Third Way Accepts North American Think Tank of the Year Award

July 8th, 2013

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Only 8 1/2 years after opening our doors, Third Way was honored by  Prospect Magazine—Britain’s leading monthly current affairs magazine—as the 2013 North American Think Tank of the Year for our, “original, influential, and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges facing people, governments, and businesses.” Below you will find Third Way President Jon Cowan’s acceptance speech. You can also view photos of the ceremony or read Mike Allen’s write up in POLITICO.

On behalf of everyone at Third Way, I want to thank you for this incredible honor.

As an American, it’s always humbling to speak in London.  After all, the Royal Society has been an organization longer than we’ve been a country. But this is the perfect setting for these awards.  The Royal Society has always had subversion at its heart.  This is the native home of rebels, misfits, and revolutionaries.

As you know well, it is from this Society’s lectern that Ben Franklin first told the world about his kite.  That Watson and Crick told the world about DNA.  That houses, a few floors from here, a piece of the tree from which Sir Isaac Newton’s apple fell. These are people who were willing to challenge the established order of everything.  Who had the daring to see beyond conventional wisdom—to imagine, to question, and to create—all in the name of moving the human race forward.

The only part of science where this impulse has been rare is political science—especially as it is practiced today.  It makes all of us susceptible to heroes from the past. For me, the names I can’t get out of my head are not American, but British:  Harold Macmillan…Anthony Eden…Duff Cooper…Bob Boothby…”Bobbety” Cranbourne…Ronald Cartland…Harold Nicolson…and Leo Amery.

In the best history book I have read in a decade, author Lynne Olson calls them what Macmillan called them: Troublesome Young Men. For years, I was led to believe that Winston Churchill was a lone voice crying out against appeasement in the late 1930s. Instead, it was this group of young Tories—all members of the old boys society—who came together to oppose men they had gone to school with . . . to push Churchill forward . . . and bring down a prime minister of their own party. They were called traitors—to their friends, their government, their class and their country. The Lord Chancellor said they should be shot and hanged.  But in the end, they were right.  Their subversion helped save Britain—and all the world.

Why do I mention this? Thankfully, we are not facing anything like Hitler today. But my country and others are facing something corrosive for a democracy:  complacency and inertia in the face of historic change.

We all know:  we are living through the greatest global transformation since the Renaissance. Countries like America are facing what Pericles, in his funeral oration, called a “testing time” – to decide if “our greatness will continue to surpass what was imagined of us.” (or:  what the Greeks called “a point of peripeteia,” which Aristotle defined as “a change by which action veers round to its opposite.”)

In America, it’s clear:  the things we built to prosper in the 20th Century have served their purpose and need to be fundamentally rethought.

We have a social safety net that provided support for the last generation but now threatens the solvency of the next generation. We have an education system that still prepares students to compete in the last century. We have a society that still runs on fossil fuels and fossilized ideas. Yet, too many elected officials are still guided by a mental map of the world as it was.

To us, the role of think tanks is to do that rethinking . . . to provide the tools, and the strategies, and the way forward. The hard part isn’t coming up with the ideas.  The hard part, like those troublesome young men . . . is a willingness to go all in . . . to take on the decaying policies and outdated ideas of your own side. Our very name is born of this idea.  To be clear, we didn’t steal “Third Way” from Tony Blair.  We borrowed it from Bill Clinton, who stole it from Tony Blair.

In the end, we know, as Ronald Cartland said in the late 1930s, “No government can change men’s souls.  The souls of men change governments.”

That is work before us now.  With this honor, you have told us that we are on the right track.

Thank you.