The tanks that think

March 7, 1997

With the smell of cordite still pungent in the air after the byelection battle of Wirral South,The THES begins today a weekly series in the run-up to the general election on those intelligence units that lob highly explosive ideas at the combatants. This week: The Social Affairs Unit. Report by Simon Midgley.

The Social Affairs Unit was founded in 1980 by DigbyAnderson, its 52-year-old director. An educational charity, it began by critically examining the welfare state but has since broadened its interests toquestion new consensualorthodoxies. It is also interested in liberty and personalresponsibility. It will not publish an election programme but continue to publish books and papers that are intended to inform policy debates.

Current concerns include the over-regulation of industry, goods and products, particularly when this arises from allegations of risk and hazard to human health or the environment. Recent publications have looked at the following: why US biotechnology patents are running at a level three times higher than in Europe; how the regulation of the pharmaceutical industry stifles innovation; and the erosion of the patient-doctorrelationship by collective -preventative approaches tohealth care.

The unit argues that if youhave less government regulation you need more personal socialregulation and informalsocial sanctions. Its May 1996 publication Gentility Recalled attracted media and political attention by considering how manners, politeness and thoughtfulness underpin social values.

Future publicationswill include: a study of the media byKenneth Minogue; a collection of essays arguing that childlike Rousseauesque notions of children underpin social policy debates aboutthe young; a study of the professions; an examination of theuse of the word "nature" by environmental andanimal rights groups; a report into martialvirtues and the future of the armed services.

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