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Being a Think Tank in the North

Author: Simon Duffy

This article has also been published in July's issue of Now Then magazine and is available on the Now Then app. Our thanks to Opus Independents for all the fabulous work they do to help Sheffield be the special place it is.

Ten years ago I created a think tank called the Centre for Welfare Reform, based here in Sheffield. It still seems like a crazy idea. Serious think tanks are based in London to be close to power, money and media. 

But that's the problem, isn't it? If we're not careful, we buy into the anti-democratic idea that people, communities, cities and regions can't think for themselves. We've just got to accept what we're offered by the powerful or else we become cynical and angry at the injustice of it all. 

Even worse, the ideas that come from that centre of power are pretty rubbish. It turns out that thinking, which sounds so clean and abstract, is easily corrupted by power and money. Thinking is not other-worldly. It flows back and forth from the reality we experience. If you are surrounded by wealth, then the reality of poverty will not strike you. If you are deep in the battle for power, it's hard to believe that power could be shared by everyone. 

Next time you hear that some report has been published by a London-based think tank, check out who funded the report and who funds the think tank. Most think tanks follow the money. The results are predictable. 

On a more personal note, I love Sheffield. I don't want to move to London or spend half my life on the train. I want to live here in the North, working with my friends, learning from people I can trust, discovering together what might be possible. 

So to counter-balance the craziness of setting up a Sheffield-based think tank, I decided to do something equally crazy and call it the Centre for Welfare Reform. 

"Citizenship is the way we reconcile our equality and our diversity" 

The welfare state is a great achievement. It's not always perfect, but it's an essential part of a decent society and if a society wants to improve then it must also improve or reform its welfare systems. But the term 'welfare reform' is now used by those who dislike the welfare state to provide cover for their intentions. 'Reforming the welfare state' sounds so much better than 'destroying the welfare state'. 

I decided to play the same trick in reverse - take a term that was associated with right-wing ideas and use it as cover for some radically democratic ideas. I am still not sure this was a very wise strategy. The powerful could see what I was up to and the Centre's reputation as an anti-austerity, pro-Green and pro-Labour think tank guarantees our rather marginal role. At the same time, potential allies can be put off by our seemingly right-wing name. But we are still here, ten years later. We have published or shared over 1,000 reports, articles and films and we have over 100 fellows across the globe. We have been a small thorn in the side of a government that shows no respect for human rights nor common decency. We survive despite having no power and no money. We survive because good people share their ideas for free. We survive by keeping costs low and learning how to do things for ourselves. 

And what do we believe? 

Put simply, we believe in citizenship for all. We think everyone should be treated as an equal and that we should live in welcoming and inclusive communities, where we take care of each other and help each other be the best we can. Citizenship demands social justice, a different kind of economics, true democracy, constitutional reform and a commitment to take care of our planet - this fragile Earth, with all its wonderful diversity, which demands our love and care. Citizenship is the way we reconcile our equality and our diversity. It means choosing to treat each other as equals by coming together to create communities of equal membership. 

Citizenship is how we truly take back true control, because citizens know that true power is something only citizens can create - together.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Being a Think Tank in the North © Simon Duffy 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.