We are pleased to announce the arrival of our expanded catalogue of the Young Conservatives, the youth wing of the Conservative Party. Over 40 boxes of new material have been added to the archival collection of the organisation, which existed under this name from 1946 to 1998, and was recently revived in 2018. The new material spans from 1959 to 1994 and covers a range of records from minutes and papers of the Young Conservatives’ National Advisory Committee to campaigning leaflets, posters and manifestos, adding substantially to the existing collection held as part of the Archive of the Conservative Party. The collection covers a range of important events within the history of the Young Conservatives, most notably its swing towards the radical right-wing during the 1980s, as well as its gradual membership decline and the early political careers of some prominent figures in British political and public life. This blog post will explore a handful of interesting topics which can be explored within this expanded collection, highlighting its significant historical value.
Youth for Military Disarmament
Throughout its existence, the Young Conservatives has had varying degrees of power and influence within the Party as a whole. Our new material explores this impact through various series including working groups and reports, external relations, publicity and officers’ papers. One of their most notable areas of influence was through campaigns they led, such as Youth for Military Disarmament (YMD) and the campaign for Sunday Trading.
YMD was set up by the Young Conservatives at the start of the 1980s to counter the message of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, especially amongst youth, instead arguing against unilateral disarmament in the UK. The campaign group had multiple directors, including Nick Robinson, later BBC political editor, and created an array of campaigning materials including posters, leaflets, badges and stickers. Files on YMD included in this catalogue offer an insight into the creation and use of these campaigning materials. The image below illustrates some examples, and the ‘campaigning checklist’ suggests leafletting in streets/schools/colleges and holding public meetings to spread the message.
This note from Phil Pedley, then Vice-Chairman of the Young Conservatives, demonstrates the early creation stage of these campaigning materials. Underneath a draft sketch and outline of the poster, he explains: ‘With this I’m trying to get the message across that there’s two sides with weapons & both must put down their weapons.’ The file later contains the completed A2 poster depicting a never-ending trail of USSR missiles contrasted with a handful of NATO missiles alongside the caption: ‘Do they really want peace? We do!’, clearly modelled on this initial idea.
Factionalism and swing to the right
From the early 1980s the Young Conservatives began to split into two factions, known informally as the ‘wets’ and ‘dries’, or the moderate and more right-wing sections of the group. This division was a reflection of the Party as a whole, which saw a similar split under the more hard-line leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The 1980s thus saw much in-fighting within the Young Conservatives, manifesting itself in accusations of electoral malpractice, members being banned from events, and scathing newsletters and leaflets spread at conferences. The image below is an example of a poster distributed at the 1988 Young Conservatives Annual Conference by the ‘dries’, criticising the leadership of Nick Robinson, Chairman at the time, specifically for banning 100 members from the event. The ‘wets’ successfully limited the influence of the ‘dries’ for several years until 1989, when Andrew Tinney became the first Chairman successfully elected from the right-wing slate.
A couple of new boxes contain material related specifically to the Committee of Enquiry, established in 1982 in response to extremist activity and right-wing infiltration into the organisation. As outlined in a circular in file CPA CCO 506/39/1, the need for this Committee ‘had been self-evident to the National Advisory Committee after the appalling publicity – principally in the summer months of 1982 – generated by the activities of the Uxbridge Young Conservatives’, who had ‘invited self-confessed fascists to speak to their branch and produced a newsletter entitled Dreadnought, which carried articles that were blatantly racist’.
The Committee wrote a report on the ‘Infiltration by the Extreme Right into the Conservative Party’ which covered the entire Party, its members fearing that the problem was not confined to the Uxbridge Young Conservatives or even the Young Conservatives as a whole. A draft version of this report was leaked in 1983 and a consequent BBC Panorama programme, ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’, made various allegations of far-right sympathies within the Party. These led to two Conservative MPs, Gerald Howarth and Neil Hamilton, successfully suing the BBC for libel in 1986. Below are letters from these two MPs to John Selwyn-Gummer MP, Chairman of the Party, expressing their anger at having been included in this report.
The Young Conservatives acted as an entrance into politics for many key political figures, catering for roughly the 16-30-year-old age group and encouraging membership by offering social activities and events in addition to political ones. Many of the new files released in this update contain correspondence, election manifestos, reports, and other insights into these early political careers, including future Conservative MPs such as Richard Fuller, Murdo Fraser, and Eric Pickles.
Below are some examples of candidate manifestos for internal elections, including those of:
- Richard Fuller: Young Conservatives Chairman, 1985-1987, then an MP.
- Nick Robinson: Young Conservatives Chairman, 1987-1988, then a journalist.
- John Bercow: MP and Speaker of the House of Commons.
- Andrew Tinney: Young Conservatives Chairman, 1989-1991.
Whilst the majority of the newly added material covers the 1970s and 1980s, there are a handful of interesting files covering the activities of the Young Conservatives during their earlier years of much higher membership, the group reaching c. 150,000 members in the 1950s. These include event programmes outlining the various social activities put on throughout the year by individual area branches. An example below demonstrates the events hosted by the York Young Conservative Organisation from April to June 1959, including games nights, a balloon race, and a motor treasure hunt.
All the material featured in this blog post, alongside the full updated collection of the Young Conservatives, is now available to view at the Weston Library. To browse the catalogue, visit: Collection: Conservative Party Archive: Conservative Central Office – Young Conservatives | Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts (ox.ac.uk)