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Radio review: The Other Black Door, and Thinking Allowed

07 October 2022

Alamy

The front door of 55 Tufton Street, the headquarters of several Rightward-leaning organisations that were examined in The Other Black Door (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

The front door of 55 Tufton Street, the headquarters of several Rightward-leaning organisations that were examined in The Other Black Door (Radio 4, M...

WHAT is the difference between a think tank and a lobby group? Nobody on The Other Black Door (Radio 4, Monday of last week) could explain. And yet this was the main issue at stake in Jack Fenwick’s piece on 55 Tufton Street: the house in Westminster which has been the headquarters of a number of rightward-leaning organisations, including the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Critics referred to the “opacity” of this network, of “shady” involvement with government. The documentary featured all those tropes of investigative reporting designed to evoke a world of secret cabals: the unanswered phone ringing, the FoI requests denied, the “No comments”.

For a secretive network, 55 Tufton Street doesn’t exactly skulk in the shadows. The opinions of Migration Watch, for instance, are regularly quoted in mainstream media. In fairness to the programme-makers, the lasting impression created here was of a consortium of think groups/lobby tanks that had got rather good at their jobs; and, as Fenwick suggested in an interview with Angela Rayner, the Labour Party might be feeling just a tad jealous. Whether the Tufton brigade had anything to do with the recent, catastrophic mini-Budget (News, 30 September) is yet to be determined. If so, it would suggest that they are better at lobbying than thinking.

There is a moment in the television series Mad Men, set in the 1960s, when the Drapers take a picnic in a beautiful, flower-strewn meadow. At the end of the meal, they pick up the rug, casually depositing all their detritus on the ground, and merrily head for the car. It is as striking a moment of period detail as all the smoking, office drinking, and womanising that were the show’s signature.

As the criminologist Tim Newburn, a guest on Thinking Allowed (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), explained, there has been, in the past half-century, a distinct shift in social norms and the extent to which we conform to them. In a recent book, Professor Newburn and his co-author, Andrew Ward, discuss everything from dog poo to double parking, arguing that we are for ever refining what Foucault called “the governed self”. Once upon a time, the walls of the National Gallery were said to be crumbling because of the volume of urine showered upon them. We now exercise greater self-restraint.

That this should be a cause for celebration is debatable. As Laurie Taylor’s other guest, Lorraine Daston, observed, unwavering obedience can become paralysing. Adherence to convention can become a kind of fetishistic display: examples range from Spelling Bee competitions to elaborate displays of hygiene security during the pandemic. When doing the right thing becomes merely a performance, divorced from the rationale that inspired it, then what Mr Newburn applauds as “informal social control” becomes a more equivocal power.

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