The Bow Group is the first of the Conservative think tanks (it was established in 1951) and its members are mostly in their twenties and early thirties. The Group lets them continue the habits of serious political discussion that they formed at university, and it publishes papers that inform and occasionally shape party policy.
In its early years the Group produced a few carefully researched papers, which the Conservative Party really had to take notice of because no-one else in the Party gave the impression of doing any thinking at all.
Despite Britain's reputation as a place where "clever" is a term of abuse, the Group flourished and membership of it was seen as a good thing that could lead to further advancement. This unfortunately had a corrupting influence so that by the time I joined the Group in 1984 a good proportion of the members were there more to have it on their CV and get themselves noticed rather than to do serious research. In any case, employers were less relaxed than in the 1950s and expected eighteen rather than eight hours' work a day out of their young graduate staff.
As a result R.A. Butler's famous description of the Bow Group as "the hive from which the Party draws honey and the occasional sting" became less apt. Stings might get you noticed in the wrong way, and some of the papers that the Group published tasted less of honey than of the bee-keeper's sugar. Add to this the efforts of the new men in loud ties who wanted to use the Bow Group to buy and sell influence, the proliferation of professional think tanks with salaried staff, and its members' undergraduate penchant for faction fighting, the Bow Group at times resembled a dog walking upon its hinder legs – and yet, one way or another, these hazards were sometimes avoided, some good work was done, and many future MPs cut their political teeth.
Martin Kochanski and Corinne Camilleri-Ferrante, Stopping the Wreckers, Bow Group (1988).
The Group published two papers of mine, both co-authored with Corinne Camilleri-Ferrante. "Stopping the Wreckers" dealt with parliamentary procedure, an apparently arcane matter but important to us because we saw the effective abolition of private members' Bills (unless the government of the day chose to use its influence) as another step in the decay of democracy. Two things stand out from the writing of this paper. The first was our meeting with Enoch Powell. Simply to be in the same room with him was to feel oneself in the presence of a keen and alert mind that listened with incandescent precision to every word one said: there was no room for vagueness or sloppy thinking. The other memorable experience was my first radio interviews, which taught me the useful lesson that live interviews are easier than recorded ones and that they stop being terrifying the moment that the red light comes on to show that you are on the air.
Corinne Camilleri-Ferrante and Martin Kochanski, AIDS, Bow Group (1989).
Our second paper, on AIDS, was virtually the Conservative Party's first policy document on an epidemic of increasing and potentially catastrophic social importance. It is notable as much for what it did not recommend as for what it did. Politicians disturbed by an epidemic whose rate of spread could only be guessed at were desperately looking for simple answers that would cure the epidemic (if not the disease) and a calm analysis and refutation of their wilder ideas was badly needed. How much our paper discouraged the Government from taking up these initiatives is impossible to tell, but it must have done some good.
I was subsequently elected to the post of Research Secretary of the Bow Group, which meant that I was the general editor of its published papers from 1989 to 1990.
My abiding impression of the foothills of the Conservative Party at the time is of a world where people eyed their friends suspiciously and if they saw signs of possible talent then they knifed them before they became a danger. Perhaps things were always thus; but there is a particular danger when a party has had too much power for too long: its members cannot compete to attack the enemy so they attack each other instead. If future commentators identify a "missing generation" of politicians who were in their twenties during the Thatcher years, this will have been the cause.
The Bow Group continues to exist and to publish papers. It has a web site, which is an impressive advance for an organisation that once resolved to buy a fax machine only after its chairman had used her casting vote. Unless one is closely involved in Conservative politics it is hard to tell how much influence the Group has nowadays, but in any case I wish it well.
Ending the Serfdom of Socialism
This article appeared in the Autumn 1989 edition of the Bow Group's magazine "Crossbow", and it is interesting to re-read it now. It warned that the burst of freedom and enterprise that hit the country in the 1980s would be seen, in ten years, as merely a blip in the onward progress of socialism. This turned out to be optimistic: three years were enough. By now it has become hard to remember a time when the enlightened political class did not control every aspect of our lives for our own good.