Guy Burgess applied for a post in it. Lord Longford, a future Labour Cabinet Minister, was one of its founder members. Its first Director, Sir Joseph Ball, was one of the most successful and least scrupulous officers that MI5 has ever had. A murder or two in the course of a spying operation was all in a day’s work.
They might not seem very likely pioneers of the Conservative Research Department, Britain’s first think-tank of the right. Nevertheless, eighty years ago today Ball, Longford (a staunch Tory until he was struck on the head in 1936) and three colleagues brought the Department into existence. Until 1979 it functioned as an autonomous section of the Party’s organisation under its own Chairman outside Central Office: since then it has been a department of the central headquarters. It is a relief to find that Guy Burgess was never admitted, though he flitted dangerously in its shadows.
The Department had a clear purpose. Its first Chairman, Neville Chamberlain, saw to that. During the 1930s Ball’s unorthodox little team worked out a set of proposals designed to enable Chamberlain to kill socialism in Britain for ever by showing that the Conservative Party could relieve poverty and distress more effectively. A draft manifesto prepared for an election in 1939 or 1940 (before war pushed it off the agenda) heralded better pensions, family allowances, technical schools and comprehensive health insurance.
After the war CRD, as it is widely known, entered its glory days. It expanded greatly, recruiting a staff of fifty including many brilliant secretaries to cope with a huge amount of typing. In addition to policy work, it started to turn out vast quantities of briefing material for Parliamentary debates and election contests. Its Campaign Guides, produced for every election since 1950, are regarded as ‘blue bibles’ by the Party’s candidates. Involvement in its policy work and massive briefing operations has provided useful training for many of the Party’s rising stars, starting with Reggie Maudling, Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod in the late 1940s.
As the current Chairman of CRD, Oliver Letwin, has put it, ‘the Department has been one of the ports of call in the careers of so many of the most serious politicians’ — himself included, in the early 1980s. A few years later, another rapidly rising star arrived: David Cameron. People tell me that I said then: ‘that boy will be in the cabinet in twenty years’ time’. I should have made an even bolder prediction.
The current Director, James O’Shaughnessy, has described how the eighty year-old is going about its work now, unimpeded by the effects of age.’ It is today playing a central part in David Cameron’s preparations for the next election. The Department endures not only because it fulfils a function that is always required by a modern political Party, but because it fulfils that function better than any other body could do’.
How has it celebrated its birthday? In the only possible way, of course: by having a huge party last night for its past and present members. David Cameron attends many functions where he is greeted with warmth and affection — but never more so than last night when CRD hailed its most distinguished graduate maxima cum laude.
Read more about what CRD has done, and the colourful people who have worked in it over the years, by ordering a copy of a new book about it which I launched at the party (follow the link for details). Tory Policy-Making: The Conservative Research Department 1929-2009 can be obtained by sending a cheque for £12.50 (free postage and packing) made out to the Conservative Research Department to Lucy Absolom, CCHQ, 30 Millbank, London SW1P 4DP.
Alistair Cooke, now the Party’s official historian, was Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1985 to 1997.