Is the party over for Maggie's kids?

Their conference has been cancelled and their membership is dwindling. Jim White on the demise of the Young Conservatives

Sam Small will have to find something else to do on the first weekend in February. In the past, as an active member of the party, Mr Small might have taken himself off to the Young Conservatives' annual conference, there to have a chin wag and to socialise and, if things headed in that direction, a gin fizz or two as well. But this year the conference has been cancelled, due to unforeseen circumstances. First, just before Christmas, the organisation's chairman, Paul Clarke, stood down, citing "pressure of work"; then its financial umbilical cord was forcibly removed by Conservative Central Office. "We have listened carefully to the Young Conservatives' proposals as part of an overall conference plan," says a spokesman for Brian Mawhinney. "But we will not be funding the event this year."

Thus we will not be seeing Mr Small next month. Though many may feel we saw quite enough of him in 1994. At the Young Conservative Ball at the party conference in Bournemouth that year - held soon after John Major made a speech railing against yob culture - Mr Small, who hails from Gateshead, turned up in a kilt. At one stage he lifted it to reveal he was a Scot at heart, or at least elsewhere. Just missing his flash, the assembled press photographers, there to grab the annual snaps of YCs making prats of themselves, asked him to repeat it. He duly did, several times, and added a few quotes as well.

"I'm a civil engineer," he said. "I'm the chap who builds motorways through places like Twyford Down, and when people complain I say: `Fuck off'. I say: `See that tree? See this saw? Zzzzz. It's gone'."

Like many a parent with unruly offspring, the Conservative Party has long been embarrassed by its youth wing. At this year's party conference in Blackpool, the embarrassment came in the shape of Justin Hinchliffe, a 14-year-old with an ambition to be prime minister, a grab-bag of opinions that made Newt Gingrich look a pinko and a cascade of adolescence oozing from his hair. Justin spent all week telling whomever would listen that he wanted to become the youngest ever speaker at the conference and would address the party during the education debate, but he was outmanoeuvred by the party spin-doctors.

And if Justin Hinchcliffe was regarded as a banana skin in waiting, what about the YCs' conference? Every year it happens: the Maastricht treaty is torn up on the platform to thunderous applause, or the Anne Summers stripper troupe is hired to entertain the delegates, or someone calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, just for Edward Heath. With YC membership in freefall and those few who remain espousing increasingly Hinchcliffe-esque policies, divorce seemed inevitable.

It was not always thus. In the Fifties, the Young Conservatives was the biggest political youth movement in the free world - membership in 1953 touched 100,000; it was a social club that epitomised suburban decorousness and the pride of the Tory party.

"My memories of the YCs," says Julian Critchley, who ran the Hampstead branch back then, "are about playing tennis with Pam, Pat, Paula and Sue. It was the place nice middle-class girls were allowed to have a social life without alarming their parents. Most Tory MPs over 50 spent their formative years in the YCs."

John Major met his first love, Jean Kiernans, on the doorstep when he was out canvassing for the YCs. They courted at country dances in church halls, and afterwards over fish and chips suppers.

"John taught me always to put the vinegar on first," remembers Mrs Kiernans. "Otherwise you washed the salt away."

This Betjamenesque world of Saturday night hops where the stimulant of choice was Merrydown cider and morals was, Mr Critchley reckons, destroyed by the sexual revolution. The YCs were, in short, an organisation that thrived on unconsummated foreplay.

The decline in membership from that 1953 peak was precipitous, tumbling to under 10,000 now. A decline that coincided with the fall-off of interest in such groups as the Cubs, the Guides, the Young Farmers; a decline that reflected the huge explosion in social opportunities for young people. And without its central social purpose, the only thing the organisation could do was become political.

"Young people are interested in ideals," says Andrew Roberts, the historian and adviser to John Redwood. "They need a sense of belonging. They need charisma and radicalism. Idealism is cool."

Hard to believe now, but in the early Seventies the cool radicalism was Europe. YCs rallied around the 12-starred flag: John Gummer, Kenneth Clarke, Gillian Shephard, the Cambridge mafia, a whole generation of young student politicians forged their beliefs in the crucible of the Young Conservatives. And in the mid-Eighties, when Mr Roberts was chairman of a Cambridge University Conservative Association that boasted 1,400 student members, there was another cause.

"Thatcher," says Mr Roberts. "There was a real messianic sense then. And it helped to fulfil that desire to be different from one's parents' generation, to be radical."

It was an ideology that, by a nice coincidence, gave legitimacy to believers' personal ambition: there was no longer any need to apologise about wanting to be rich. And thus, in that last flowering, the seeds of Young Conservative destruction were sown. Recently, I heard a former student revolutionary now lecturing in politics at Warwick University bemoaning the lack of political fire in the bellies of his students. All they were interested in, he claimed, was watching soap operas. And, worse, getting their essays in on time, so as to gain a good degree in the hope of landing a well- paid job. As for social life, he said, they spent their time in the pub running through the plots of soap operas and swapping job interview hints. No one, he said wistfully, kidnapped the dean anymore.

How marvellous for Margaret Thatcher to have persuaded, at a stroke, the unwashed to get in the shower. The trouble is, her revolution removed the spine from her own youth wing at the same time. Why waste time playing politics which could be better spent lining your pockets? Moreover, those cosy notions of neighbourhood that could sustain an organisation like the YCs were ridiculed in the pursuit of individualism.

Andrew Roberts's generation of Tory student politicians were the last to capture any sort of populist fervour. "It is uncool among my students to be overly interested in politics," he says. "And party politics is out, out, out. It is a nerd's thing. There is nothing uncool about working for Greenpeace, or sitting up a tree in Newbury, but to go out canvassing for an established political party? It is just not hip."

Obviously, he was not at the Labour Party conference in Brighton last year. Or at least at the very select party in the Grand Hotel, thrown by Labour Re-Newal Magazine. It was stuffed with twentysomethings in management consultancy and advertising, clever students. The PR director of North-West Water was there. When Tony Blair arrived to schmooze them, the magazine's editor said he hoped soon to publish monthly, if only he could find the money.

"Looking round this room," said Mr Blair, replying. "I can't believe you're short of money."

The party-goers, intoxicated by the whiff of power in their nostrils, laughed knowingly.

"Oh, there's no doubt," says Andrew Roberts, "that when, and I no longer use the word if, when we are in opposition, I think there will be a resurgence in the youth wing. Blair provides something for the Labour youth. Right now in the Tories what is there?"

Meanwhile, Jason Hollands, the YC's new chairman, is putting a brave face on disaster.

"We have put the conference on the back burner," he says, then adds that there will be some sort of rally, financed by members, in April. Shouldn't be too hard to get a ticket, then.

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