This year, I attended conference for the first time ever, and I must say, the excitement was palpable. Tory after Tory milled about, betwixt stalls - whose operators were not peddling their wares - but instead actively forcing their bits and bobs upon you, entirely gratis (as long as you also took their literature on how HS2 was going to save the world, or similar). The big Brexit banners hung impressively above it all, and most in attendance would agree enthusiastically that they supported the new leader’s direction to just “Get Brexit Done”. Much of what went on was excellent, and I do wish to emphasise that - but unfortunately, there was one stand which failed to impress: the Young Conservatives.
First, what was done well.
Although I was not at last year’s conference, it was not difficult to discern that the 2019 was a relative success. Whereas before, Theresea May inspired little confidence - even being overshadowed by a backbencher - we now have that very same small time backbencher up on the big stage, pouring out more and more of his classic verbal nonsense. Even the number of people at the conference went up, despite parliament's adamant denial to go into the standard recess. The results are undeniable: Boris has the confidence of the party.
The positivity was felt strongly in the fringe events too. Intellectual debate about what it means to be a Tory, and further, what it should mean, were not shied away from, with particularly clear cut differences being explored at a Centre for Policy Studies event. Some events wanted better transport in the North; some wanted better transport in the Midlands; some wanted to smack a massive train line down the entirety of the country. The Conservative Friends of Israel then managed to demonstrate a typical sentiment in the party when they unceasingly bashed Jeremy Corbyn. This was only slightly lost on me, due to the fact that I could have sworn the main speaker introduced himself as Mr Tickles, so I was naturally wondering if I might need to have my hearing checked.
The most impressive aspect of the entire conference was the unwillingness to cede crucial political ground. There is a tendency to define Conservatives in opposition to Labour, and vise versa; or perhaps the Right in opposition to the Left (not that British politics even properly fits into a Left/Right divide). Thankfully, this was not the case at conference. Instead, laudable politics broke through, with people speaking about what they felt principally compelled by. It was perfectly summed up by the attitude to environmental issues - it would have been a significant challenge to find a single person who did not realise the gravity of the issue. I dare say that the only true difference that could be detected between them and the environmental protestors we see so often, is that those in conference were actually proposing policy suggestions to enact the requisite radical reform.
But now I must turn to the one great exception to the veritable smorgasboard of magnificent Toryism, our very own youth wing: the Young Conservatives.
The YC was founded very recently, and with only one aim in mind: to aid campaigning. Their website is a dreary display of how little their purpose, how little their aspiration. It doesn’t even dare dream to have one than one page - just a single image settled above a couple lines of text suffice to summarise all conservatives under 25 years of age.
This was well reflected at their stand. For the most part, it served as a seating area for passer bys. Every so often, a speaker would come, and swiftly realise that they could have garnered a more attent audience if they had attempted to engage the local protestors - at least they put on the facade of caring about the political debate.
There was only one time when the YC was ever packed, as far as I saw. A group called Blue Beyond (a small think tank) was allowed to take the stage once a day, and hold little debates. An unusual Japanese debating style was attempted for some unfathomable reason, which forced speakers to not use notes, and gave them very little time to speak. The gathered masses (~30 people) were allowed to vote on who had the best proposal, and then that proposal would supposedly be put forward to central party. Suffice to say, some of the speeches were not of the highest calibre I have ever seen: nevertheless, an attempt was made to actually discuss policy, and this is a crucial step in the right direction.
The explanation for why the only actual debate was left to an unaffiliated think tank is actually relatively simple, and throws the entire issue into sharp relief: the YC is directly managed by central party staff. Hence, they are not allowed to encourage criticism of central party.
What counts as encouraging criticism? Well, arranging any sort of intellectual discussion. And before I’m accused of becoming a conspiracy theorist, this is not an original thought - this is what I was told when I pressed a member of central party at the YC stand on whether or not there could be centrally organised debate.
Frankly, the YC has been utilised as a shameless device by which central party can castrate the concerns of the youth in the party, then slap their faces on campaigning materials, just to prove that not all Tories are over 40. This risks the very engine of the party, as they systematically disencourage any new ideas in the up and coming members of their party. All this is replaced with meaningless social events, distracting us with free alcohol (very literally at conference, where I saw members in the YC event swigging directly from wine bottles).
Alcohol is nice. Campaigning is good. But a radical rethink of the policy surrounded the YC is needed, no doubt. The University Conservative Associations can do some good to this end, preserving valuable policy discussion, and making sure that conservatism can undergo the necessary revival to continue century after century. We can cooperate to maintain our deeply held beliefs in the years to come. But please, I beg you CCHQ - don’t force us to be the last bastion of true young conservatism.
Ben Hack (Publications Editor, Ex-Committee Member, Balliol College) is an undergraduate in his first year of reading Computer Science and Philosophy.