We stood in silence. I glanced around the hall: white heads dipped before me, a few participants too old to stand, a handful of youngish faces, leaflets littered on neat, empty ranks of chairs. I picked one up to read: “Conservative Association Annual General Meeting. Minutes of the last meeting . . . The president remembered the members the Association had lost in 1997 and asked for those present to stand for a moment’s silence.”
This happened every year, then. I had arrived at this meeting expecting to feel slightly unwelcome, perhaps disturbed by a fierce and reactionary debate. Instead I merely felt awkward, trespassing in the memories and institutions of another generation. I had arrived to attend a memorial service for the Tories.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Conservative Party. But as this once terrifying institution began to face its autumn years, I often wondered what was happening within it. Not how its policies were changing or how it was rearranging its internal structure, but how its members thought, and how anything that described itself as conservative could possibly change. I wanted to see the true spirit of the grass roots – such a Tory image, all lords and lawn parties. But in order really to understand the lot of the contemporary Conservative activist, it seemed clear that I would have to become one. This is not orthodox political journalism, but it seemed no less appealing for that. I chose a leafy suburb in London, so Tory that as I was once passing through it I heard a man say: “Wait here, poppet, I’ve got to buy Granny her Montecristo.” I’m not joking.
My introduction was simple enough. They were, as I should have realised, very pleased indeed to see me – I had been terrified that my Labour background would somehow have been apparent from every movement. The office I walked into hummed efficiently but felt ill at ease with itself – the portraits of previous Tory leaders stared morosely from pale, corporate walls. Churchill in particular looked upset.
The constituency agent, a comparatively young man, answered my questions about the forthcoming Euro elections warmly but seemed surprised by my enthusiasm to take part in party activities. He anxiously jotted down the address for the AGM. The other occupant of the room seemed to view my youth with quiet, blue-rinsed suspicion.
The same melancholy seemed to pervade the meeting even after the minute’s silence. The president gave her opening speech, trying to sound upbeat, but she was defeated by the unfortunate words on the back of her sheets of notepaper. They exhorted local supporters to “Save our schools”, but only the desolate capitals could be seen from the stalls. I could just imagine Portillo spelling them out with militaristic gusto – three letters proclaiming a message to the world – S . . . O . . . S.
The chairman tried to buoy up the occasion with a degree of youthful enthusiasm but succeeded only in recreating the sad isolation of a bingo caller. It was up to the guest speaker, a Conservative Euro election candidate, to rally the troops.
He made a brave attempt, wisely leaving his speech untroubled by detail, or indeed reality. “Labour is on the ropes,” he reminded us. “The whole party is rupturing as thousands leave, disgusted by the betrayal of their socialist ideals.” He seemed genuinely moved. “Of course, you don’t hear about that, because if there’s one thing they’re really good at, it’s presentation.” Ah, yes. Smoke and mirrors. That’s all modern politics is about. The Tories would soon be returned, triumphant, to their rightful position.
Polite applause. Were there any questions? A hush descended as a man rose to speak. “You haven’t talked about Europe at all; aren’t you going to mention it?” he asked, not unreasonably. All hell broke loose, albeit in a subdued Tory manner.
The questioner was lightly insulted by the speaker for wasting time and heckled by most others. I was to witness this discomfort several times in the party. Conservative activists really seem to dislike discussing policy, any policy. It’s like trying to talk dirty with the Amish.
A spectre is haunting Conservatism – the spectre of Europe. I had tried to set out some suitably hard-core Eurosceptic credentials from the start but I found this didn’t impress many people. Certainly most Conservatives are anti-European – Hague describes those who want to leave the EU entirely as “fanatics”, even though these people make up nearly half of his party. By contrast only a fifth support joining the single currency. The activists, however, are still far from accepting a Eurosceptic creed and seem more content with the unpersuasive phrase of the leadership: “In Europe but not run by Europe.” Anything to avoid division, it would seem, however banal the rallying cry.
This seems odd somehow. The Conservatives have it in their hands to make the Euro elections an unofficial referendum on the single currency. This would generate huge publicity, fire the resolve of most of their activists and greatly increase the Conservative vote – and yet they can’t bring themselves to do it.
“You see that chap over there? Very influential. If you want to go places in the Conservative Party have a word with him,” confided a Eurosceptic friend at the AGM. I had been on the scene only minutes, and already the power structures were being pointed out. If you’re young, Conservatism is your oyster. “Although, being a businessman,” continued the sceptic, “he is horribly pro-euro.” My attention was drawn to a number of other prominent figures, many of them also Europhiles.
Next came the telephone canvassing. This presented a number of ethical problems to me as a Labour activist, which I tried to solve by dialling very slowly indeed. It soon became worryingly easy to put the question seriously: are you planning to vote Conservative? The answers were often brief and to the point, usually preceded by a kind of amused snorting noise. Occasionally I would come across little ghettos of Conservative voters, true believers who affirm their faith with a quiver in their voice. “And will you be voting Conservative?” “Always. Always.” This conjured up images of headscarved housewives bravely delivering baskets of food to the last of the Resistance, who hide in underground associations while new-Labour stormtroopers make sweeps across the political landscape.
I am back in the office, talking to the agent and the Eurosceptic. In fairness it must be painfully difficult to get the slightest bit of interest in your local party when the only programme your front bench is likely to get on is Crimewatch.
Hague is seen as a guy in a tricky situation. He is one of them but he has been pushed awkwardly to the front of a frightened crowd, not carried on their shoulders. As such the grass roots respect him, far more than I expected. In private there are few Conservatives who consider the next election to be anything other than unwinnable.
“I didn’t see it at first,” lamented a pinstriped Tory one evening. “Everybody was wandering around that night saying we’ll be out for two terms. But we were in power only the day before. How could you forecast the result of the next general election on the basis of this one?”
They seem curiously undepressed, though. There is a sort of calmness. They can’t quite believe there is a Scottish Parliament or will soon be a single currency. It is as if, all around them, people have lost their heads. Stunned by events around them, the Conservative activists are intent now on mere survival – while presenting a dignified and united front to the world.