Cynicism is a very British disease – and most of us enjoy a good dose of it from time to time. But it’s also quite destructive.
Consider business. When people take a risk to create something new, our culture can be brutal and unforgiving. We’re quick to pick holes, and slow to forgive failure. In other countries, notably the United States, they’re much more appreciative of the act of taking a risk, and much more accepting of the fact that failure is part of a learning process which eventually delivers success. In the words of Michael Birch, a successful British tech entrepreneur, “Particularly in the UK, if you do something and it doesn’t work out, it’s more likely that your friends will say, ‘I told you so,’ rather than, ‘You must have learned a lot, I bet you’re going to have another go at that.'”
I confess that a week ago, on the train to Twyford, Berkshire, to attend the inaugural Big Tent “ideas festival”, I was feeling a bit cynical. The event had been dreamed up by George Freeman MP in the aftermath of the General Election as a route to renewing the centre right’s stock of policy ideas. It had evolved as the summer wore on, ranging from what the FT mockingly called “Tory Glastonbury”, to an opportunity for the grassroots to regain a voice in the Conservative Party, to a source of ideas to address the failure to appeal to younger voters.
The prospect was intriguing, but the pitfalls were obvious. The Conservative Party is slightly worse than the Church of England when it tries to fulfil a self-imposed need to appear cool, or indeed when it even considers trying to use the word “cool”. From William Hague’s baseball cap to Andrea Leadsom’s leadership march, recent history has left us all with well-exercised cringe muscles.
Would the Big Tent see people in a field wearing suits or tweeds? Might it at times demonstrate, rather than dispel, the reasons for younger voters rejecting the Conservatives?
Admittedly, the answer to both questions was “yes, a bit”. There were some tweeds in evidence, I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.
Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.
With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.
This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems. At times it strayed into becoming a philosophy festival rather than a practical ideas festival, and some of the discussions risked becoming a bit unworldly, but as an event brought from concept to life in a few weeks it succeeded in making me feel a bit ashamed of my earlier concerns.
So what happens next?
Freeman announced at the end of the day that he hopes to hold several regional events in 2018, along with a much bigger central festival. I’m not sure it will necessarily scale up to the 70 tents that he mentioned, but there’s clearly room for expansion and interest in the concept of coming together to discuss ideas on the centre right. Last week’s event was invite only, deliberately wasn’t open to ministers, and, I’m told, a source of concern to the Whips, who at one point tried to discourage MPs from attending. I’m sure if it had greater capacity, and was open well in advance to the grassroots and other interested members of the public, it could have secured a much larger crowd. The organisers are already looking at possible plans and fundraising options to repeat and expand it next year.
But more important than its location or scale is the question of exactly what the Big Tent is for, which Paul floated a week ago. Is it a platform, a venue for people of all flavours of the broad centre right to come together to discuss, ponder and debate ideas and policies? Or does it have its own worldview, developing and promoting what it might call Big Tent Conservatism (and thereby also a platform for Freeman himself)? Either would be useful, but deciding which will be essential to the event’s future – try to do both, and they will fall between two stools.
I hope there will be more Big Tent festivals in future, but also that there will be more events like it organised by others, too, with a range of tone and focus. The Freedom Association’s Freedom Festival, which offers a Eurosceptic, libertarian equivalent of Freeman’s event on a similar scale, shows there is the potential and demand for talking about beliefs and ideas of all stripes.
The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.
That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.
The recasting the Conservative Party’s own structures, to be more supportive and accepting of a range of viewpoints within the Conservative family, as this site has proposed, should be part of this regeneration of the Right. But the primary responsibility lies with all of us – activists, citizens, business-people, workers, economists, philosophers, politicians, artists, dreamers and doers – to step up and create the places and media in which it can happen. The people behind the Big Tent have created just such a place, and I hope many others do so, too. Let a thousand flowers bloom; we’ll all be richer for it.