They Were the Future of the Tory Party, Once

We may mock the Young Conservatives of the Fifties but they were unswervingly loyal and a formidable electoral force

Features UK Politics

Their days were numbered: Members of the Young Conservatives promote a recruiting rally on the Whitechapel Road in 1961

All who were there agreed that the first annual fashion show of the South Hammersmith branch of the Young Conservatives had been a triumph. Although the February day in 1964 had dawned cold and foggy, the damp air did not deter the local MP William Compton Carr nor his wife Mrs Compton Carr from attending. The Reverend Sullivan was also in the audience at the Constitutional Hall.

Young Conservative member Kenneth Maxfield wrote in that month’s newsletter of the show’s “four delightful, high-stepping young ladies, Alison, Carol, Hillary and Philippa” who sashayed down the catwalk in a “blaze of colours”. He confessed that he had felt quite “dazed” by the display.

After the high glamour of the show (dresses kindly loaned by the House of Dorville) cups of tea were served at the back of the hall and “the most delicious scones” freshly baked by the redoubtable Beryl.

Such were the joys of the Young Conservatives (YCs) in their heyday. A dizzying round of fund-raising fashion parades, quiz nights, jumble sales, carol singing, boat trips and balls. Today, it seems terribly old-fashioned; a Salad Days idyll of wholesome pursuits and earnest door-to-door canvassing on behalf of local MPs with double-barrelled surnames. 

Well-behaved they may have been but at their height the Young Conservatives were the largest voluntary political youth movement in the free world with the power to influence  if not decide — the outcome of general elections.

In 1951 it was roundly agreed that it was the YCs “wot won it”. After six years in opposition, Churchill was returned to Downing Street. He could not have done it without the reforming zeal of Lord Woolton, the former food minister and now party chairman, who understood that if the party was to have a future, it must attract younger voters.

In his memoirs, Woolton notes that in 1945 he had taken charge of a party that had its “back to the wall”, that was defeated, depressed and financially broke. What it needed was an injection of youthful energy.

There had, of course, been Conservative youth organisations before the YCs, but by 1945 these were a ragtag of disparate, defunct or largely ineffective groups. The foremost among them, the Junior Imperial League (the Imps) could boast of 1,900 branches with over 150,000 members in 1930. But at the outbreak of the war, their activities had ceased: young men and women of all parties had more pressing things on their minds than local council elections.

After the war Woolton realised that the socialists had successfully colonised the universities — both undergraduates and dons — and the Conservatives, he felt, must reclaim their share of the student vote. So Woolton travelled to Oxford and Cambridge, wining and dining politically-minded members of the colleges and speaking passionately at the Unions. Within two years, the Conservatives were the majority party in both universities and, having galvanised the young politicos of Oxbridge, the message was spread to other campuses. The Young Conservatives were born.

There was no shortage of willing volunteers. For ex-officers in their early twenties, who were finding civilian life dull and shapeless, taking command of the Orpington branch of the Young Conservatives and whipping their recruits into shape was the next best thing to leading a battalion. By 1947, there were 1,546 branches and 104,000 members. The following year membership had risen to 151,987.

Lord Woolton knew that to win the 1951 general election, the party needed troops on the ground. In his memoirs, he talks proudly of what he called “Operation Knocker”: the mass deployment of Young Conservatives to knock on doors on behalf of local candidates. And it worked: the Conservatives won by a majority of 17. Not a very great majority but enough to put Churchill, Woolton and the YCs in power.

The early 1950s were the golden age of the Young Conservatives. At its peak, membership stood at about 250,000, although in their more bullish moments, the YCs boasted of half a million. The rapid rise in Young Conservative numbers, from a standing start to 250,000 in five years, was part of a much wider trend which saw party membership mushroom in the postwar years.

Many Conservatives had been shaken by Churchill’s defeat in 1945 and faced with the grim realities of a Labour — worse, a socialist — government, they joined in their droves. Membership of the Conservative Party rose from around 911,000 in 1946 to a peak of 2,800,000 in 1953.

Sensing this new danger, Labour launched a similar membership drive, increasing its numbers from 645,000 to just over a million in the same period. However, without a Lord Woolton figure, the Labour party failed to attract younger members in anything like the same numbers as the Conservatives.

For many young people, with precious little by way of entertainment beyond the cinema, the local branch of the YCs offered company and diversion. Branch newsletters give some sense of the activities on offer. In Rushcliffe Roundabout, a magazine for the West Notts Division of Young Conservatives, a page of coming events promises an Evening of Magic and Mince Pies; a Treasure Hunt at the Three Ponds; Haymaking; Sailing Down the River; a Talk by the Governor of Lowdham Grange Borstal Institution; a Visit to BP’s Eakring Oil Wells; a Visit to a Local Lace Factory; and a lecture entitled “Race Relations: Red, White and . . . Black” given by Britain’s first “coloured” magistrate.

Parents found little to object to. For protective fathers it was far preferable to have their daughters spend a Friday evening with the chairman of the Pudsey branch of the YCs, than at the cinema with some teddy boy with grease in his hair. The YCs began to gain a reputation as something of a marriage bureau.

This is borne out by the announcements column included in many YC newsletters. In the June 1956 newsletter of the Weybridge YCs, for example, the announcements column reads: “Our congratulations to Mollie Walter on her engagement and to Margaret Webb and Mike Allen on their marriage.” In the following issue, the editors were again delighted to announce the engagement of Brian Gunn (branch deputy vice chairman) to Christine Gray (branch secretary). The editor of Rushcliffe Roundabout, meanwhile, was beside himself with excitement when he was able to announce: “Let’s start with the good news — the engagements and marriages — and this time we have five!”

Gender equality within branches, however, was almost non-existent. Whereas men tended to be chairmen, deputy chairmen and chief branch officers, women were inevitably secretaries. When the Weybridge YCs appointed the first female editor of their newsletter, the outgoing editor Mike Stoten wrote a gloriously patronising letter to branch members. “Gillian Welch, our charming new Lady Chairman . . . has taken on this most important job with apparent calm, but we feel sure that she must have had a few misgivings about taking what is, after all, a very responsible job.”

Nevertheless, the YCs did offer middle-class girls social opportunities and a role in the community beyond the home and family. One female member of the Ealing YCs felt moved to write an open letter to sister members about how to manage their clothing bill for the myriad social occasions they were expected to attend: “What other ‘club’ caters for varying interests such as tennis (whites, of course), swimming, boating and rambling (thick sweaters and trousers)?” she asked. “One has to dress appropriately for visits to theatres, cinemas, gas-works, art galleries and other places of interest. Another big clothes item are dresses suitable for the many dances we attend. Also stockings worn at dances, often laddered by male clod-hoppers or female stilettos.”

This arsenal of outfits was by no means wasted on the male clod-hoppers. Sir Julian Critchley, who was chairman of the Hampstead YCs from 1949 to 1950, wrote nostalgically in later life of those very same tennis whites.

“I remember a bevy of girls called Pam, Pat, Paula and Sue,” he reminisced in the Daily Mail in 1994, “with whom I would play tennis in Gladstone Park in the long summer of 1949. They wore short shorts with turn-ups, dinky white shoes and Aertex shirts.”

Sir Julian certainly didn’t attend the branch meetings in the “dingy” YC headquarters to admire the posters of Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill on the wall. Not when there was the far more appealing sight of “trim-waisted, long-legged secretaries, hairdressers, and budding journalists on Vogue magazine”. If the young men of the Hampstead YCs played their cards right, he recalled, there was the promise of “fumbling in the backs of motor cars” or a goodnight kiss on the walk home from the Haverstock Hill tennis club.

Bolder members of the YCs ventured farther afield. Often several branches would club together to put on a ball or organise a trip to the seaside. In 1955, 200 YCs decamped to Scarborough for a dance at the Olympia Ballroom. It was reported that a good time was had by all but the planned midnight swim had found few takers. One poetically-minded YC wrote: “We left with only memories, snapshots and the cries of seagulls ringing in our ears.”

But after the electoral successes of 1955 and 1959, the YCs became complacent and recruitment slowed. Membership in 1959 was only half that of 1950.

By the early 1960s, the YCs were looking distinctly old hat. In a telling sketch from 1961 called “The Blood Donor”, comedian Tony Hancock explained that he wanted to do something for his country and found that he could either “become a blood donor or join the Young Conservatives. Anyway, as I’m not looking for a wife and I can’t play table tennis . . . here I am.” Youth culture had changed forever: ping-pong and a dutiful wife simply couldn’t compete with Beatlemania, Mary Quant’s miniskirts and Mick Jagger’s lips.

The YCs didn’t always help their cause. In a sniffy newsletter editorial, one YC poured scorn on Sixties fashion. “I have always imagined models to be curvaceous young ladies in their twenties, beautifully powdered, painted and manicured, and speaking with an Oxfordian accent. I was surprised to read the other day, however, about a certain Twiggy, who in addition to being a 17-year-old Cockney, admits to biting her nails.”

The days of the Young Conservatives were numbered. In the August 1964 issue of the South Hammersmith branch newsletter, the editor wrote: “This is the last edition of the Digest before the General Election . . . I am looking forward to October. I hope you all are! Then we will have a chance to play our part in what I expect to be a grand victory. Let us make sure that Sir Alex Douglas-Home is returned to No. 10.”

That October, the Conservatives lost the election after 13 years in power and the South Hammersmith Digest ceased publication. Within two years, membership of the youth branch of the party had fallen to 54,000. It would never fully recover. There was a short-lived spike in membership in the late 1960s — enough to help Edward Heath into government in 1970 — but the days of haymaking and trips to the local lace factory were over.

At the YC conference in 1971, Peter Thomas, vice-chairman of the party, issued a stark warning: “If the party shall continue to obtain only a minority of votes among young people then the long term prospects are very bleak.”

Heath was the last Conservative prime minister to actively court the party’s youth branch. When a delegation of YCs visited the People’s Republic of China, they were affectionately described to the Chinese as “Heath’s children”. On leaving office, he wrote an open letter to the YCs which read: “All my political life I have owed a special debt to the Young Conservatives. The trust I always gave to you was not misplaced. I know you will not betray it. Good luck to you all.”

Margaret Thatcher did not share his sentiments. When she assumed power in 1979, YC membership was only 27,500 and during her years in office it fell by a third. This steady decline was not helped by her move in 1981 to cut the YC budget by 70 per cent. In all the tributes and analysis that the death of Lady Thatcher has provoked, her attitude to the party’s youth movement has barely been mentioned. But Mrs Thatcher’s antipathy to the Young Conservatives was in no small part due to their continuing loyalty to her predecessor. At the YC conferences of the early ’80s, there was a mutinous mood among members who felt that they had enjoyed greater status under Heath.

There may also have been a more personal reason for her impatience with the party’s youth branch. As a prospective parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Dartford in 1949, the then Miss Margaret Roberts had dutifully done the rounds of Kent’s YCs.At Orpington she had warned against the socialist power grab before being treated to tea, games and amusements in the garden. While at the YC fête at Ashdown House in Dartford, she had told the rapt crowd that once a Conservative government was in power, “they would be able to say with Keats: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.'” This line is actually Wordsworth’s, an uncharacteristic error from the detail-obsessed future prime minister. After the speeches there were games of rolling the penny, roulette and bagatelle and Miss Roberts was presented with a bouquet.

But these afternoons courting the local YC branches bore little fruit. Miss Roberts failed to oust the Labour incumbent Norman Dodds and when it came to Finchley in 1959, she didn’t waste quite so much time quoting poetry to the teenagers of north London.

The minutes of a meeting between Mrs Thatcher and YC representatives in 1982 reveal the party hierarchy’s feelings. On a blank page, her Private Parliamentary Secretary Ian Gow has scrawled: “Each is more ghastly than the other.”

The YCs had gained a reputation for being priggish and stick-in-the-mud and recruiting new members proved almost impossible. When Malcolm Charlesworth, a member of the South Ella branch in Hull, wrote a manifesto on new branch formation in 1977, it fell flat. He advised: “It will be a case of ‘scouting around’ for a suitable venue. You may be able to ‘hire’ a room at the local pub. This may have the advantage of ‘beer on tap’, but be warned of the temptations to under-age drinking.” His plans were neatly typewritten with large, clear margins, but those inverted commas around anything “illicit” must have done much to put off potential members.

What is more, the youth wing of the party was becoming increasingly divided. With the expansion of the universities, the university-based Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) siphoned off many people who might otherwise have become YCs.

During the 1980s the FCS became increasingly militant — “more Thatcherite than Thatcher” — and difficult to control. In-fighting saw the FCS split into authoritarian, libertarian and wet factions. Then there was an alleged “riot” during the 1985 FCS conference at Loughborough University. Little actual damage was done — the bill for repairs amounted to less than £20 — but the tabloid press scented blood. The party chairman John Selwyn Gummer began to look for reasons to close down the FCS.

In the end, the task fell to his successor Norman Tebbit. In 1986, Harry Phibbs, a member of the FCS, published an interview with historian Nikolai Tolstoy in the FCS New Agenda magazine which repeated Tolstoy’s accusation that Harold Macmillan had been complicit in war crimes. Today, Phibbs ruefully recalls that Tebbit had been looking for any excuse to “stamp on” the FCS. The Tolstoy debacle was the last straw and the FCS was disbanded.

That just left the out-of-fashion YCs who, Phibbs says, had simply become too “bland and goody-two-shoes”. By September 1991, YC membership was 3,933 — an all-time low. In 1998 William Hague, then party leader, called an end to the Young Conservatives, 52 years after Lord Woolton had given them life. The movement which had once been the darling of prime ministers and party chairmen thanks to the energy of its local activists had been reduced to little more than an unpopular after-school club. Hague renamed the youth branch of the party Conservative Future.

It has been a largely successful undertaking. Today, membership of Conservative Future (CF) is about 15,000. Ben Howlett, who retired as CF chairman in March after three years in office, has done much to improve the standing of an organisation that was seen as toxic by the main party. He has increased the proportion of ethnic minority and women members (although YC events are still dominated by young men in ill-fitting suits or red corduroy trousers) and has made Conservative Future friendly towards young, gay Conservatives. When asked if CF shares its predecessor’s reputation as a marriage bureau, he observes that while “John might once have joined in the hope of marrying Jane, now John joins in the hope of marrying James.”

Could we ever again see a return to the electoral triumphs of the 1950s? And, properly marshalled, could Conservative Future help its party to victory in 2015? Howlett is adamant that he wouldn’t want CF members turned into “leaflet fodder”, but this runs counter to everything Lord Woolton achieved with his great “Operation Knocker”. Woolton rightly saw that without young, industrious members “eager for action”, the party would become sclerotic, aged and stagnant. Today, the average age of a Conservative Party member is 64. Many began as YCs. 

In his memoirs, Woolton wrote a touching tribute to his Young Conservatives: “They remain — and they must remain — one of the strongholds of Conservatism in this country.” It is a great weakness of today’s party that it lacks the support of a youth group as effective, energetic and loyal as Woolton’s tennis-white YCs.