New Model Tories: The Cameroons are coming
Young Conservatives used to be their own punchline: they were cord-wearing fogeys who would disgrace themselves with wild parties and politically incorrect opinions. But, as Hermione Eyre discovers, this group - who outnumber their Labour and Liberal equivalents combined - could be about to have the last laugh.
Sunday 24 September 2006
The Conservative Party Conference begins next weekend. Bournemouth's hotels are fully booked, the conference-hall carpets have been vacuumed, the ranks of easy-stack chairs laid out. But who will occupy those chairs? The Tories, we are constantly told, are coming - though so far we know little about the new generation of "Cameroons", apart from the fact that there are lots of them: with 15,000 people signed up, the Conservative Future youth group has more members than its Labour and Liberal equivalents combined.
I went in search of young Tories, then, not sure what to expect. Teenage fogeys in blazers? Chinless environmentalists? Young zealots of any political orientation can be a scary breed - but Conservatives more than all the others, because of the popular wisdom that while an old Liberal has no head (apologies to Menzies Campbell) a young Tory has no heart.
But the Tories I found were surprisingly normal. None of them have that overgrown foetus look, or wear spats; none of them want to dismantle the welfare state or bring back Section 28. They are like most people under 30, but Conservative. Whether you love them or loathe them, you have to concede that it is a good thing that they exist: without new generations like these coming through, politics is barren.
They mostly exhibit the sort of tough-mindedness you would expect from young Tories. They say things like, "Comprehensive schools are great in theory but terrible in practice." But they show glimmers of idealism, too. They all spout Cameron's lines about compassionate Conservatism, trusting the people, environmentalism, liberty, fraternity... In short, they have the starry-eyed look of people who have been in opposition a long time.
I asked each of these interviewees about their backgrounds and core beliefs, because, as the parties realign themselves, their voters are necessarily changing. I wanted to know if Conservatives are born, or made; to find out if they were drawn together in a tribal, partisan way, or motivated more by pure ideology. I didn't want to judge them, just to meet them.
The Activist Munish Chopra, 24
Born in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, Chopra was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School and the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. A healthcare PR and policy advisor by profession, he is a practicing Hindu, a Nightline volunteer and Chair of the Westminster Conservative Future Association.
I liked David Cameron as soon as I saw him at the last party Conference, because he was giving out smoothies to the journalists. I thought, that's my kind of drink, a holy drink.
I was really a Cameroon before the term was coined. I was always into his sort of things: youth work, local volunteer initiatives, the environment. I'm very green, partly because of my religious convictions about respecting animals and plants, but then I've always been blue too. So that makes me... turquoise?
I don't know when or why I became Conservative. There was no Damascene moment of conversion. It's like supporting a football team - you just do. I like the emphasis on private charity, the way they encourage people to get on with small businesses. My parents were refugees from Pakistan; my mother, a GP, didn't really vote and my father, a manager, had vaguely socialist tendencies.
I wasn't really into the rugby and the middle-class conventional stuff at school. Instead in my spare time I chaired the Meriden and Solihull Conservative Future branch. There were only four people at the first meeting. But by the end we had some good events and even got Michael Portillo to visit . The Conservative Party has given me so many opportunities and responsibilities. I wish the Hindu Arya Samaj temples were the same. They're very patronising to young people by comparison.
I went to SOAS to study Asian politics and Hindu. I think it's really important to have a strong sense of your heritage, to explore who you are. You have to know where you've come from in order to know where you're going. Through reading Ghandi I had a spiritual conversion and went to spend three months in India at a Gurukul - a traditional school where you live plainly and have religious and philosophical instruction. Since then I've been vegetarian and teetotal - more or less. I still go out clubbing, though - maybe to Bollywood or Arabic nights.
I'm really looking forward to conference. This year the young peoples' debates are in the evening, which is good. Last year they were in the morning and people had trouble getting up for them. Last year I saw all the leadership candidates. Liam Fox was too right-wing for me. He said every school should have a Union Jack on its roof. I thought, I don't need a flag on the roof to show I'm British and proud - that is in my heart.
The Inheritor Annunziata Rees-Mogg, 27
Rees-Mogg is a financial journalist and stood as parliamentary candidate for Port Talbot, North Wales in 2005. She came fourth, but increased the vote by 30 per cent. She comes from a Tory family - dynasty, even. Her father, former 'Times' editor and life peer William Rees-Mogg, met her mother at a Young Conservatives event; he has stood (unsuccessfully) as a Conservative candidate; her brother Jacob ditto. She is on Cameron's A-list of future candidates.
I joined the party aged five. Seriously, I did. I was too young to be a Young Conservative so I joined the main party. Aged eight I was out canvassing, proudly wearing my rosette. I loved my membership card. It was one up on a Blue Peter badge as far as I was concerned.
I started to become interested in politics on a deeper level when I left school [Godolphin and Latymer, a London independent girls' day school] and suddenly, quite arbitrarily, Labour introduced tuition fees.
I didn't go to university myself. I knew I'd have great fun, spend my parents' money and do very little work. I was also bored with studying. I found pure maths pointless when I did it at A-level, and economics I thought was limited, too. You can never predict or account for the human factor. How people feel and behave is so unpredictable and so important. That's what I'm more interested in.
I started off working during the dot-com boom, flipping IPOs. You know: initial public offerings. Then I woke up one morning and it was over: the bubble had burst. So I thought I'd better get a proper job. I worked as a journalist on Sunday Business and became deputy editor of Money Week. I also edited the Eurosceptic Magazine for three years. The EU constitution is a horrific document, very vague and potentially poisonous. If it was your job contract you just wouldn't sign it, and I don't see why a country should. So I set up "Trust the People", a campaign for a referendum on Europe.
Trusting people is something Tories are good at. By contrast, the current government seems intent on controlling our behaviour, whether through speed cameras or stealth tax or through eroding our civil liberties. The freedom of the individual is paramount. Without freedom, we have no responsibility. David Cameron is setting out beliefs like this at the moment. The policies will come later.
The mood in the party is palpably different now Cameron is in charge. Everyone is much more upbeat. I hope we don't take our optimism to the ridiculous extreme of New Labour's Cool Britannia. I mean I was only 18 at the time but, my God, was that naff. Governments are there to govern, not to invite pop stars round.
Apparently I didn't get on to the A-list of candidates the first time round because I was "too posh". I don't know where that came from. I mean, I've been very lucky but... I wouldn't discriminate against somebody if they came from a bad background, so why should I be discriminated against for coming from a good one? I believe in meritocracy, so background shouldn't come into it.
I think it was a terrible mistake to invade Iraq. But we made the mess and we have to help clear it up. My boyfriend is about to go out there, actually, as a TA volunteer. Of course I don't want him to, but he thinks it's the honourable thing to do.
I think I might like to fight another rural seat at the next election. Our countryside is some of the best farmland in the world and agriculture should be supported. I'm rather worried about the blight on the horse chestnut, by the way. I've got five of them in my window box at the moment. I collect trees - I look after cuttings and then plant them in Somerset. I've planted about 100 so far - a copse. Does that make me a green person?
The Conservative core beliefs are basically the same, I think, but modernised. Think of Selfridges: it was old and falling apart but instead of changing into something else entirely they took the good things about it and strengthened them. That's what the Tories are doing.
The Convert William Fowler, 26
Fowler is a freelance advertising copywriter based in London. He was educated at St Paul's Boys' School and at Oxford; since leaving university he has worked in a methadone clinic, on the door at a transvestite nightclub (Madame Jojo's), and as a voluntary copywriter for Conservative Future.com.
A year ago I'd have had trouble telling you who was in the Cabinet, let alone the Shadow Cabinet. But I really like David Cameron. Somehow I feel he's like me. When he became leader I joined the party to show him support.
I didn't do it for noble reasons. If you're shopping around for political opinions at the moment, the right is a more fun place to be. And I guess I'm slightly perverse. I like irritating people and no one is easier to irritate than a left-wing totalitarian. My girlfriend, an actress, is vehemently left-wing, as are lots of other people I know, so one of us needed to be Tory, really, for the sake of better arguments.
That said, I do believe in the libertarian tradition. I don't want to go fox-hunting or send my kids to private school, but I don't think those things should be banned. I instinctively mistrust people who want to control things and think they know how things should be done. I also think Tony Blair is actually insane, and has been since we invaded Iraq.
I used to think Toryism was just post-rationalisation of greed. I think that's probably what I was brought up to think - my parents were vaguely socialist though my mother moved towards the right wing later. But now I see it more as being about realism, about being prepared to admit unpleasant truths, such as the fact that some people will have more money than others. I think that's more clear-sighted, really. At least it's better than setting yourself up for grand hypocrisy, as New Labour have done. Tessa Jowell's mortgage scandal was just disgusting.
I wrote that when I was volunteering for ConservativeFuture.com, the youth branch website. They edited it out. They said it was mud-slinging politics. I thought that was a bit wet, to be honest. But I suppose you can't expect not to be edited on a party political website.
Do you know the blogger "Guido Fawkes"? So called because Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with an honest motive - to blow it up. It's funny, in the right-wing anarchist tradition, and it mocks the Government's pompous "wonkspeak" very well. It has something like 200,000 hits a month which makes me feel there's a groundswell of public feeling that I want to be part of.
I imagine if I went to the party conference I wouldn't enjoy it all that much, but I think there would be a corner I'd want to sit in, with some other people I liked. And I'm sure that group of people in the corner will become bigger and bigger.
The Candidate Kwasi Kwarteng, 31
Kwarteng works as a financier and stood as Conservative candidate for Brent East in 2005. He didn't get in but attracted many plaudits
("Impressive... Could be the first black Tory cabinet minister" - Evening Standard. "A heartthrob" - Sarah Sands. ). He is on the A-list of Tory candidates for the next election.
The more I put into this, the more I think it's a very unusual thing to be doing. None of the fund managers I work with can really understand why I do it - there's no money in it, it takes over all your spare time - but it's a vocation for me. I can't explain it any other way.
I'd like to fight another urban seat at the next election. In a seat like Brent East you meet all sorts of people, from Italians to Rastafarians to Somali cab drivers. I enjoyed it so much. It's very satisfying, trying to find some connection between all those walks of life.
My parents came over from Ghana in the 1960s. My mother didn't have any A-levels when she arrived but she worked her way up, trained in Liverpool and became a barrister. She's Conservative, believes in self-help, has a lot of integrity - not that that's an exclusively Tory quality! - and comes from a strong Methodist background. Dad's an economist at the Commonwealth Secretariat, a softly spoken academic who probably inclines more to the left. They decided to put me through the whole English system. It suited me; I worked hard, played a lot of sport. Eight was probably too young to be sent away to board at prep school but I enjoyed it. I had fun. When I was about 12 I went on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament. We watched Prime Minister's Questions and it was a very lively debate. Although Mrs Thatcher wasn't there, I enjoyed it.
I went to Eton, then Cambridge, and then did a master's at Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar. At Cambridge there were people running around saying they were going to be Home Secretary - I couldn't see where they got the energy from, to be honest. I had a more indolent time. In my first term a man called Stephen Milligan came to address us and then a few weeks later he was discovered dead with an orange in his mouth. So that wasn't particularly inspiring.
In 1997 I realised what the whole New Labour project was: a bunch of smart, technocratically-inclined liberals, basically. I joined The Bow Group [the centre-right policy think tank for young professionals] in 2001: a very low time for the Tories. It looked like the Conservative Party had no future. But there at the Bow Group I discovered people who were in it through thick and thin. Anyone knocking around Tory events in 2002 was a believer.
The leaders we've had for the past 15 years have been so wrong. Their policies were always sensible - controlled immigration, for instance; I don't know any party that's not in favour of controlled immigration - but somehow they came across as weirdos who wanted to bring back the 1950s. Finally we have Cameron, a truly modern Conservative. He's brilliant.
I went for a drink with Dave before the last election and he was friendly - not matey, but friendly. I'm very impressed with the way the Notting Hill Set took over the party so quickly. I think our three successive defeats have meant that we are really ready to embrace change.
What do I stand for? Crime is close to my heart. I detect a slight hardening of public attitudes: I think there's a mood for tougher sentencing. I hate to say it, but immigration will be a big issue. In many ways it's excellent but in many ways it's disruptive, and the administrative burden on the welfare state is great. I think it's a responsible politician's job to address that. The current leadership will do it in a very sensitive way so it's clear it's nothing to do with racial discrimination.
I might be in favour of ID cards if they could make us safer, but I don't trust the state not to spend millions on them and still muck it up. Gordon Brown has the idea that the state knows best, whereas we Conservatives believe in a minimal state and that people know their own minds. Ronald Reagan had a real clarity when he said, "Government is not the solution, it's the problem."
It's funny, what people think of us. In the public imagination, the classic Tory activist is someone like Penelope Keith in To The Manor Born, or Colonel Blimp with a walrus moustache. That's what people seem to think we're like, but I've never met anyone like that.
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