were to become too predictable it could be good for them because their approach would seem to be increasingly accepted. It would be less good for them however because for a more ‘imaginative’ think tank it would lose much of its freshness.

    It’s not about coolness, then, but freshness*.

    (*The difference between the two depends largely on which deodourant you like.)

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