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Matthew Sinclair: Does Conservative Future produce unthinking young Conservatives?

Matthew (blog) responds to yesterday's article on bringing back the FCS

It is now about a year and a half since I finished my undergraduate education and, with it, my active involvement in student politics, although I did maintain something of a role in my Master’s year.  John Moorcraft set out the case yesterday for a new FCS-style organisation to cater for the particular interests of students but appears to have only a fairly vague idea of what those interests are; “well organised, good quality conferences and training days” is the closest he comes to an answer on this, rather important, question.

It would seem to me that the question of purpose is far more important than that of institutional arrangements.  After all, the Conservative Party itself is an organisation which caters to the entire country and yet is clearly able to provide, through administrative subdivision, for the interests of diverse groups such as Conservative Future.  Why exactly are there such diseconomies of scale in the planning of conferences and training days?

If there is a definite resolution on what it is students need then it can more easily be deduced whether or not new institutions are required for it to be provided to them.

In the comments there is a rather more definite idea of what is wanted from a renewed student Conservative party; intellectual conservatives.  A couple of quotes:

    “95% is taken up with either social activity, standard Party campaigning (canvassing, leafleting, etc) or gossip. Where is the passion for ideas that inspired the FCS generation? How many CF members have read Hayek, Friedman, Oakeshott or other great writers of the political Right?

    When I think of the great debates that used to take place at FCS conferences about the proper boundaries between individual freedom and collective responsibility, the rights and wrongs of immigration control, the importance of international solidarity against totalitarian oppression, etc, I feel a bit sorry for the younger generation of Conservative activists.

    Many of the brightest and best of today's Tory MPs were forged in the fire of FCS. They got a proper political education that equipped them to take on the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, left wing journalists and EU bureaucrats.

    How does this generation compare?”

    “Sadly, there is lack of intellectual rigour in current Conservative commentary and policy analysis. That comment applies to the media and Parliament.”

I tend to agree.  I arrived at university interested but close to clueless about politics beyond the simplicities of the poorly educated.  I was an economics and economic history student and so, Friedman and other economists aside, my exposure to right wing political thinking through my degree itself was going to be limited.  My extra-curricular activities within the conservative movement provided my political education but I do not see a similar opportunity being presented to most conservative students.

Over half the LSE’s students are international, the reason the school is so well funded, and this has traditionally meant that the LSE Conservative Association is not affiliated to the national party so that it can appeal to non-Britons, Americans in particular.  The school is also host to the Hayek society which forms discussion groups and runs speaker events from a libertarian perspective; it has no parent body either.  This institutional independence, which meant I was never really exposed to the more conventional social and training activities provided for a young Conservative, combined with the network effects of an unusually high number of extremely talented conservatives concentrated in a small university created a perfect space for an exceptional crop of intellectual right-wingers to think their conservatism through and test it in discussion with friends.

These conditions clearly do not obtain in much of the rest of the country or most of the time at the LSE where a programme of social events, campaigning and training is, instead, the focus of the young Conservative.  However, it is important that conservative students, in particular, take a thoughtful approach to student politics.  As I have noted before, left-wingers see lobbying between different victims groups as the natural process of politics and giving a voice to students is, therefore, a very legitimate activity for them.  By contrast, conservatives, at least nominally, aim to represent one nation and are, therefore, always somewhat uncomfortable with the parochialism of student politics.  What this means is that conservative students who do not find an outlet in intellectual consideration tend to wind up spending their time on practical matters such as building up contacts and exposure to national politics.  This is a worthwhile way for a potential career politician to spend their time but too much of it can leave the student emerging from university with a good idea of how but difficulty articulating the why of their politics.  This has to feed into a broader intellectual shallowness in the British conservative movement.  For example, look at the blogs in the US and compare them to ours, where is our equivalent of The American Scene or National Review’s Corner?

I’m not sure an intellectual environment of the sort I experienced is something that the party can organise for.  Moorcraft neglects to note that what killed the FCS wasn’t a desire to focus upon young professionals or anything so practical but that the FCS had turned to seriously nutty libertarianism and was embarrassing the, pretty right-wing itself, Tory party of the day.  LSE conservatives during my time at the university could be just as impractical, in the Hayek society we once debated currency reform and were torn between competing currencies, a return to the Gold Standard and a lone voice asking whether we could just stick with the pound as it is now.  Radicalism is always a risk when formally connected to a national party which must engage with moderate voters but the freedom to consider radical ideas is essential to student conservatives thinking openly about their beliefs.

I can see two relatively simple means by which conservatives outside university might steer young conservatives towards an intellectual engagement while at university:

  1. Ensure that guests, MPs and others, turn up determined to talk beyond obvious, transient   themes of Conservative election prospects and the misfortunes of the Labour party. They should attempt to discuss deeper principles and really get their audiences thinking.  Even better the university branches might try to involve guest speakers in debates with students instead of the rather passive speech and then questions format.
  2. The nascent wider conservative movement, which has less to fear from radicalism and a lot to gain from the time and energy students can offer in return, should engage with them through common events or setting up university chapters.
However, these changes can only make a difference at the margin.  A desire for a deeper understanding of politics tends to spring from within someone, from a desire for an examined life.  As such, the main recommendation of this article is for those young conservatives who might read this and are in university now or will be in the future: Conservative thinking is such a proud tradition that every right thinking student has the opportunity to become a part of.  There is nothing grubby about the political game of contacts and campaigning but make sure to put time and effort into developing your own understanding of the philosophy behind what conservatism means and should mean.  Be a thoughtful conservative.


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