From Free Life No. 22, April 1995.
HarperCollins, London, 1994, £25
(ISBN 0 00 223672 9)
There is now quite a sizeable raft of books describing in both friendly, hostile and near-libellous terms the phenomenon misleadingly described as the "New Right". I can say from the start, without hesitation, that Thinking the Unthinkable is a superb addition to the corpus and, as the reviewers put it, a "must" for anyone interested in the fightback by economic liberals and libertarians against the fallacies and evils of statism.
The book is well worth the effort of reading through its 352 pages of detailed text, because it sheds light on how ideas can win minds and be put into action. For what really stands out in this admirable book for me is that ideas matter. Yes, interests also shape events; but ideas, principles, arguments and theories can and do affect the outcome of public events, often in unpredictable ways. This book is encouraging because it shows how often small groups of people can influence public life out of all proportion to their numbers - which ought to be particularly encouraging to those who are Libertarian Alliance subscribers.
There are other significant themes. First, Mr Cockett shows how liberalism and its opposite, collectivism, have waxed and waned over certain periods. The years between 1760 and 1850 witnessed the intellectual fight for liberalism against mercantilism and absolutism, while the years 1850 to 1918 saw liberalism established as orthodoxy, with the emergence of socialism as an ideological threat from thinkers like the Fabians. And similarly, Mr Cockett sees the years 1931 to 1983 as the year of intellectual liberal fight-back, with the period after Mrs Thatcher's 1983 election victory as signalling the start of a new orthodoxy. Admittedly, such generalisations are simplified but this broad outline makes sense.
Mr Cockett also stresses another key point - the importance of friendly individuals in the media who were and are prepared to put the liberal message across, even if they were not entirely friendly towards it. Peter Jay, Samuel Brittan, Colin Welch and John O'Sullivan spring to mind as influential figures. This point is quite a hobby horse of mine. As a professional financial journalist surrounded by statist-minded colleagues, I believe it is absolutely vital that more libertarians get into the media.
He also takes pains to point out that many libertarian ideas should not be confused, as many on the left and right like to do, with Thatcherism per se. Many libertarians, including me, feel uncomfortable with the authoritarianism of the Thatcher governments and its record on civil liberties. It is often annoying to disown the tag "right wing" and Mr Cockett fully grasps the fact that what united such a wide and disparate group of thinkers was not their adherence to the Tory Party but their commitment, in varying degrees, to economic liberalism.
Mr Cockett's guided tour starts in 1931, when collectivism was in the ascendant in many parts of Europe and also the year when a little-known Austrian professor called F.A. Hayek came to Britain to work at the London School of Economics. Hayek, like the LSE, was to play a crucial role in teaming up with like-minded thinkers such as Arnold Plant and Lionel Robbins in countering the collectivism of the age and formulating counter-arguments against the rising star of the economics profession, John Maynard Keynes.
It is not necessary to repeat many of the details; but Mr Cockett then tells us of how wartime conditions confirmed liberal thinkers' worst fears about the effects of state planning, and of how dangerous government power was for individual freedom, even when that power was supposedly wielded by a democratic regime. We are told of the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society after the war, the developments leading to the creation of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the way journalists during the post-war years began to take note of the new ideas emerging from what later became known as "think tanks".
The whole story is well handled with no shortage of facts and ancedotes. The connections between journalists, politicians, academics and maverick businessmen with an eye for ideas are described in telling detail. The economic liberal fightback involved a whole gallery of characters, of often conflicting and contrasting temperaments, but largely united in their recognition of the damaging effects of growing state power.
Looking back, the wartime period was very rich in books attacking collectivism. It saw publication of some crucial and influential works of enduring significance. Some are picked out by Mr Cockett. Obviously Hayek's Road to Serfdom was critical and influenced many, including a bright young grocer's daughter who later became Prime Minister. Maybe the grim collectivism of wartime spurred libertarian-minded writers on, because the 1940s also saw Ayn Rand's great individualist novel, The Fountainhead, and Sir Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.
There is a fascinating account of many less-well known groups and individuals who have played a role. How many people who do not follow intellectual life know, for example, that left-winger Tony Benn's uncle, Ernest Benn, was a great champion of capitalism and individualism? Many forgotten liberals during the 1930s, '40s and subsequently are mentioned and brought into deserved prominence.
Gradually we are taken through the '50s and '60s, when collectivism and Keynesianism still seemed dominant, to the "heroic age" of the 1970s, when the break-down of the post-war consensus was too glaring to be ignored and Keynesian economic demand-management had manifestly failed. The story of how Sir Keith Joseph came into contact with the IEA and began to preach a free market message to the Tory Party is well told. Mr Cockett lists the many apostates from socialism, such as former MP Brian Walden and journalist and historian Paul Johnson - whose excellent recent history The Birth of the Modern I have reviewed in an earlier issue of this journal [Free Life, No.17, January 1993]. Mr Cockett fairly stresses the crucial role played by the IEA and other groups in spreading the free market message not just to those who could be obviously branded as "right wing". And finally we see the impact of later think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. And I was pleased to see several references to the Libertarian Alliance itself and its director, Chris R. Tame, one of the leading lights in the libertarian movement, who has had an important impact on the younger generation.
It is a fascinating story and well told. I can only say by way of conclusion that this book is a must for libertarians. As an inspiration to intellectual struggle, and a caution against the dangers of triumphalism and the temptations of political compromise, this is an extremely valuable book.