Magazine article IPA Review

Conservatives Converted

Magazine article IPA Review

Conservatives Converted

Article excerpt

Thinking the Unthinkable by Richard Cockett HarperCollins

THIS IS the tale of how Britain, or more precisely the ruling faction in the Conservative Party, was converted from collectivism to economic liberalism between the 1930s and 1980s. The unthinkable happened when Mrs Thatcher started implementing free-market policies which in the 1930s and for many years thereafter were widely seen as antediluvian.

For anyone interested in free-market think-tanks, of which there were apparently 166 at the last worldwide count by the Atlas Foundation, this book is a must. Likewise, those desiring to win the hearts and minds of political parties will find Thinking the Unthinkable absorbing. As Richard Cockett makes clear, to win over the politicians you have first to convince the opinion formers; and to ensure the opinion formers are on side, you may have to start while they are still at school. When Friedrich von Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 he was well aware of the long-term nature of the task.

Underestimated Events As far as the general, non-British reader is concerned the book contains much detail which may seem tedious. Nonetheless, it raises a number of issues of wide interest. One which never ceases to fascinate historians is the relationship between people, ideas and events. Cockett sometimes gives the impression that circumstances were influenced overwhelmingly by people rather than vice versa. Admittedly he occasionally acknowledges the role of events as in the following passage from Milton Friedman's 1976 Nobel Prize lecture:

"Government policy about inflation and unemployment has been at the centre of political controversy. Ideological war has ranged over these matters. Yet the drastic change that has occurred in economic theory has not been the result of ideological warfare. It has not resulted from divergent political beliefs or aims. It has responded almost entirely to the force of events; brute experience proved far more potent than the strongest of political or ideological preferences."

On the whole, however, Cockett tends to play down the extent to which Keynesianism was a response to the depression of the 1930s and monetarism a reaction to the inflation of the 1970s. Little matters like the two oil shocks which rocked the world economy don't rate a mention. He is certainly entitled to give credit to the Institute of Economic Affairs for its role in predicting the inflationary outcome of Keynesian policies and working out "a coherent, intellectually satisfying alternative" so that, "when the time came for the change of tack in the mid-1970s, there was really one alternative and, by implication, one philosophical position to adopt---that of the IEA. …

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