As political parties set out their stalls of new ideas in preparation for a general election, the increasing influence of privately funded research on political discussion will demand closer scrutiny. Private thinktanks are increasingly shaping national debates in the media, something made possible through the private funds required for high-profile launches, websites and email campaigns.
A striking example of this symbiotic relationship is Policy Exchange’s report Living Apart Together, on Muslim social attitudes, which is officially launched today. It was released to the press two weeks ago to provide research cover for David Cameron’s speech attacking multiculturalism and prominent Muslim organisations. The report included claims that a significant minority of Muslims were “living apart” from British society, claims that were widely reported in the media and appeared to legitimise Conservative party rhetoric.
Yet few reports made clear that Policy Exchange has an explicit political agenda. Michael Gove, the Conservative MP and author of the book Celsius 7/7 – How the West’s Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Fundamentalist Terror and What Has to Be Done Now, is a founding chairman of Policy Exchange. And he has made it clear that thinktanks are crucial for the next general election campaign, stating that “a precursor to electoral victory is victory in the battle of ideas and the battle for the agenda”.
The politicisation of research can lead to serious distortions in debates on policy issues. Debates about multiculturalism, security and British Muslims are bound to have a central place in the next election.
Marie Smyth and Jeroen Gunning report in the Guardian, 13 February 2007