I have the impression that party conference is 4 days of running around saying hi to people. Maybe it’s my introversion overshadowing the amazing content of fringe events and main hall speeches, but I feel like I add more people I know every year as I catch up with people I’ve been around the year before, either at conference or the campaign trail etc, and meet new ones. Including Ruth Davidson, who has officially made me a Scottish Tory honoris causa.
It’s a collection of small events taking place in a compressed period of time, in a place that defies most conventions. Justine Greening just randomly said hi to me as if I just bumped into a friend from school, and being interviewed by the BBC had become my new normal by midday on Day 2.
And I didn’t have to screenshot Dr Stanley’s liking a joke I made on Twitter to send it in the group chat because I could just hand the phone to Helen next to me at the table, and get up to show it to Joe at the other side of the table. Not only my best friends who live in other sides of the country were actually there, it was full-on like walking into a Twitter version of Through the Looking-glass. We’ve seen Owen Jones around every corner, and I have a picture of Fraser Nelson taking pictures of the queue at one of the Spectator’s fringes. There were even various Inception moments with people tweeting about what was taking place, like Marie Le Conte from the Evening Standard snapping a picture of my friend with Ruth Davidson and Anna Soubry while they were posing together. It’s been 3 days we’ve been back and I’m finding it vaguely hard to adjust to reality again. I’ve found my pass was still in my handbag when I took it out on Friday night.
It was a very meaningful conference on more levels than being around the people I love the most, though. Between conference 2015 and this year I’ve founded Laurel and Yew. I’m now a business owner with an actual stake in all the talks of opportunities, social mobility, giving a better reputation to non-academic routes like apprenticeships etc. Being a Team v Leader with vInspired brought me from being exploited by a dodgy company to owning my own, and carrying on the work I do with Good Works promoting ethics in the workplace. I missed their event but I was glad to see they were promoting their work, and wish I could have been there to provide a real life testimony of how volunteering helped me get where I am.
As a committed One Nation Tory, currently sporting one of the new TRG badges on my coat, the underlying theme of the whole conference was really great. Only last year we were a silent minority picking up on the wind of change starting to blow, not expecting to see such a quick and dramatic change as a new Prime Minister going further than David Cameron managed to.
Maybe we’ll even get to the point we’ll start appreciating the side of Thatcher that was lost in the idolising of the New Right.
Gin and tonic aside, the Spectator’s event on addressing poverty was probably my favourite one for one simple remark: while the Left pontificates about poverty, they never go about doing anything to solve the problem because in a way that would make them redundant, while for us concerns with social justice wouldn’t. It’s on our agenda now, as it has been at times in history where that was needed, but ultimately our values and raison d’être don’t depend on holding people down, even for those of us who believe in a hierarchical society.
More or less everything I’ve attended this year, like last year, revolved around the topic of one nation conservatism and social reform, with a lot less international development this time, but I’m getting a certificate with Columbia University on the very topic so I can be excused for enjoying some wine at other receptions, the lobby bar or just the pubs outside of the conference area with my local association since we all paid for the pass just to end up with the same people we see all the time.
However, while our side of the party enjoyed a relative victory, it proved divisive. We’ll likely get away with it given the state of the rest of the political spectrum, but it can also be a tricky situation to be in. We have the first truly conservative government since at best Ted Heath, and we don’t want to lose our identity along the way because of a lack of accountability, and as things are now in the first few days after Conference the impression is of wilful misunderstanding. The choice of tone and language in some instances may have poured gasoline on a fire, and the message of ensuring fairness for all is lost among concerns that interventionism is the new approach when, if you dig deep enough, it’s clear it’s not. It’s curious how free market liberalism has dominated the conversation in the Conservatives for so long we now hear of time-constrained, limited-in-scope intervention by the state and think we have become a party of the authoritarian left.
One of the stepping stones in my political journey was the study of the famine in Ireland in the 1840s. The change of government from Peel to Russell and his ideological obsession with the free market and Irish self-reliance over the reality that disaster was looming for actual people has been fundamental in knowing how far I’m willing to let the market sort itself out. We refer to it as the Great Famine because between deaths and emigration it decimated the population of Ireland. I knew then that I could never be a liberal because of my order of priorities: as a conservative I believe in market over state, and I believe in a free one because that’s usually the best guarantee of the interests of everyone involved. It’s not always the case, and when it’s not I want to know someone cares about the people enough to step in until it’s no longer necessary.
I don’t have enough optimism in human nature to believe we can do away with every intervention and businesses will just step up to the plate and do the right thing, even though the tide is changing in business and more and more conscious spending allows businesses like mine to have an increasingly significant voice in the market. I’m confident that in the coming months the fracture will be healed and a healthy tension and willingness to listen to the point of view of the other side will return at the core of our party. After all, we’re not the nasty one.