This is what happened to the Bow Group - but what has happened to the Conservative Party?

Sidelining sniping against the Bow Group is indicative of a moribund Conservative Party with an urgent need for a coherent philosophy

by Benjamin Harris-Quinney on 25 May 2013 11:38

Yesterday, Iain Dale wrote an article for ConservativeHome entitled “What on earth is happening to the Bow Group?” which can only be described as an unfounded attack against the organisation and those involved, solely as a result of my personal questioning of the handling of the Same Sex Marriage Bill.

His article, which most will recognise for what it is, has a vulgar, aggressive tone provoking alarm and distress, which is not what we have come to expect from ConHome contributors.

Yet as it happens, this poverty of debate presents a convenient opportunity to explain what has happened in the Bow Group, and what is happening in conservatism.

When I first came onto the Council of the Bow Group as a most junior member, it was seen as a major coup to even get an article up on Conservative Home. There was a Twitter following of 140 people, no updates to the website, no coverage in the newspapers, no engagement from Parliament.  As a result, the Conservative Party wasn’t interested in listening to what had, in the eyes of many, become a moribund, flag-waving organisation for obsequious aspiring politicians.

The staffer of a very senior member of the Conservative Party told the Bow Group at the time that they didn’t want to speak at a Bow Group event, as it didn’t offer “enough bang for their buck”.

Thought and debate about dull policy had become old hat. The new Conservative tone was image, sound bites, public relations and personality. If during one’s tenure in the Bow Group enough of those boxes were ticked, one had the golden opportunity to move on to the candidates list for a lifetime of irrelevance.

When I took over the Chairmanship of the organisation, it became clear that things were even worse than that.

I did not find a note from Liam Byrne, but I did find an organisation close to insolvency as well as complete irrelevance. I even wrote an article on Conservative Home to make clear what we were in danger of losing as conservatives – if we can no longer think and debate in a critical way in the forum offered by the Bow Group.

Clearly, things had to change, and thanks to the diligent work of those involved, they changed quickly. I cannot count the amount of stories in the Times, the Independent, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the BBC, Sky, the Guardian, and the significant impact the Bow Group has had on Government Policy via our recent papers on Intelligence Design, the Badger Cull, BME engagement, Risk Management, War Medals, VC Graves, Human Trafficking and the Privatisation of Royal Mail. It led to Tim Montgomerie, formerly of ConHome, stating at our Midnight Reception at last year’s Conservative Party Conference “The Bow Group has been single-handedly brought back to life in a year”.

And yet somehow the fact that the Bow Group has dared to do its job, of holding the Conservative Party to the account with regards conservatism, and investigating policy with unwavering rigour, is seen as disloyalty in a time where genuine debate and freedom of conscience is a pseudo criminal act, within and without the Party. This should terrify any genuine conservative, whatever their brand of conservatism.

Last week proved that those either accepted or imposed members of the so called “metropolitan elite” were so dangerously out of touch with their own party and with conservatism, it was necessary for a Conservative Prime Minister to go on bended knee to the Labour Party to pass legislation, without mandate and against the will of his own party, whilst simultaneously emailing members asking for forgiveness as UKIP crept two points from the Conservatives in the polls.

If our members didn’t question that publically and call for urgent debate, then the Bow Group and conservatism would truly be dead in Britain.

Thankfully, the opposite is true. The Bow Group and the conservative debate has been resurrected, albeit in fury and frustration – to the point where we currently cannot cope with the number of membership requests we are receiving as a result (apologies).

Conservative Party members and leaders spent last month proclaiming that we are “All Thatcherites now”. I spoke with Baroness Thatcher about the modern Conservative Party, and what she said is perhaps best left for another time. But the foundations of Thatcherism from within the august history of the Bow Group provide an instructive example of where to go from here.

Peter Lilley was involved in the Bow Group in the early 1970s. He wrote the following account in our last edition of Crossbow magazine:

 “There was a feeling that, under the Premiership of Ted Heath, the party had ceased to have any distinctive ideas. Heath argued that we must be purely pragmatic in approach, in party and in government, without a coherent philosophy.

It therefore wasn’t that we were losing the battle of ideas, we had simply left the field and the vacuum was swiftly filled by our opponents on the left.

The result of such concession to the ideological battlefield was that in the early 1970’s when Wolf, the then Secretary General of the Conservative Party, came to speak to the Bow Group. He told us that socialism was inevitable; our task was to manage its growth and our resultant national decline. It was the very defeatism which had come to be the mark of the British establishment, and that Thatcher later railed against upon coming to power.

The bubbling dissent among conservative thinkers at the time was therefore both symptom and cure of the failed doctrine ruling the party. The likes of Keith Joseph were beginning to rise to prominence, and their work and our work in the Bow Group with the 1973 ‘Alternative Manifesto’ contributed to a change in direction.”

I am sure that Ted Heath and his circle found Peter Lilley a great irritant, they certainly attacked him personally, and whilst Peter may have been dissuadable (though he wasn’t) his ideas held, and remain today a shining example of the value of critical debate.  

I am likely to be pursuing pastures new very soon, but if the Bow Group can continue what it is doing now, in having a public role in critical debate for the first time in a long time, and ignoring the bitter sniping from the sidelines as seen on ConHome yesterday, then the golden age of conservatism and the Bow Group will soon dawn again, as it did in 1970.

Ben Harris-Quinney is the Chairman of the Bow Group

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