I’ve heard the MP Steve Baker referred to a couple of times recently as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Research Group, a misnomer for what’s actually called the Covid Recovery Group.1 It’s an understandable mistake, given the proliferation of ‘research groups’ affiliated with the Conservative party in the past few years.
These research groups are, on the whole, just pressure groups of disgruntled backbenchers angry that the party isn’t right-wing enough for them any more. The exemplar is the European Research Group — another coterie of which Baker was Chairman, following in the footsteps of everyone’s favourite Victorian, Jacob Rees-Mogg.2
One of the more bewildering characteristics of these research groups is that they don’t actually seem to do much research. And therein lies the issue: a research group has an air of credibility about it; there’s a sense that what the members are saying is based on evidence, the opinions of experts and some degree of impartiality.3
This is broadly what’s known as a glittering generality — something that’s vaguely associated with an appealing concept, without having anything concrete to support it. Orwell discusses the idea in Politics and the English Language: “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
Media organisations are helping propagate these falsehoods by referring to people using these often self-appointed titles. I could call myself the Chairman of the Delicious Ice Cream Research Group, but I’m not sure they’d use that title if I were interviewed by the BBC. Baker and his ilk are MPs, and that’s the title that should be used to refer to them.
There are multiple groups with similar names, like the Royal College of Surgeons’ Covid Research Group and the University of Manchester’s Covid-19 research rapid response group, actually doing genuine, valuable research. ↩︎
It’s remarkable that Baker has any time for his day job given the number of these groups he’s affiliated with. He’s co-founder of the Cobden Centre, an economics think tank, co-chair of Conservatives for Britain, and a member of the Cornerstone Group (whose motto, ‘Faith, Flag, and Family’, sends a shiver down the spine). ↩︎
There’s a wonderful irony here in Michael Gove, a member of the ERG, famously asserting that ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.’ ↩︎