Donal Blaney is the Chief Executive and co-founder of the Young
Britons’ Foundation. He is a former local councillor,
founder National Chairman of Conservative Future, former National
Chairman of the Conservative Graduates, Area Chairman of Wessex Area
Conservative Students and Chairman of Southampton University
Our esteemed editor was not the only British conservative to attend last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. I was one of six Brits that I know of who attended CPAC and in my case it was my fifth conference since 2001. While the Labour mouthpiece that is Tom Baldwin wished to sneer at the American conservative movement, the fact is that British conservatives have much to learn from our more successful conservative cousins in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. While more electorally successful conservative parties build a vibrant conservative movement and a broad-based coalition, here in the UK we leave too much to the Party machine. In fact the truth is that the Party machine arrogates power to itself to the detriment of the conservative electoral cause as a whole, a process that reached its nadir with the deselections of candidates (and in one case, a sitting MP) during the last general election.
Arrogation of power away from local associations and voluntary groupings affiliated to the Conservative Party is nothing new. It is a process that accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s. It is not simply because young people are not interested in politics anymore or that they have other ways of spending their leisure time that the conservative youth movement is not what it once was.
Much of the problem can be traced back to the emasculation of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s. Such was the (perhaps understandable) fear that the Party’s youth wing would embarrass the Thatcher government that the Party simply decided to nationalise the Party’s student wing so as to ensure that it did not do or say anything "wrong".
Factional infighting in the 1990s between the "sound" Eurosceptic Young Conservatives and the "wet" pro-federalist Conservative Students saw the enforced merger of the YCs and Students in 1998 with the National Association of Conservative Graduates. I was the last ever Chairman of the Graduates and the founder Chairman of what is now called Conservative Future. I therefore bear part of the blame for the centralisation of power that I am attacking in this article.
During 2001 and 2002 I visited the United States five times. I had a
series of meetings with the Heritage Foundation, the Leadership
Institute, the American Conservative Union and the Young America’s
Foundation after being inspired by seeing Chief Buthelezi, Dick Cheney,
Jesse Helms, Charlton Heston, J C Watts, David Trimble and Benjamin
Netanyahu at the 2001 CPAC conference.
While it was and remains blindingly obvious to me that the British
political system is different in a number of important ways to the
American political system, and that American campaigning techniques or
policies cannot and will not directly translate to the UK, it struck me
that it would be both arrogant and foolish not to look at what could be
The Conservative Party’s youth wing has always been able to recruit
in constituencies and in universities, albeit with varying degrees of
success. It has also continued to organise social events and campaign
days. What the Party has been unable or unwilling to do is to undertake
work that is undertaken in the US by the Leadership Institute and the Young America’s Foundation.
The Leadership Institute works to identify, recruit, train and place
conservatives in politics, government and media. It offers a wide range
of training courses targetted at students on such topics as public
speaking, debating, broadcast journalism, web design and direct mail.
It has its own $2m television studio in which it trains young
conservative activists on how to come across on the television and
The Young America’s Foundation describes itself as the principal
outreach organisation of the conservative movement. It ensures that
the young understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual
freedom, a strong national defence, free enterprise and traditional
values. It provides various conferences, seminars, educational
materials, internships and speakers to young people across the country.
On reading what both the LI and YAF do, it is hopefully as apparent
to you as it was to me that this is not something that Conservative
Future or the Party can or will do. It is only something that can be
done by an organisation that works in the interests of conservatism and
in seeking the election of conservative candidates – but which is not
formally part of the Conservative Party itself.
It was with this in mind that I co-founded the Young Britons’ Foundation
in 2003. YBF does the work of the LI and YAF in Britain, albeit on a
far smaller scale. YBF helps conservatives organise speaker meetings in
schools, colleges and universities. We provide educational materials
and organise conferences which both educate students academically as to
conservative principles and train students in developing their public
speaking, debating, fundraising and media skills. We also help
graduates of our training programmes obtain work experience or
full-time employment in politics and the media. Some of our graduates
are now councillors or parliamentary candidates.
Since the founding of YBF in 2003, a genuine conservative movement
has begun to develop and I for one find this exciting. I am delighted
that Francis Maude understands its importance, as evidenced by his
decision to send Tim Montgomerie to Washington to see what, if
anything, the Party can learn from the US conservative movement. The
formation of activist groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance, blogs such as conservativehome.com and issue-based groups such as the Globalisation Institute
is essential for the Party to win in 2009. Relying on a swing in the
political pendulum or for the Party alone to secure a Conservative
victory in 2009 is not an option. A true conservative movement is the