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26 November 2023

How I almost became a Young Conservative

Thatcherism was seemingly never-ending and I was a young freelancer, desperate for ideas.

By Nicholas Lezard

Recently, I saw a news item which said an outfit called the Young Conservative Network was disbanding. Apparently, its purpose was “to bring together disconnected Young Conservatives across the United Kingdom” but what with one thing and another, the YCs would rather stay disconnected, and there’s no longer any mileage in trying to connect them. Anyway, when I read this, the years simply rolled away to half a lifetime ago, and I remembered one of the more hare-brained episodes of my life. So gather round, everyone, and let me tell you about the time I joined the Young Conservatives.

It was 1988, a year after Labour had lost its third election in a row. I was 25. It seemed like Thatcherism’s high noon still; we weren’t to know it wouldn’t be long until her downfall. The Tory party was a juggernaut, and I was going frantic.

At the time I lived in Bayswater, in a poky basement studio flat – a dank, dark place where mushrooms grew in the bathroom. In those days Bayswater was still seedy – seedy enough to let me live there, and, to be fair, I like seedy. It was also handily within walking distance of my best friend’s place in Notting Hill, which was still itself seedy, although the wealthy were beginning to encroach upon it.

On Westbourne Grove, just down the road from me, stood the local branch of the Conservative Party, or rather it cowered, behind a scarred and streaked sheet of plexiglass, off which, it looked, many bricks had bounced over the years.

I was starting my career as a freelancer, and desperate for ideas. And then one day I had one: why not join the Young Conservatives – for I was still young then – and write a book about these people and let the world know how ghastly they were, and have fun at their expense with some satirical writing? I knew they were ghastly because I’d met one the morning after the 1987 election, visiting my friend Deirdre Redgrave. While we were both sulking, in came a friend of her lodger’s, a Bright Young Thing possibly called Poppy, who told us she was a bit hungover because she’d had such a smashing time celebrating the Tory victory.

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Anyway, I examined my idea and decided it was sound. I put on my tweed jacket, went into the office and came out with a bunch of leaflets about how great it was being a Young Conservative. I had a moment of foreboding as I crossed the road and was nearly run over by a taxi. I thought: “What if someone goes through my pockets and finds all this horrible literature?” So I stuffed it in a drawer when I got back home and never took it out again.

I realised I would have to go to one of their meetings. I picked one held in the Palace of Westminster by John Carlisle, the deeply mad MP for Luton North. He was talking about the death penalty. It was being revived in the US and the lunatics in the UK were getting one of their regular froth-ons about reintroducing it here.

So one dark evening I met in a pub nearby with a bunch of young maniacs, and we had a pint before going to the meeting. It became clear that the only way I could survive the evening and the rest of my assignment was to present myself as a Tory wet rather than an ultra; so at one point I put on my Prince Charles Voice and said, “You know, the thing is the death penalty doesn’t serve as a deterrent; in US states where it exists, the murder rate hasn’t gone down at all. If anything, it’s gone up.” To which the person I was speaking to replied: “I don’t care.”

The rest of the evening I spent in a fog of rejection. Carlisle was as nasty as could be and his audience lapped it up. I thought: screw this for a game of soldiers. There was no way I could start, let alone finish, this book. Carlisle was throwing them hunks of raw meat, and they were wolfing them down – although afterwards, one of their number said Carlisle was, if anything, a bit soft on the subject.

“I don’t care.” Those words have haunted me ever since, for they explain so much. I have often wondered where that person is now, how close he is to the levers of power. He was younger than me, but seemed older – overweight and smothered in tweed; in my mind’s eye, he has a watch chain, but I might be imagining that. So when you see a Tory MP in his – there were no women – mid-fifties or so, blathering on about the boats, or Rwanda, or benefit scroungers, remember: I saw them when they were incubating, and it was not a pretty sight at all. Here endeth the lesson.

[See also: The secrets of Shakespeare’s “stupid”, “grotesque” portrait]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now