Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983 was published in hardback by HarperCollins in 1994, and in paperback by the same publisher the following year. In brief, the book is an account of the Thatcherite revolution in Britain, from its very beginnings in the 1930s, as a small group of liberal economists fought back against the rising tides of Keynesianism, to the mid-1980s, when Thatcherism was in full flow.
My purpose was to analyse and explain how an idea that had become deeply unfashionable by the 1930s, namely economic liberalism, could, fifty years later, become an orthodoxy, increasingly adopted around the world. As much as anything, therefore, the book is a primer on how thinkers and activists can shift the intellectual environment in which politics has to operate in their favour. To that extent, I hope that the work is as relevant today as it was when published.
The book was written as New Labour was taking shape in Britain, and the epilogue was an encouragement to the New Labourites to learn from the success of the neo-liberal thinkers such as F.A. Hayek, Arthur Seldon, Karl Popper and Milton Friedman to forge their own counter-attack against the Toryism of day.
The book was widely reviewed, and prompted a lot of discussion at the time:
“Between the years of triumphant Keynesianism in the 1930s and the administration of Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s there was a tremendous swing of the pendulum of public opinion away from collectivism and welfarism towards economic liberalism and acceptance of the working of free market forces. All the while between those extremities there rose and fell organisations, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, which worked away explaining and promoting the operation and the blessings of a ‘free economy’. It is a story which Richard Cockett has brilliantly and excitingly reconstructed… in his remarkably well documented and organised study.”
– J. Enoch Powell, The Spectator
“Cockett’s book is intellectual history of the most readable and persuasive kind. He describes and analyses the intensive interplay between ideas and politics in a most lucid manner.”
– Harry Reid, Glasgow Herald
“When intellectuals and politicians conspire, the outcome can be complicated – and unpredictable. Richard Cockett’s superb book traces the 50-year campaign by a band of economic liberals, inspired by Austria’s Friedrich von Hayek, to smash Britain’s post-war Keynesian consensus.”
– The Economist
“Fascinating… Cockett has put together, in highly manageable form, an intellectual political history of our times. The British often affect to be non-ideological. This proves that affectation to be false.”
– Patrick Cosgrave, Literary Review
“Cockett has produced a first-rate narrative that is both gripping and enlightening.”
– Steve Briggs, Scotland on Sunday
“Cockett has seized on a superb subject. It is a case-study in the way that ideas are dangerous, for good or evil. He ends by anticipating a counter-revolution against economic liberalism: a provocative conclusion to a provocative book.”
– Peter Clarke, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, London Review of Books (His full review, with a long discussion of Kenyes vs Hayek, can be found here.
“Absorbing, lively and stimulating…this excellent book will further enhance Richard Cockett’s growing reputation for original scholarship already firmly established by his highly acclaimed studies of both press promotion of 1930s appeasement and David Astor’s Observer... This book traces the history of an idea, not the history of a political party. The enterprise is fascinating, not least in its originality. But its is the author’s scholarly methodology that makes this a brilliant book. Indeed, it is a pleasure to read…Occasional flashes of dry humour are impishly inserted to lighten the text.”
– Martin Holmes, St Hugh’s College, Oxford, Times Higher Educational Supplement
“An exciting story because it deals, at one level, with the most important intellectual conflict of the twentieth century – between the forces for centralized planning and socialist government controls, against the old liberal tradition of individual freedom, unfettered markets and minimum government interference.”
– Max Wilkinson, Financial Times
But my favourite review was from the New Statesman, by Tim Haigh – not that it was supposed to be very complimentary:
“Richard Cockett does sort out which set of initials was which, and this is useful. It is mildly thrilling to read about men like Hayek and Sherman and Joseph as noble champions. It’s a bit like seeing Star Trek with the Klingons as the good guys”
Below are some external links to long reviews and discussions of the book and the issues that it raised:
- Michael James, for ANU press, reviewed it in Australia
- John Torode reviewed it in The Independent
- Arthur Seldon, one of the stars of the book, and Alan Peacock reviews in the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs
- The book was discussed in some detail in a book comparing think-tanks internationally, in Think Tanks Across Nations: A Comparative Approach, edited By Diane Stone, Andrew Denham, Mark Garnett, published a few years later in 1998
- This was a long review from very partisan source (in favour of free-market ideas) by Tom Burroughs, from Free Life (the journal of the Libertarian Alliance, Editor – Sean Gabb
- And this was another long review from a friendly partisan source, Jeremy Shearmur, from Policy magazine, Spring 1994. Shearmur was director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies from 1985-6, and had also been Karl Popper’s research assistant
- And on a lighter note, a sharp-eyed Guardian journalist noticed that it was on David Cameron’s bookshelves in 2009