4 June 2024

Changing the Climate of Opinion: 10 years of CapX


The piece below is Alys Denby’s chapter from ‘Conservative Revolution: The Centre for Policy Studies at 50’, published on June 4. It can be purchased here. You can use the code CPSBOOK to get a discounted copy.

‘The climate of opinion… is shaped by the battle of ideas and  by experience. If socialists, irrespective of their place in the  spectrum, press their views vigorously, while we defer to what  we believe to be the middle ground consensus, we lose the opportunity to achieve a more congenial climate for what will need doing in the future.’  

In 1976, the Centre for Policy Studies published Stranded on the Middle Ground?, a collection of speeches by Keith Joseph. In words that still resound today, Joseph attributed the country’s profound economic and political afflictions – rampant inflation, sterling crises, the three-day week, trade union militancy, the collapse of successive governments – to the failure of the post-war consensus.

The ‘middle ground’, as he saw it, was determined by electoral expediency rather than any particular philosophy or popular feeling. It was obtained by splitting the difference between Labour and the Conservatives. And since Labour’s position was always a compromise with its extreme fringe, the ‘middle ground’ had become a leftward ratchet towards socialism. 

Joseph knew that dismantling this mechanism would take legwork – literally. In the lead-up to Stranded on the Middle Ground?, he had spent two years touring the country to make the moral case for capitalism, addressing 25,000 students at 60 public meetings at universities and polytechnics, and being shouted down on four of those occasions.

Those talks had a powerful effect: elsewhere in this collection, David Willetts writes evocatively about attending one as an undergraduate.

And they were not the only example of communication and evangelisation being core to the CPS’s early mission. In their famous paper Stepping Stones, John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss analysed the causes of Britain’s political and economic dysfunction, concluding that unless union power was tamed, ‘national recovery will be virtually impossible’.

But the second half of the paper, written primarily by Strauss, was all about messaging – because nothing could be done unless the public were persuaded both of the negative role of the trade union leadership, and that those union barons could and should be taken on.  

In other words, communication has always been central to the mission of the CPS. Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher and their allies understood from the beginning that they would require public understanding and support for their ideas if they were to make radical change. 

In 2014, when the CPS launched CapX, the country had once again come to a crossroads. The financial crash of 2008 had led to profound economic disillusionment. As Tim Knox, then Director of the CPS, said at the time: 

Much has gone wrong with capitalism. We see cartelisation, we see large companies dominating countries, we see increasingly bad behaviour from banks, particularly, but also from energy companies and other cartel organisations. This is a long way from the free-market capitalism that we were founded to promote.

But it wasn’t just the actions of industry that concerned many on the centre-right. It was the policy responses, too. Iain Martin, CapX’s first Editor, says: ‘The concern was, in the aftermath of the rescue of the banks, that there would be a perception that the state and giant interventions are always the answer.’

At the same time, the internet was fundamentally changing the media landscape. The Guido Fawkes blog, launched in 2004, had shown that it wasn’t just tabloids that could get big scoops and take political scalps.

The Leveson Inquiry of 2011 had done real damage to the reputation of newspapers, which were also struggling financially as a result of online competition. All the frontier energy was in digital media start-ups and money was following, with sites like BuzzFeed and Vox receiving multi-billion-dollar valuations. Meanwhile a generation of journalists were learning to love the freedom and creativity the internet afforded them. 

It was out of this intellectual atmosphere that CapX emerged: a news service that would bring readers original comment and analysis, as well as aggregated free-market thinking from around the world. It was utterly new, but completely consistent with what the CPS had always stood for. 

CapX – the early years

Iain Martin had the idea for CapX while working at The Daily Telegraph, which was an early adopter of blogs alongside traditional op-eds. Indeed, for people of a certain age on the right, that section of the Telegraph website was a kind of prelapsarian online playground, where the likes of Norman Tebbit would interact – at length and in all seriousness – with anonymous users, their often ridiculous pseudonyms notwithstanding.  

‘Like many journalists in that period,’ Martin recalls, ‘I was introduced to this strange new world of the internet, instant publishing, and a different way of thinking about writing and communicating that wasn’t constrained by the shapes on a page.’ But he also worried about ‘how people who believed in market liberalism within the rule of law and a robust state would get their argument heard in an increasingly frenetic media environment’. 

Through discussion with George, now Baron Bridges – a former minister under John Major and board member of the CPS – he realised he would need funding and the backing of a major think tank. The CPS agreed to help facilitate both. Maurice Saatchi, then its Chairman, recalls: ‘At that time, most people in the Conservative Party felt it had lost its intellectual bearing, and CapX struck all of us at the CPS as a very correct thing for us to be doing.’

The offices at 57 Tufton Street were, back then, an incongruous environment from which to launch a digital start-up. Rachel Cunliffe, hired as an intern straight out of university to help with the launch, recalls being given a desk in an attic room with a leaky ceiling and coming across a cupboard filled with beverages earmarked for the 1997 general election, 16 years beyond their expiry date.

Nonetheless, Martin, Cunliffe, another intern called Zac Tate and CPS board member Susan Walton spent weeks sitting around the boardroom table thinking and talking – much of the discussion centring around the term ‘capitalism’ itself. ‘It’s a word that a lot of people regard as ugly and that was invented by enemies of business,’ says Martin. ‘But in the end we decided to embrace it and to own it, because in 100 years no one has invented a better term.’

He was clear, though, that the site wouldn’t shy away from criticism of markets or claim that they worked in every circumstance. Instead, he wanted to advocate for a system that could both command popular appeal and promote prosperity for the many, not just the elites. So they settled on ‘popular capitalism’ as the site’s animating ethos. 

Next came the name and logo, though recollections about the origins of the ‘X’ in ‘CapX’ vary. Cunliffe says that the ‘X’ was meant to represent markets via a visual allusion to supply and demand curves. Lord Saatchi, on the other hand, says it had more to do with technology and the future – and that the CPS recognised the potency of the letter long before Elon Musk.

Everyone involved agrees, though, that the name seemed to capture what they were trying to do. The bold, monochrome aesthetic of the site – which has been much imitated since – flowed from there, and Martin gives much credit to Lord Saatchi’s ‘marketing and branding genius’. 

CapX was launched on 16 June 2014 at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty – the first in what has now become an annual series of high-profile conferences to celebrate the CPS’s founder.

The first ever daily CapX newsletter featured articles on the economies of India and France, a piece by Patience Wheatcroft on Pfizer’s failed takeover of AstraZeneca and one from Tim Montgomerie on the rise of ‘BoreCons’ – which, given the upheaval of the subsequent decade, now reads like wishful thinking. 

The original promotional materials emphasised the site’s function as an aggregator of free-market content from across the web. The idea of using machine learning to scour the internet for information on a certain theme, which would then be curated by editors, was well ahead of its time. 

But as technology changed and CapX’s audience grew, it became clear that original comment would be its main selling point. 

Early articles often had a defiant, anti-establishment tone – with titles like ‘Popular Capitalism, Now!’ and ‘Is the Pope a Capitalist?’. There was even a wine column from Will Lyons and watch reviews – presumably published on the assumption that readers interested in capitalism would also be keen consumers of luxury goods. In articles like ‘Are Cats Libertarians?’ and ‘JRR Tolkien and the Economics of Middle Earth’, CapX found a way to make free markets funny.

But the core offer was always astute comment and analysis of the big political and economic stories of the day from great writers. And there has been plenty to write about since 2014. 

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously referred to the triumph of liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War as ‘the end of history’. It now feels as though history has restarted. And looking back, CapX – founded in the year Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine – came along at just the right time. 

Ever since, it has been a platform for writers to debate, analyse and – in its own way – shape a period of extraordinary change, in Britain and around the world. 

The launch of CapX was swiftly followed by the 2015 general election and the Brexit referendum. While the newspapers and other media outlets tended to either focus on personalities – Nigel Farage vs the Establishment – or repeat Treasury scaremongering, CapX offered far more nuanced analysis. ‘So many Remainers were surprised by the referendum result,’ says Cunliffe. ‘But I wasn’t, because working at CapX, I’d read some extremely compelling arguments.’ She adds:  

I also understood something which is very apparent now, that there are two very, very different cases for Brexit. One is the populist, nationalistic argument for lower immigration and more money for the NHS, which won votes in the Red Wall. And the other is about free trade, cutting red tape and making Britain a world leader. We had really eloquent writers on both sides.

For Robert Colvile, who took over as CapX’s Editor in 2016, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was a catalysing incident. ‘After the 2015 election Labour had chosen this guy who, whether on domestic or foreign policy, believed all the things that were most alien to human flourishing, most alien to everything we know about how an economy works, and most alien to our values,’ he says.

A fruitful source of content for CapX during this period was simply exposing things Corbyn had done and said. For example in ‘What Corbyn Really Thinks about Foreign Policy’, Colvile mined the Corbyn archives for quotes on his enthusiastic support for Hugo Chavez and the Cuban dictatorship, while in ‘How can Labour’s Leader be in Thrall to Marx?’, Daniel Hannan examined the lethal legacy of the far-left’s favourite philosopher. ‘You came into the office every day knowing you were doing God’s work,’ says Colvile. 

Corbyn was, thankfully, defeated at the 2019 election – only to thrust CapX, and the country, into another huge debate over the role and purpose of the state. The Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 were the biggest experiment in state coercion ever conducted in Britain, and the Government imposed them with little challenge from much of the media.

By this point, CapX was in the hands of a new generation of talent – John Ashmore had succeeded Oliver Wiseman, who succeeded Colvile’s deputy and fellow Telegraph veteran Sally Chatterton. ‘We took the line that it was important to preserve as much personal freedom as possible while protecting lives,’ says Ashmore, ‘and that innovation and technology would be the means by which we defeated the virus.’

While this premise was shared by CapX writers, many disagreed on the way to achieve it. During the vaccine rollout, for example, Alex Morton argued for New Zealand-style border closures, whereas I wrote that restrictions should be lifted faster.

‘It was a very frenetic time, but we tried to balance competing, legitimate views, and act as a voice of reason amid the madness,’ says Ashmore. ‘We had lots of anti-lockdown pieces, but also pieces from those making a pragmatic case for some of the measures – we wanted CapX to be a place where those ideas could be properly debated, rather than simply saying we were ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ one course of action or another.’ 

Why we need CapX now

That ambition, to be the marketplace of ideas, still motivates CapX a decade on. Today it is read by many of the most influential people on the right.

Michael Gove has said, ‘I always feel better for the arrival of the CapX email, I’m always stimulated, intrigued, provoked and better informed.’ Lord Frost regards it as ‘one of the daily reads that I regard as indispensable’. And Maurice Saatchi says, ‘in terms of the writing and the provocative ideas, it’s better than The Economist’.

Many less well known but still powerful and influential people keep an eye on CapX too. One of our Labour-leaning writers did such a good job setting out the kind of arguments Keir Starmer should be making that he got hired as his speechwriter. 

CapX also reaches a far wider audience and, much like the Telegraph website back in the 2010s, is an important touchstone for a newer generation of right-wingers. This is all the more important given the culture at universities today, where there is often a steep social cost to being an openly right-wing student or academic (it is hard to imagine a modern Keith Joseph being shouted down only four times).  

It is an enormous compliment to the site that it now has many imitators. CapX can also be immensely proud of the talent that has passed through its doors. Cunliffe is now Associate Political Editor of The New Statesman. Chatterton left to become one of the founding team at UnHerd, which she has edited for the past five years. Former intern Olivia Utley is now Political Correspondent at GB News. Wiseman is working for The Free Press in the Washington, DC. And of course, Colvile is now Director of the Centre for Policy Studies. 

But despite such success, the public has not become axiomatically more receptive to our ideas. Aside from the statistical blips of the pandemic years, 2014 was the last time UK GDP growth topped 3%. Meanwhile, the tax burden is at its highest level in over 70 years. As Ryan Bourne notes in his essay in this collection, the Thatcher revolution now looks like something of an interlude between two periods of decline and declinism.  

As a result, the Tories are heading into a general election with dire poll ratings and a country that, for many, seems no more conservative than it was in 2010, despite 14 years of Conservative led government. 

So on the 10th anniversary of CapX and the 50th of the Centre for Policy Studies, it feels like Britain is approaching another inflection point.  

Returning to Stranded on the Middle Ground?, Keith Joseph wrote: ‘The two world wars impelled society towards interventionism and socialism… the militarisation of society entails confiding vast additional powers to government, legitimises these powers in the name of patriotism, indeed of national survival.’ 

The pandemic has once again convinced people that there is a romance in the co-ordination of state powers. For many people, especially younger people, equality now matters far more than than freedom. At the same time, the mistakes of Liz Truss’ brief premiership have done much to discredit her tax-cutting, deregulating vision. 

Yet for all her faults, much of her analysis of Britain’s economic ailments was correct. And it is a sort of perverse tribute to her that even Keir Starmer now talks about the importance of growth – though he has less to say about how he plans to get it. 

CapX’s mission, then, remains as necessary and as urgent as ever. While the left peddle easy fallacies about fairness, the right must argue that individual liberty is the surest path to collective prosperity. While they buy into utopian fictions about a perfectible society, we know that only the market can balance competing interests. Our opponents think they know how we must live our lives; we don’t tell others how they should live theirs. 

But it is precisely because these arguments are difficult, even at times counter-intuitive, that they must be constantly remade. That is what CapX will keep doing, for the next 10 years and beyond. 

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Alys Denby was Deputy Editor of CapX from 2020 to 2023, and Editor of CapX from 2023 to 2024.