Donal Blaney: Lessons to learn from America - the next generation
Donal Blaney is the Chief Executive and co-founder of the Young Britons' Foundation. He is a former local councillor, founder National Chairman of Conservative Future, former National Chairman of the Conservative Graduates, Area Chairman of Wessex Area Conservative Students and Chairman of Southampton University Conservative Association.
Our esteemed editor was not the only British conservative to attend last week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. I was one of six Brits that I know of who attended CPAC and in my case it was my fifth conference since 2001. While the Labour mouthpiece that is Tom Baldwin wished to sneer at the American conservative movement, the fact is that British conservatives have much to learn from our more successful conservative cousins in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. While more electorally successful conservative parties build a vibrant conservative movement and a broad-based coalition, here in the UK we leave too much to the Party machine. In fact the truth is that the Party machine arrogates power to itself to the detriment of the conservative electoral cause as a whole, a process that reached its nadir with the deselections of candidates (and in one case, a sitting MP) during the last general election.
Arrogation of power away from local associations and voluntary groupings affiliated to the Conservative Party is nothing new. It is a process that accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s. It is not simply because young people are not interested in politics anymore or that they have other ways of spending their leisure time that the conservative youth movement is not what it once was.
Much of the problem can be traced back to the emasculation of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s. Such was the (perhaps understandable) fear that the Party's youth wing would embarrass the Thatcher government that the Party simply decided to nationalise the Party's student wing so as to ensure that it did not do or say anything "wrong".
Factional infighting in the 1990s between the "sound" Eurosceptic Young Conservatives and the "wet" pro-federalist Conservative Students saw the enforced merger of the YCs and Students in 1998 with the National Association of Conservative Graduates. I was the last ever Chairman of the Graduates and the founder Chairman of what is now called Conservative Future. I therefore bear part of the blame for the centralisation of power that I am attacking in this article.
During 2001 and 2002 I visited the United States five times. I had a series of meetings with the Heritage Foundation, the Leadership Institute, the American Conservative Union and the Young America's Foundation after being inspired by seeing Chief Buthelezi, Dick Cheney, Jesse Helms, Charlton Heston, J C Watts, David Trimble and Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2001 CPAC conference.
While it was and remains blindingly obvious to me that the British political system is different in a number of important ways to the American political system, and that American campaigning techniques or policies cannot and will not directly translate to the UK, it struck me that it would be both arrogant and foolish not to look at what could be learned.
The Conservative Party's youth wing has always been able to recruit in constituencies and in universities, albeit with varying degrees of success. It has also continued to organise social events and campaign days. What the Party has been unable or unwilling to do is to undertake work that is undertaken in the US by the Leadership Institute and the Young America's Foundation.
The Leadership Institute works to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in politics, government and media. It offers a wide range of training courses targetted at students on such topics as public speaking, debating, broadcast journalism, web design and direct mail. It has its own $2m television studio in which it trains young conservative activists on how to come across on the television and radio.
The Young America's Foundation describes itself as the principal outreach organisation of the conservative movement. It ensures that the young understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defence, free enterprise and traditional values. It provides various conferences, seminars, educational materials, internships and speakers to young people across the country.
On reading what both the LI and YAF do, it is hopefully as apparent to you as it was to me that this is not something that Conservative Future or the Party can or will do. It is only something that can be done by an organisation that works in the interests of conservatism and in seeking the election of conservative candidates - but which is not formally part of the Conservative Party itself.
It was with this in mind that I co-founded the Young Britons' Foundation in 2003. YBF does the work of the LI and YAF in Britain, albeit on a far smaller scale. YBF helps conservatives organise speaker meetings in schools, colleges and universities. We provide educational materials and organise conferences which both educate students academically as to conservative principles and train students in developing their public speaking, debating, fundraising and media skills. We also help graduates of our training programmes obtain work experience or full-time employment in politics and the media. Some of our graduates are now councillors or parliamentary candidates.
Since the founding of YBF in 2003, a genuine conservative movement has begun to develop and I for one find this exciting. I am delighted that Francis Maude understands its importance, as evidenced by his decision to send Tim Montgomerie to Washington to see what, if anything, the Party can learn from the US conservative movement. The formation of activist groups such as the Taxpayers' Alliance, blogs such as conservativehome.com and issue-based groups such as the Globalisation Institute is essential for the Party to win in 2009. Relying on a swing in the political pendulum or for the Party alone to secure a Conservative victory in 2009 is not an option. A true conservative movement is the only answer.