The Bow Group is Britain and the world’s oldest conservative think tank, steeped in rich conservative history with notable individuals who have helped ideate policies and drive them through government.
The Bow Group was founded in February 1951, as an association of conservative graduates, set up by a number of students who wanted to carry on discussing policy and ideas after they had left university. They were concerned by the monopoly which socialist ideas had in intellectual university circles and wanted to present a challenge to these ideals. The group originally met at Bow, East London, from which it takes its name.
Geoffrey Howe, William Rees-Mogg and Norman St John Stevas were the founding members. From the start, the Group attracted top-flight graduates and quickly drew the attention of a number of government ministers, notably Harold Macmillan. In the intervening time, Norman Lamont and Peter Lilley have all held the Bow Group chairmanship.
Since its foundation the Bow Group has been a peerless source of policy ideas, and many of its papers have had a direct influence on government policy and the life of the nation.
Broadly, much of the Group’s thought can be categorised as supporting both a market economy and social responsibility. Along this line, it was the Bow Group which promoted the idea of a World Refugee Year in the late 1950s. In the 1960s the Group attracted significant controversy over its views on decolonisation. Though it was in tune with the Conservative Government of the day – and was believed to be influencing its line – the Group was castigated widely, especially for its outspoken view that Kenya should be granted independence.
In the 1970s, the Group was also closely associated with the development of post-Keynesian economics and policy, which would come to fruition in Britain and throughout Europe in the late 1980s.
The ability of the Bow Group to house different strands of the Tory tradition was demonstrated at its 25th anniversary dinner in 1976. This occasion brought together both Margaret Thatcher, the new party leader, and Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister.
In the period to 1979, the concept of freedom infused much of the Group’s work, although it was not directly associated with Mrs Thatcher, and indeed maintained an objective view of her government.
The 90 policy papers published by the Group in the 1990s covered topics including pensions, the charity sector, shareholder democracy, people with disabilities, housing, education, public transport and the reform of governmental institutions.
The 2005 election saw Bow Group representation in the Commons rise yet again, with the election of Justine Greening, John Penrose and Tobias Ellwood, all of whom had served on Bow Group council. Links with former members continued to be strong and the Group published a paper by Peter Lilley making “The Case against ID cards”.
Also published in 2005 was “Choice and freedom for all”, an important contribution to almost all areas of education policy, as well as papers on the Charities Bill, the increase in the economically inactive and UK health standards, the latter revealing the shocking fact that a lung cancer sufferer has a higher chance of surviving the disease in Poland than in the UK.
Shortly before the 2005 Conservative party conference the Bow Group published a book, “From the Ashes”, a collection of essays detailing the visions held for the future of the party by senior Conservative figures, including all who stood in the leadership contest. This accompanied some powerful structured polling evidence released by the Bow Group at conference which made it clear just how far the party would have to go in rebranding itself to become electable once again.
Early in 2006 the Group hit the headlines once again, this time due to “Keep it simple”, a paper which details the extent of maladministration in the UK tax system and gives some ideas for reform.
2010 saw the Bow Group publish an influential pamphlet on the future of UK rail transit, “The Right Track” authored by Tony Lodge. The paper set out a proposed route for the UK’s High Speed Rail Network (HS2) as an alternative to the then Labour Government’s route. The paper was later to be the source of controversy in 2011 when, though the Conservative-led Coalition Government did not implement the proposals set out in the paper, in October 2011 the Shadow Transport Minister adopted the “Bow Group Route” as Labour Party Policy.
In 2011 research secretary Richard Mabey produced a paper with Bernard Jenkin MP on the Alternative Vote system “Death of the Conviction Voter – Fairness and Tactics under AV”, which was often cited during the 2011 AV referendum debate and was seen as being an influential contribution to the thinking of the “NOtoAV” campaign.
Also in 2011 Bow Group chairman Ben Harris-Quinney co-authored a paper with Dr Charles Tannock MEP on “The Eurozone & Germany – understanding the German Mind”. The paper argued for greater engagement and dialogue between the UK and the German populous, and the necessity for policy makers in the UK to better understand the economic and foreign policy motivations of Germany as the nation at the centre of the eurozone. The paper was seen to advocate EU realism as an antidote to the increasingly controversial debate on EU membership within the UK Conservative Party.
The Bow Group remains at the forefront of new thinking within the conservative movement.
In recent years the Bow Group has continued to publish research and articles that reach hundreds of millions of people a year, and to host events and conferences, shaping the conservative discourse in Britain and internationally.
In July 2012, the Bow Group, reflecting on 60 years of its history in British politics, appointed former British Prime Minister John Major as its President and Lords Howe and Lamont as its Senior Patrons to serve on the advisory board of the organisation. Their appointment was announced officially by the group’s Chairman Ben Harris-Quinney at the Bow Group’s 60th anniversary reception, in celebration of the landmark.
In 2014 the conservative academics Dr David Starkey and Sir Roger Scruton joined the Board of Patrons of the Bow Group, with Professor Scruton addressing the Group on the difference between modern Conservatism and ideological conservatism.
The Bow Group has always been an independent conservative think tank, but for much of its history it has been associated with the UK Conservative Party. In 2013 the Bow Group acknowledged that the Conservative Party leadership had ceased to represent conservative values, and as such would support conservative voices within and without the Conservative Party, including those in opposition parties. Alongside this the Bow Group launched “Conservative Grassroots” as a network to showcase the true values of rank and file conservatives nationwide. In 2014 the Bow Group announced it would no longer be taking part in the annual Conservative Party Conference, in protest of the lack of accountability and democracy offered to members, and the evident corruption in the Party’s leadership. The same period marked the sharp rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who in 2014 won the UK’s European Parliament Elections for the first time.
In 2015 Norman Tebbit, former Conservative Party Chairman and long term confidant of Margaret Thatcher was appointed as the Bow Group’s President, replacing Sir John Major. Addressing the organisation at a lecture prior to his appointment he criticised the centrism and lack of ideological clarity in the modern Conservative Party. He was joined by the appointment of The Rt Hon Sir John Redwood and Sir Bill Cash as Senior Patrons.
In May 2015, with polls pointing to a hung Parliament in the run up to the 2015 general election, the Bow Group Chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney, called on voters in marginal constituencies to support the values of conservatism by voting UK Independence Party (UKIP) where the Conservatives could not win, and the Conservatives where UKIP could not win. Generally the Chairman called for a uniting of conservative political parties in Britain in the aim of delivering a Brexit referendum to the public.
Geoffrey Howe, founder and Senior Patron of the Bow Group, died on the 9th of October 2015. The Bow Group described him as a “quiet revolutionary” at the heart of the Thatcherite Government and movement.
In 2016 long standing member Michael Heseltine was sacked from the organisation on the basis that he did not support conservative ideals, he was criticised by Bow Group President Lord Norman Tebbit for being a “backstabber” and betraying Britain in favour of the European Union. In 2019 Heseltine had the Conservative whip withdrawn in the House of Lords.
The Bow Group was a strong supporter of the Brexit campaign and worked with both major pro-Brexit campaigns to support Britain’s exit from the EU. The Group continued to campaign for the Brexit the British public voted for, and opposed the Government’s proposal to dilute the reclamation of British sovereignty from the EU.
The organisation has also been strongly supportive of US President Donald Trump, describing him as the most significant conservative President since Ronald Reagan. This was echoed in 2016 when the Bow Group hosted President Reagan‘s former Chief of Staff, and helped to arrange a series of events and for a London pub to be renamed “The Trump Arms” for the duration of President Trump’s state visit to the United Kingdom.
In advance of President Trump’s 2016 inauguration Bow Group Fellow Raheem Kassam worked with the Bow Group Chairman and Trump Director of Strategy Steven K Bannon to arrange a meeting to request for President elect Trump to return the bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the Oval Office of the White House. President Trump’s first diplomatic act as President was to return the Churchill bust to a place of prominence in the Oval Office.
In celebration of the Bow Group’s 65th anniversary members were addressed by former Australian Prime Minister The Rt Hon Tony Abbott, who used his speech to state that he had been wrong about Brexit, commended the Bow Group on its stance, and looked forward to promoting Britain’s place in the world going forward. In 2020 Abbott was made a special envoy for trade by the UK Government.
In 2018 the Bow Group was addressed by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in Parliament , Bow Group Chairman Ben Harris-Quinney stated that it was “time all conservatives accepted the great contribution Nigel Farage has made to our cause.”
In January 2020 the Bow Group’s Senior Patron Sir Roger Scruton passed away. He was described by the organisation as an irreplaceable loss to the conservative movement who operated with “iridiscent grace and bravery” throughout his life in advancing conservative ideas.
On 31 January 2020, to celebrate the finalising of the Brexit process, the Bow Group hosted a party overlooking Parliament. It credited the Maastricht Rebels as the driving force behind the 30 year process to leave the EU. Bow Group Senior Patrons Sir John Redwood and Sir Bill Cash addressed the crowd stating “The Bow Group published the first anti Maastricht pamphlet called ‘Against a Federal Europe’ & the Bow Group has always been at the heart of British & conservative patriotism.”
The Bow Group was the first think tank in Britain to call for an emergency government response to Coronavirus, calling for border closure and a range of restrictive measures in January 2020 to prevent the virus from taking hold in Britain. The Group criticised the Government for having allowed UK border security to degrade to the point the border could not effectively be closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
In February 2021 the Bow Group reached its 70th anniversary making it the oldest conservative think tank in the world. Unable to mark the occasion formally due to the Coronavirus pandemic the Group relaunched its online presence and announced a new series of awards for advancing the conservative cause. Annually the Howe award would be granted for outstanding achievement of a young conservative & the William Rees-Mogg Award would be given for outstanding achievement in conservative writing. Every five years the Churchill Bust Award would be given for outstanding contribution to the special relationship, and the Scruton Award would be given for outstanding achievement in advancing conservative thought.
The Group also announced a number of partnerships with conservative organisations worldwide. Marking the beginning of the anniversary year the Bow Group Chairman said:
“Politics will lead you down many paths, but a conservative and a patriot will never be far from the Bow Group. Against the tide of globalism, liberalism, and Marxism the Bow Group stands resolute.