Following on from the last post, the conversation yesterday made me think of my childhood politics. I’ll try here to put some flesh onto those bones.
I suppose I was always politically-aware. At the time I bought the media’s descriptions of the “loony left” in the early 1980s, and this culminated in helping the Conservatives in the 1983 General Election. And, Liverpool itself was controlled by the hard left – I saw their activities from day to day, it was easy to be opposed to them. I’d have been fifteen.
That’s probably too early for somebody to decide on their politics, and so it proved. I’ve realised in later years that the “loony left” was a name conjured up by the media, who themselves had vested interests. Actually, some of the beliefs of, say, Michael Foot or Tony Benn (leader and deputy of Labour at the time), are admirable, when you look beyond what people said about them, versus what they said about themselves. That, ultimately, is why I have a lot of time for Jeremy Corbyn.
Anyway, aged fifteen I threw myself in. I wasn’t sure at that stage I had any idea of where I wanted to go with it, and from week to week, the organisation was largely social. The funny thing was that, looking back, one of the things that was never really central was politics! Certainly, having access to (and later joining) a private members’ club was handy, for access to alcohol! But there was more to it than that and I grew a circle of friends from that environment. Because politics was not the most fashionable of hobbies, this probably also distanced me from school-mates.
I was also interested in the political side, and visits to conferences followed. The main organisation was the Young Conservatives, and I remember two of their conferences, in 1984 and 1985. Also the main party conferences in 1984 and 1985. I very briefly met Margaret Thatcher herself, introduced to her as “the future” (I was 16) and a host of cabinet ministers, all people I usually only saw on TV. In fact the only person who was vaguely unfriendly to me was Geoffrey Howe, then her Foreign Secretary, if memory serves. Bad day at the office? I met Patrick Jenkin a few times, in his role as Minister for Merseyside.
I have distinct recollections at one of the YC conferences, voting against the organisation for the first time, in a debate about fox hunting. Fox hunting was a very “Conservative” issue, because they like to be seen to be representing the “traditional way of life” of the countryside, but to my mind it was wrong. Even if you accept that foxes need to be controlled (not something I’m sure I do) there has to be a more humane way of controlling them than chasing them to exhaustion, then having a pack of dogs tear them apart. People might say we don’t understand the countryside, but we do understand cruelty toward animals. Possibly a sign early on of how the party’s traditional lines went against my grain. It is interesting that when the ban finally came in, Blair followed those lines – not banning hunting itself, merely that way of killing animals.
1984 was, of course, the year of the Brighton Bomb. Something I missed only by about half an hour, as the Grand Hotel was about the only place in Brighton to get a drink at that time of night, so was a hub. In fact, I’d gone back to my hotel five minutes away and was sound asleep when the bomb went off! This episode is ironic, given my later support for Irish nationalism. But then, a lot of my views changed in that teens-early twenties period, as I saw more of the world.
1985 was actually more off-putting. Very visible, armed police in great numbers. There were rumours of a destroyer at anchor just out of sight of the shore, and one of my friends got the shock of his life when, at 2 o’clock in the morning, full of alcohol and amorous intentions, he and his partner were surprised by an armed policeman on Blackpool Beach! But this was not how I wanted politics to go, and was my last conference. I began winding down my involvement after that.
Along the way, though, there were some fun times. It was, as I’ve said, a very social organisation, and whilst we worked quite hard when elections came around, it was fun work I suppose because being a Conservative in a Labour stronghold, we had no real expectations. Behind every politician there is an team of organisers, led by somebody called an agent. They are responsible for things like election spending, and at one time I quite fancied making a career of that, In fact the local party even allowed me to act as an agent during one city council election – a ward called Dingle, in the Liverpool Riverside constituency. If that rings any bells, it’s because the tv comedy “Bread” was filmed there. I can’t remember exactly when this was, but I know that I wasn’t officially allowed to be the agent, because they had to be a certain age, probably twenty-one. With hindsight, the ward was such a no-hoper (and so it later proved!) that they were probably glad of a young enthusiast willing to take on the role. Certainly, the less at stake, the more enjoyable the experience.
In the autumn on 1986 I left to go to university. It was very much a wrench to go, as I was aware that I was saying goodbye to good friends. Of course, I went back every few months at first, but it was inevitable that I gradually laid down new roots in Cardiff. With hindsight it was absolutely the right thing to do, not only did I develop myself academically, but because it gave me a wider view of the world, of people from different backgrounds. Ironically, it also spelled the end of my Conservative beliefs, again as I saw more of the world and was influenced by other people. In the thirty years since that time, I’ve never returned to them. It’s funny, I’ve never really thought hard about when my politics changed. I mean, for sure it was those three years at university which did it, but perhaps the seeds of dissent were sown even before then?