An Old Story: Young Radical Tories a Problem for Central Office

The Guardian‘s recent article on Donal Blaney and the Young Britons’ Foundation has created a controversy over whether the organisation is extremist. A follow-up piece has the latest:

The Conservative chairman, Eric Pickles, last night appeared to disown the leadership of the Young Britons’ Foundation, a rightwing training organisation for young Conservatives whose officials have described the NHS as “the biggest waste of money in the UK” and suggested the waterboarding of prisoners can be justified.

Pickles spoke last week at a YBF rally at the House of Commons and the group is working with Conservative Future, the party’s official youth wing, on pre-election training of young Tory activists. But yesterday that relationship came under serious strain.

“We don’t agree with these views,” a spokesman for Pickles said in a brief statement. “The YBF organisation is independent of the Conservative party.”…

Distant shades here of Norman Tebbit’s repudiation of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s – although in that case the FCS was an official Conservative Party organisation. The antics of the “loony right” in the 1980s caused continuing embarrassment for the party, and provided a flow of easy copy for diary writers and Private Eye hacks. Tebbit was actually a hero to this crowd; Timothy Evans’ book Conservative Radicalism includes an FCS picture of him as Rambo (p.70). Yet Tebbit closed the organisation down, creating bitter feeling, and the Guardian reported in 1985 that

The Greater London Young Conservatives duly continued their lurch to the right at the annual conference at the weekend… The name of Norman Tebbit was mud following his withdrawal of Tory Central Office support for the Federation of Conservative Students last week, and some members refused to stand for a toast proposed to him by the handful of wets [i.e. centrists]… the GLYCs looks increasingly like the chosen haven for refugee[s] …from the FCS. (1)

In 2002, Tebbit went on to allege that a faction within the party known as “the Movement” wanted to have him expelled in revenge. The former Conservative activist Mike Keith-Smith (whom I blogged on here) followed this up with a letter of his own to the Independent, linking the supposed campaign against Tebbit to a broader trend that had developed since the 1980s. Here’s an extract:

…For many years I was a confidant of this Tory Militant Tendency and I know only too well who its leaders are.

The Movement originated with the… elements who took over first the Federation of Conservative Students, and then the Young Conservatives during the 1980s. Now that many of its adherents are MPs and senior party officials, the Movement has cynically tacked to the left of the Tory spectrum and collected a smattering of “wet” dupes to provide window dressing.

…The Movement contained an uneasy coalition between traditional right- wingers and… right libertarians, some of whom supported the legalisation of all drugs and the removal of the age of sexual consent. The combination of a substantial number of gay members with some of the most extreme homophobes I have ever encountered in politics also provided a potential flashpoint.

Now the libertarian element has seized total control and traditionalists have been ruthlessly discarded. The Movement’s earlier purge of genuinely liberal elements from the party’s youth wing became a dry run for this operation…

It should be borne in mind that Keith-Smith had allied with UKIP by this time, and his account seems to me unduly conspiratorial. However, the “uneasy coalition” can be attested from other sources. David T offered some observations at Harry’s Place in 2007:

My impression was that the Tory Libertarians were basically pulling the wool over the eyes of the Monday Clubbers who were too thick to realise that the libbies were using them to gain power in Tory studentdom, so they could push their minimal statist agenda. The politics of the Libertarian faction was the polar opposite of that of the Monday Clubbers. What the Monday Clubbers got in return was a bit of nasty right wing rhetoric of the “Hang Nelson Mandela” variety: which was essentially a sop to their bigotry.

I blogged more on this subject here. Of course, I should make it clear that some FCS libertarians (and some Monday Clubbers) rejected the “Hang Mandela” posturing outright – and that there have been out-of-court settlements made by journalists and others who have incorrectedly ascribed this position to particular individuals. However, it is also the case that libel threats have been used by supposed “libertarians” to prevent a full discussion of specific political incidents, planned alliances, and trends from that era.

To return to the present, one wonders to what extent the 1980s FCS-types have been mentoring those involved with the self-described “Conservative madrasa” of the Young Britons’ Foundation; we know that Paul Staines uses Donal Blaney to send out legal threats against bloggers (see here), and I blogged on some similarities between young Conservative radicals then and now here. A “Movement” out to “purge” is putting it too strongly; but it’s clearly a counter-trend to the general direction of mainstream Conservatism today. As the blogger Cranmer puts it:

Well, thank God for that.

Cranmer thought young Tories were all being inexorably dragged into a vacuum of vapidity; smothered by the amorphous policy blancmange of ‘Red Tory’ philosophy and stifled by the sponge of politically-correct, centre-ground Conservatism-lite.

But no. Donal Blaney is assiduously ensuring that future parliamentary candidates are not all ‘wets’ of the left: he is instilling some Thatcherite backbone into the Conservative Party.

(1) Stephen Cook, “People Diary”, in The Guardian, 14 November 1985.

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  1. […] activists from which found refuge with the Greater London Young Conservatives), and there were subsequent claims by Tebbit and Keith Smith of a shadowy libertarian faction called “the Movement” which […]

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