Features

Conservative youth politics is noxious, but pitiful

Young activists fight like vipers to get close to power . . . and it’s all a huge myth

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

Whenever the curtain is pulled back on youthful political activism, the picture is ugly. Three years ago, in Young, Bright and On the Right, the BBC followed students at Oxbridge fighting like vipers to get ahead in their university Conservative clubs. Along with the inevitable three-piece suits, wildly invented accents and endless talk of what ‘the party’ expected, there was also that characteristic lack of awareness that ‘the party’, like the rest of the world, remained largely indifferent to them.

Now the suicide of a 21-year-old called Elliott Johnson has brought this world back before the public gaze. Every detail speaks of a scene which is unpleasant even before it is tragic. Anyone who has been involved in student politics or observed it from a distance will recognise the traits: the hysterical insistence on loyalty, the pettiness, double-dealing, levels of corruption to shame most third-world leaders and always, but always, the endless threats by everyone to sue everyone else.

As certain young activists and even advisers around the current Labour leadership demonstrate, the submersion of young lives (especially those of slight misfits) into the sense of ‘belonging’ that a party can provide is not an exclusively Conservative issue. Young Liberal Democrats may find it difficult to find a quorum these days, but young Labour activists continue to be more than capable of pouring their youthful envies and frustrations into the party.

Nevertheless there is something undeniably specific about the noxiousness of young Conservative politics. Perhaps because it is fuelled by people who think that House of Cards is a guide for getting ahead in business and politics. While young leftists tend to be propelled by envy, those on the right tend to be driven by greed, especially a greed for power and money, in that order.


Bypassing the political and philosophical misapprehensions which give rise to this idea, the manner in which they pursue their goal is pitiful. Contrary to the left-wing conspiracy theory, the world is no longer controlled — if it ever was — by an ‘establishment’ of cigar-smokers and port-drinkers. Yet while the left conjures this vision of the closed room of power in order to disdain it, many a youthful Conservative believes it only to emulate it. Thus the fashion accoutrements, the snobbery and the unsuccessful and often shameful sublimation of normal youthful feelings and behaviour.

You can observe the results in those London clubs which struggle for members and so offer special rates for young blood. Clubs like the National Liberal and the East India hold out this allure of power even as they flounder. Yet any memory of power in these establishments is as distant as the whiff of cigar smoke — long ago replaced by the smell of Cif. But the youthful Tory does not always know this. Nor do they know that the policies of the British Conservative party are not created at the bar of the Carlton Club. And though youth activists may salivate, and more, at the chance to meet a backbench MP, such people no more signal the presence of power than does the presence of a retired schoolteacher.

Of course there are always MPs delighted to enjoy the attentions of people labouring under these misapprehensions. But in the ordinary run of things anyone capable of making such mistakes would be kept a million miles from any political campaign — certain as they are they to scare voters into the arms of any other party. And while all the parties are suffering a lack of active members, the Conservative party’s reliance on thirtysomethings to run its youth wing does epitomise its own peculiar problem.

It remains the party’s own fault that it cannot put together a campaign made up of ordinary people campaigning in an ordinary way rather than bussing the same young activists around everywhere to wave placards behind the Prime Minister. But it is the public and media’s fault as well. Every meeting of a politician with a real-life person is now turned into such a potential liability that politicians increasingly keep clear of ordinary people and rely on activists to surround them with the veneer of the public. These activists — like donors — must have something waved before them, otherwise why agree to be bussed between stump-speech and platitudinous stump-speech? It is easy to see how the illusion of secret routes to power can form in such an environment, and how it might be used by charlatans to manipulate the naive.

Such people dangle promises before the young and ambitious like a key. They imply that, if won, this key will open a silver lock in a golden door giving into a room in which all their ambitions will be satiated. The Johnson story is replete with such dangled promises. As Isabel Hardman has pointed out, the promise of a guaranteed ‘safe seat’ is one such myth — a myth because today, when it comes to the selection process, local associations are more likely to hold a party careerist’s history against them than nod them through for it. The allegation that senior party members can be held responsible for the suicide of one activist is outrageous, but everybody in the party benefited from the charade which inspired him.

And charade it is. Westminster is largely populated by people who are not even legends in their own homes. They are people who went through every variety of compromise and humiliation to access levers which today in Britain control almost nothing. The truth of British politics is that if there is a dangled key, it opens a rusty lock in an unreliable door entering into a room that is empty. If Elliott Johnson had lived a little longer he would most likely have learned that, grown up, and looked back with a shiver of embarrassment at the mistakes of youth.

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  • misomiso

    1) If you’re young, the only way to get close to true power is to what David Cameron and George Osborne did and work for CCHQ or the Labour equivalent. That way you are briefing ministers for Question Time and actually get to see how politics is practiced at the highest level.

    2) There IS an establishment in this country, but it is the new establishment of the Whitehall / the BBC / the EU. These are the statist institutions where in true power lies. The British establishment is long dead.

    3) Politicians have to keep selling the lie that youth politics will lead to high office, otherwise they would have no young activists.

    • rtj1211

      Well, I must say that the politicians I have more time for are those who actually worked in real jobs for 15 – 20 years before entering politics. The Sarah Woollastons (who actually worked in the NHS for 20 years so might know something about it), the Andrea Leadsoms (who actually worked in the City so might know something about finance), the Rory Stewarts (who saw active service in Iraq and Afghanistan and might know something about the military) etc etc.

      How many people in the Department of Defence have ever seen active service? How many worked in private sector defence procurement? How many in the Home Office ever ran a prison? How many in DCMS ever ran a TV channel, ran a sports facility?

      What you have is a bunch of careerist civil servants with no real life experience advising a bunch of windbag mouthpieces with no real life experience on how to run the country.

      They seem to have made a fine job of it, haven’t they?!

      • gunnerbear

        “How many worked in private sector defence procurement?” Hmm…..defence project X – going to take maybe 15 years from first proposal to being in the water…..you’ve just been made (on Prime Ministerial whim) the Minister for Defence Procurement (not even SoS Defence)…….of course you get the project going…….but wait…..less than 18 months into a 15 – 20 year project……you’re out and someone new is in (on the PMs whim). Then there might be even be a new PM who isn’t keen on project X but wants project Y instead because their Service Adviser / SpAd suggests that the Army need is most important, not the requirements of the RN to have two big floaty boxes….. ….but wait oh Mighty Minister of Procurement………HMG has also decided that because the sums involved are so large, that the cash should be spent all over the UK (even if that means whilst Huge Project X for the RN is in gestation) little projects A, B, C are also completed even if the RN doesn’t want A, B & C but the UK needs to keep ‘core skills’ in place for Huge Project X……thus adding to the overall cost of Huge Project X…. Wait Oh Mighty Minister of Procurement, HM Treasury now thinks the cost is too much at the moment so it’s going to push back the start date of Huge Project X…never mind Main Gate…..and you as Minister for Procurement aren’t going to win an argument with the CotE. But don’t worry, Minister you’ll be able to leak it to the Press that it is the fault of the ‘shiny a**ed civil servants’ who will then carry the can because it can never be the fault of the PM nor the Uniformed Brass (who have their own tame hacks in the Press) despite the fact that the PM, CotE and Brass may well all be thinking and doing different things. Ohh..one final point….because of the nature of HMG and defence spending, HMG decided long, long ago that it wanted a national champion….so there is really only one realistic major supplier of big floaty boxes for the RN…..and that is especially true of the big black metal boxes that float and sink……

  • allthatglistens

    Very entertaining. How I wish Douglas Murray would stick to politics and stay off religion.

    • victor67

      Maybe he should leave both alone.

      • JSC

        Boo to both of you.

      • allthatglistens

        Haha well I doubt if he would be missed!

    • logdon

      I’d say entirely the opposite, especially when he deals with that one, we’re told, is all about peace.

      • allthatglistens

        Yeah – the well known Islamic scholar and authority that he is. Not.

        • logdon

          He raises his head above the parapet. And tells the truth.

          Is that your problem?

          • allthatglistens

            Whose truth?

          • E.I.Cronin

            Mr Murray tells the often unpalatable truth of textual evidence, statements and events – instead of kitsch, abstract ideology and content-less opinion (or ”narrative” as reality is chillingly revised and repackaged by today’s progressives).

            And I would suggest the fact he isn’t a religious scholar is exactly why he can report the facts so clearly and honestly. He’s free to tell the truth. As we all are… for the present.

          • logdon

            Thankyou.

            Well said.

          • allthatglistens

            His facts are selected to suit his own ‘narrative’.

          • King Kibbutz

            Show me a commentator who doesn’t.

          • logdon

            Dear me!

            I refuse to be drawn into your junior semantics.

          • allthatglistens

            To speak the truth requires knowledge and wisdom. For subject matter expertise, consult an expert, not a narcissist who has a way with words. Doesn’t have to be a Muslim but does require appropriate qualifications and experience. Does that clarify?

          • King Kibbutz

            Is he not qualified and experienced then?

          • logdon

            No, it’s cliche’d obfuscating bullshit.

          • allthatglistens

            Why? Because it’s the truth?

          • allthatglistens

            You know the thing about cliches don’t you?

          • rtj1211

            No, it doesn’t. I’ve worked for 20 years either in top Universities or in partnership with them and the levels of bullshitting, distortions and the like was quite incredible. Robert Fisk has no academic qualifications but undoubtedly knows more about the Middle East than any Oxford ‘scholar’. Why? He’s lived there for decades…..

          • allthatglistens

            Robert Fisk IS credible. Douglas Murray is not.

          • trobrianders

            Fisk is a great writer. That’s it. His whiskey fuelled politics are rabid.

          • wildcolonialboy

            Robert Fisk jumped the shark sometime last decade, and now is about as credible as Seymour Hersh.

          • allthatglistens

            It’s called real life experience. Does wonders for one’s perspective.

          • Andy M

            “To speak the truth requires knowledge and wisdom.”

            ” does require appropriate qualifications and experience.”

            In which case the same daft criteria you peddle here can be applied to you – you are not speaking the truth about Murray, because you have no more appropriate qualification and experience on what constitutes ‘qualification and experience’, than you claim Murray has; nor do you have any evidence that you possess the ‘knowledge and wisdom’ required to speak the truth on Murray. Infact, your silly ramblings prove the entirely opposite to be the case.

            So your theory on who and what is qualified to speak the truth is pure nonsense. You simply can’t stand the fact that Murray has spoken the truth about Islam, has defeated followers of Islam in debates and has any Islamic leaders frightened of debating him.

          • allthatglistens

            A devout Murray follower, I see. Did I say I was an expert? I am not paid to give my view, unlike him. Anyone with an Eton / Oxford education ought to at least be able to give a good debate. Nothing special about that. Other than arguing with a few individuals in a public forum, Murray has little experience of the life and culture of Muslims and the Middle East. I doubt he’s ever stepped foot in a Muslim country. All he does is incite hatred in people like you with his one-sided view of the world.

          • Mrs Floribunda Rose

            Truth is truth. It belongs to no-one in particular.

    • Mrs Floribunda Rose

      Religion IS political.

  • victor67

    The reality is the Tory party is dying at grass roots level.
    Any Party with most of it’s members collecting their pensions and funded by hedge funds days are numbered. That’s why Osborne is cutting funding to other parties and the corrupt gerrymandering of the electoral boundaries

  • trobrianders

    A couple of hundred thousand activist/members of Labour and all the Tories can produce is Mark Clarke. Why should Labour monopolise savages?

    • Martin Dawson

      I am certainly no Labour party member but your comment is just offensive. I have no doubt that there are many Labour activists who I would find difficult to stomach, but to shrug off the likes of Michael Clarke is just pathetic. The fact that the Conservative party, a party I used to be a proud member of, allowed the likes of Grant Schapps to hold a ministerial position is beyond belief, but to learn that he was responsible for Clarke’s employment and took no notice of a number of complaints in regards Clarke’s behaviour, some of which seems to have led to a young man taking his own life is truly shocking and saddening. Any supporter of a political party that becomes so partisan they cannot see this sort of event as shameful and beyond the purlieu of party loyalty is truly lost to the idea that politics is the means to a better world, not merely a game in which you choose a team to bloody cheer for.

      • trobrianders

        Clarke should have been thrown to the dogs earlier. That Conservative Central Office exhibited complacency and cowardice should surprise nobody. That is where the country is at. I’m a firm believer in politics reflecting the population at large. My wider point is that Labour are leading a new era of savagery in politics. Hardly surprising to anyone who’s ever taken a proper look at their underlying hateful and envious philosophy.

  • logdon

    My worry isn’t about young Tories and what they get up to in their arcane cliques but that mass of young left wing/green urbanites we see on Saturday, clad in a dowdy dress down uniform and often, pushing a pram.

    The latter is the virtue signaller but in reality, their whole being is about virtue signalling.

    There’s no reality, it’s like a wafty stage of loveliness, politically correct to it’s very core yet they seemingly control the narrative.

    Or, more likely, the narrative controls them.

    At first you don’t notice them, but walk around any urban/gentrified suburban environment and there they are. Out in day off mass, deciding what horrors of green, socialist control they can impose upon the proles. For the aforesaid prole’s own good, that is.

    They’ll be on the marches, they’ll utterly condemn Israel for having the temerity in defending itself, one word on migration and they’re off like bad clones of Seamus Milne.

    They are quite pathetic really, but there’s lots of them and they do seem to infest high places.

    So forget those wierdo cons, the ones to watch sit on the other side of the fence.

    • Martin Dawson

      I am sorry but you lost me. If the the socialist hordes aren’t controlling the narrative who do you think is?

      • logdon

        Wrong end of the stick. They are.

  • jim

    I would steer a wide course far away from any twentysomething involved in any kind of politics. They’re all wierd.

    • Rædwald

      Very true, every person I knew as a teenager who was a young Labour member (I can’t speak for any young Conservatives, I never met any) was exactly the sort of person who you absolutely didn’t want to give power to.

      • Martin Dawson

        It is a general truth that anybody who wants to be an MP as an undergraduate is exactly the type of person who shouldn’t be let anywhere near the House of Commons. The same is true of aspiring police men or women – those who desire power are the least equipped to wield it.

  • Duke_Bouvier

    From a couple of years hanging around the Cambridge conservatives and the Conservative Graduates I find myself having known 10 people who are current members of the government including 3 in cabinet.

    • Landphil

      The rest are in jail.

  • Badger

    I’m very uncomfortable with political youth groups of any stripe. There is something wrong with youngsters who have an obsessive involvement in politics. It’s not natural.

    • trobrianders

      Especially this generation of youth who are the most gullible in the modern history of Britain. Generation Useless are going to have to learn the hard way.

      • Rædwald

        The most gullible, and the most vocal in their belief that they actually have a clue what’s going on in the world and what should be done about it, not a good combination at all.

        • trobrianders

          They’re just angling for the state to provide them their gramme of soma.

        • Texas Sunday Morning

          No, pretty sure the Boomers still have that title.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    I prefer if the youth are involved in a nation’s politics than be so indifferent to it that they really do not care. If they really do not care then they will not care the year after or the next.

    As for worrying what other people think of them, especially those who see them in a disparaging way the question has to be asked whether those who oppose them are addressing their own neurotic tendencies. If neurosis is a major reason for disapproval, then those criticizing youth involvement in politics need to see a shrink.

    • trobrianders

      “If they really do not care then they will not care the year after or the next”.
      Nonsense. They care just as soon as they discover their stake in the system. If they don’t care before then that’s up to them.

      • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

        That reference is based on how children are raised. It can be applied to any kind of behavior for it does carry into adult hood. Few escape the lessons learned from childhood to being a teenager.

  • Faaather Ted

    Student ‘politicians’ are pretty clueless: they’re all theory, and no practice. They’re idealistic, and not realistic. They have very little life experience, but they want to be treated as if they do.

    • trobrianders

      Those rites of passage that used to be encountered in the teens are now delayed to mid-thirties in our infantilised culture. Why? Because marketers and advertisers find it easier to sell to infantilised adults. An unfortunate by-product of this process is that makes them ripe for leftist indoctrination. It’s why the Tories have had to move to the left.

  • MrBishi

    It was ever thus.
    I seem to recall Norman Tebbit scrapping the Federation of Conservative Students when he as party chairman.

  • Callipygian

    the hysterical insistence on loyalty, the pettiness, double-dealing, levels of corruption to shame most third-world leaders and always, but always, the endless threats by everyone to sue everyone else.
    Sounds like some webpage comment sections. Except that one bans or deletes instead of suing. The level of nastiness mixed with righteous self-belief in such spaces is almost comical.

  • Callipygian

    A question about meaning, here: ‘often shameful sublimation of normal youthful feelings and behaviour’. If it were truly sublimation, how could it be shameful? Remember that another form of that word is ‘to sublime’: it’s a lifting-up of baser, more primitive urges.

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