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Race relations in the Young Conservative movement: How the problem was fixed

John Moorcraft writes a weekly article putting current young Conservative issues into a historical context.

In a previous article, I deservedly praised contemporary attempts to persuade more of CF’s substantial female membership to take on positions of responsibility in the organisation.  As previously stated in that article, I personally consider it an extremely positive thing that more women then ever before are now prepared to put themselves forward as potential elected representatives in the young conservative movement and I am pleased that patronising literature such as the following has been well and truly consigned to the dustbin of history.  For whilst numerous factors can explain why young conservative women have historically chosen not to become as politically active as their male counterparts, I have no doubt whatsoever that the prevalence of sexist attitudes in the upper echelons of male dominated young conservative organisations were a significant contributory cause.

However, whilst one would never seek to belittle the efforts of those who have strived to increase levels of female activism in the young conservative movement, it has to be acknowledged that such campaigners have had a considerably easier time of things then those who have worked to encourage ethnic minorities to get involved with the grassroots politics of young conservatism.  For whilst sexist attitudes (amongst other issues) had to be overcome before young conservative women could be persuaded to become more politically active, at least the female of the species has been willing to join organisations associated with the young conservative movement in approximately equal numbers as their male counterparts since 1945. By comparison, it is a historical fact that young conservative ethnic minorities have chosen not to join us in numbers until comparatively recently (meaning it is somewhat difficult to persuade them to become more active when they are not even members) and, whilst there are numerous reasons to explain why this is the case, it has to be regrettably stated that the existence (although not prevalence) of racist attitudes in the young conservative movement has been a significant contributory cause. 

Although the examples above describe incidents involving merely one branch, one speaker, one event, one debate, one magazine or one viewpoint, it has to be regrettably acknowledged that they represent merely the tip of the iceberg.  I could unfortunately produce many more examples and it must therefore be stated that a small minority of individuals active in groups associated with the young conservative movement have held questionable views that no doubt contributed to many ethnic minorities understandably deciding not to get involved or even become members of organisations such as the Young Conservatives. 

Fortunately, the last twenty five years have seen attitudes on such matters change beyond all recognition and an enormous amount of credit has to go to those who have battled relentlessly to change such viewpoints in order to make the young conservative movement something ethnic minorities are prepared to associate themselves with.  Of course, there have always been individuals in the young conservative movement who have deplored the views expressed previously in this article, but the sustained process of changing attitudes only really began in the nineteen seventies and early eighties and it must be noted that David Hunt, Chris Gent and Iain Picton all used their time as Young Conservative National Chairman to work determinedly towards eliminating even the most subtle forms of racism from the organisation. David Hunt in particular deserves special commendation, in my assessment, for vehemently opposing a motion tabled by Enoch Powell at the 1972 Conservative Party Conference calling on the UK not to allow any exiled Asians from Uganda to settle here and he debated the matter with the experienced politician in a manner which justifiably won him plaudits from the political classes and media alike. 

In addition, every single motion debated at a youth level calling for the repatriation of immigrants, or indeed severe restrictions on the number of immigrants the UK should permit to stay each year, has been comprehensively defeated and both the wet and arid factions of the young conservative movement were able to find common ground throughout the nineteen eighties by denouncing racism of all kinds in the strongest possible language. For example, although the YC Campaign to improve race relations in the UK was seen at the time by some as a cynical attempt to address accusations of NF infiltration into the organisation, it nevertheless received the support of both the most dripping wets and the most ardent arids, something which rarely happened in the factional politics of the nineteen eighties young conservative movement.  Indeed, if the radical libertarianism espoused by many active firstly in the FCS and subsequently in the YCs throughout the nineteen eighties had only one positive benefit, it was surely that they used their ideological rhetoric to challenge the arguments of the extreme right head on and the FCS libertarians were unquestionably pivotal in overseeing the gradual decline and eventual eradication of all racism in the young conservative movement.

It is an unfortunate fact that the young conservative, labour and liberal movements in the United Kingdom have all historically harboured a small number of individuals who possess racist beliefs and it has been a considerable battle for all three to address this issue and eradicate all such views from their ideological fabric.  However, eradicate them they all successfully have and I think it is no surprise whatsoever that, whilst membership of the young conservative, labour and liberal movements has declined over the past 25 years (quite considerably in some cases), the number of individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds in all three has substantially increased.  It is with pleasure I can say that the only bar to anyone now becoming active in the young conservative (and indeed the labour and liberal movements as well) is commitment rather then gender, race, class or creed and I have no doubt more and more will become active now that organisations such as CF, LDYS and LS are predominantly meritocratic rather tinged with the politics of prejudice.

For those who doubt the possibility that young conservatives have previously possessed views of a questionable nature, allow me briefly discuss three qualitative examples:

  1. In 1959, the former National Chairman of the Young Conservatives, Andrew Bowden, is known to have reacted furiously when his suggestion that all mainstream political parties in the constituency of North Kensington (where he was a PPC) should work together in order to defeat the fascism of the returning Oswald Mosley was met, alongside a torrent of boos, with a cry of “you will be elected by West Indians”.
  2. At the 1969 YC Conference, a motion demanding an end to all immigration was tabled and debated.  In addition, the issue of whether generous incentives should be offered to immigrants in order to encourage them to return to their respective homelands was also discussed.  Although both proposals were defeated by a sizeable majority, there was still some support for the motions and the suggestion that Enoch Powell should be appointed Minister for Repatriation drew cheers from sections of the audience.  As an interesting side point, Mr Powell was accorded the opportunity to speak at numerous YC political and social functions long after he left the Conservative Party in 1974 and fascination with his views on immigration remained high in the young conservative movement well into the nineteen eighties. 
  3. It is widely believed that The National Front successfully managed to infiltrate provincial YC Branches in the early nineteen eighties.  Expulsions from the YC for simultaneous NF membership became more commonplace during the early part of this decade.  Some constituency branches began to produce literature which bore all the distasteful hallmarks of the NF.  A prominent YC Regional Chairman went on record to argue that £750m should be spent on encouraging the repatriation of all immigrants.  Numerous branches pulled out of a rally when it was discovered that lots of attendees were wearing both YC and NF badges.  The NF Magazine Bulldog and other far right publications started to be sold at YC events.  It is also known that the Board of Deputies of British Jews expressed concerns about, amongst other issues, the possibility of NF Infiltration into the YCs during this particular time period.


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