I’m spending this weekend by the seaside, at the Freedom Festival in Bournemouth. Despite the temptation of the beach under glorious sunshine a few minutes’ walk away, almost 200 people are spending the weekend debating and discussing the principles and practice of freedom.
Organised by The Freedom Association (for whom I once worked), with the help of a range of think tanks and pressure groups, it is a great start on the road to a political Hay Festival, an idea my colleague Peter Hoskin suggested last year.
It’s stirred my thoughts about our centre right movement more generally – here are a few early observations:
1) British politics pays insufficient attention to ideas. In recent years, the trend has very much been against ideology. Politics is a practical business, of course, but that should not mean abandoning the discussion of principles, philosophies and values.
We should have more events aimed at training activists, developing campaigns and so on – but we also need more opportunities for the grassroots (not just professional thinktankers) to dig into the why rather than just the how of politics.
2) There’s a grassroots appetite for the right kind of event. There has been a lot of justified concern about the decline of the party conferences as a grassroots experience – higher costs, a reduced voice for activists and a feeling that the event is targeted at lobbyists rather than party members have all contributed.
This weekend in Bournemouth shows one way that perceived decline could be reversed. With a lineup of great speakers, from Lord Tebbit to Daniel Hannan, accessible at an affordable price and run with an atmosphere of open debate, TFA have attracted an audience from teenagers through to octagenarians.
It isn’t that people don’t want to go to political conferences – it’s that they want to go to one in which they are more than the backdrop for television shots of a speech.
3) The Freedom Association occupies a hugely important political position on the right. For an organisation preparing to celebrate its 40th birthday next year, TFA finds itself strikingly topical.
As the home of the Better Off Out campaign, it will no doubt play an important part in the EU referendum battle to come. As a libertarian organisation with a Thatcherite heritage it helps to build big tent alliances between libertarians and conservatives.
But it is also a crucial piece of neutral territory in the divided right.
With a split between the Conservatives and UKIP, it’s right that we argue our corners – but it is also important that reasonable people on both sides have a place to meet and discuss what we have in common.
Even the North and South Koreans have those huts at Panmunjon, which straddle the border and allow somewhere for both sides to talk with words rather than bullets. The Freedom Association is one of the few places where Tories and UKIPers currently rub shoulders.
The gap between the Koreas is rather larger than that on the right of British politics – if we hope to reunify one day, as we must in one form or another to avoid handing Labour an eternal electoral advantage, then it may well start in somewhere like Bournemouth, on a sunny day, discussing freedom.