For nine months now, I have been chairman of City of Liverpool Conservative Future. I first became involved three years ago when I moved back to my hometown after university; I didn’t know anyone there anymore and the local CF branch was an opportunity to meet people. Thankfully, its members were all nice, smart, and laidback and I developed many strong friendships. When the opportunity came to give something back and help develop the branch, I took it, as I was emotionally invested in its success.
Unfortunately, a proportion of my time has been spent dealing with extremists. ‘Extremist’ is a better descriptor than, say, ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘right-wing’ because all Conservatives are, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite and right-wing. Instead, these people hold an extreme point-of-view – typically a combination of hard, unfeeling libertarianism at home and chauvinism abroad – and who accuse anyone that disagrees with them of not being truly conservative. There is also only one way to show one’s commitment to the Tory Party: leafleting. If you aren’t willing to spend your evenings and weekends out leafleting, then you are pointless.
Though not exclusively Thatcherite, the ‘Iron Lady’ has a prominent place in their thinking – at least, their understanding of her does. Rather than appreciating that Lady Thatcher was a politician who (like any other) had to compromise, dissemble, and court popular opinion in order to achieve her objectives, extremists think of her solely as a ‘conviction politician’ who did none of these things. Thus one of the lessons they draw is that in order to be like Lady Thatcher, they should be intolerant of others’ views and be downright rude about them in the process.
Another lesson they draw is that being isolated from the mainstream is a prerequisite for gaining power. Lady Thatcher was an ‘outsider’, yet she won the leadership from the Establishment ‘apostate’ Ted Heath. In this way, as with their takfirism, extremists resemble militant Islamists. They also believe isolation is a prerequisite for power; after all, the Prophet went into isolation before the people of Mecca realised the error of their ways and embraced him. That Lady Thatcher spent only approximately four years on the backbenches during her decades-long parliamentary career and that Muhammad adapted his teachings to try to win over Jewish merchants in Medina is forgotten. No compromise; no dissembling; and no courting of popular opinion.
One extremist who ran for the Liverpool chairmanship described herself, without irony, as “the Iron Lady of the North” – a pitch that would obviously go down well with voters in this city. Months later, when I said she should try to win friends in the branch if she was going to run again, she dismissed the suggestion. She would not lower herself by participating in a ‘popularity contest’; it ought to be obvious that she is the best person for the job. In a democracy, elections are popularity contests.
The same intolerance is shown over leafleting. Given the membership crises affecting all the main parties, we need to be thankful that anyone is interested in us at all - particularly in the urban north such as Liverpool - and must try to persuade them to care enough to actively campaign. Those who join who think they might be Tories and think they like David Cameron, but aren’t entirely sure, do not want to be press-ganged into leafleting in obscure council boroughs they’ve never heard of, let alone will never live in.
And in Liverpool our problem is not that activists aren’t pushing enough leaflets through letterboxes, it’s that we’re hated. I work in a bar on weekends; when one of the previously friendly customers found out I was a Conservative, he started referring to me as “Tory c**t”. Our party brand is toxic in cities like Liverpool; we could fell entire rainforests and turn them into leaflets and it would not impact this basic political fact.
Yet whenever I have tried to argue that there are many ways members can contribute to the Party and none more or less Conservative than the other, my commitment has been questioned.
For many extremists, their inspirational text is The Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged; for me, it was The Conservative Party from Peel to Major. In it Lord Blake, the great historian of our party, wrote that “[s]tern, unbending [ideology] has never paid dividends” to us.
Conservatism is a diverse political ideology, like any other; we all pick different strands from within it, and even some from outside it, and weave them together to form our own personal ideology. That’s how our Party has evolved and survived for so long.
If we become both intolerant and doctrinaire, then we will die.
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