All hat and no cattle

The Bow Group

James Barr <em>Politico's, 350pp, £25</em>

ISBN 1842750011

The Bow Group has been a good forum for debate, a place where talent can find its voice and be given its head. Geoffrey Howe, an early father of the group, described its mission as being "to make the Tory party fit for Observer and Guardian readers to live in". James Barr, the group's first hagiographer, concludes this labour of love by reminding us that his current boss, Francis Maude, sought a Bow Group platform to make a speech telling the world that the Conservative Party "is a tolerant and inclusive party for all the people". In this way, the book comes full circle, reminding us of some continuities in political life.

Howe was the senior cabinet member who resigned to make the case for the UK joining the economic and monetary union in Europe. Maude was the minister of state who signed the Maastricht Treaty, establishing that very same EMU. The book brings out many other continuities across the 50 turbulent years of Conservative politics. Barr suggests that intelligent young Tories joined the Bow Group because they saw it as a good avenue of advancement. In this connection, he relishes their success, and provides a helpful appendix setting out all of the group's office-holders who entered parliament and all who went on to carry ministerial red boxes (11 made it to the cabinet, and one minister of state is promoted to cabinet rank by the author).

The book chronicles with unflagging enthusiasm the state of the group over half a century. Barr uses sources mainly from the archives of the group itself and of Central Office, supplemented by interviews with some of the leading protagonists who went on to fame, if not always to political fortune.

The Bow Group began as a mezzanine for those trying the conventional ascent on the Everest of high political office. It was designed for those who had made their mark in the Oxford or Cambridge unions, but who, as young professionals, were not yet ready to fight a parliamentary seat. And it was modelled on the old university unions, with a librarian, secretary and treasurer. Later, in 1964, modernisation came to the Bow Group, and a political officer and research secretary took the place of librarian - which made sense, because the group had no library. Members enjoyed each other's political company and the opportunity to fraternise with the great and not-so-good of Conservative high command.

The Conservative Party in 1951, when the Bow Groupers began their life in the East End of London, was seen by unkind critics as the stupid party. Many Conservatives eschewed intellectuals in politics. Conservatives believe in going with the grain of human nature. We believe in Original Sin, and do not believe that man can be led to the perfect life by political direction. As the Bush administration has memorably reminded us, intellectuals are all hat and no cattle. The Bow Group decided that they could make being intellectual, or at least well educated, respectable within this robust and often rustic tradition. They were Conservatives who could live life amid the metropolitan elite as well as on the windy doorsteps of a nation burdened by too much government.

There are some poignant stories here of individual Bow Groupers wrestling with their consciences and their colleagues. There is the workaholic Geoffrey Howe, pictured editing Crossbow (the group's magazine) and recorded as a stern and effective chairman; there is the worried Peter Lilley, afraid that the "pinko" reputation of the group was making it difficult for him to win a parliamentary seat, and trying to move the group more decisively in a free market direction. There are several officers, at different stages of the group's history, having to seek a bailout from Central Office - making a profit was not one of the group's strengths.

So what are we to make of it all? It has been a good group to some of its prominent members. It has intervened in the intellectual firmament of 20th-century politics. It has, from time to time, stoked controversy, preferring topics such as immigration and inclusiveness to the big subjects that have divided the party over the years. I welcome contributions to the debate within the party. The present trend of spin-doctor control - the effort to snuff out proper debate within parties - is bad news for our democracy. May dining clubs, discussion groups and policy meetings flourish. Let pamphleteers thrive. We need a lively and open market in political ideas. The Bow Group may not have converted all Guardian readers to the Conservative Party, but it has helped make some noise and, from time to time, put some interesting Conservative ideas into contention.

John Redwood is Conservative MP for Wokingham, Berkshire