The mood at the Conservative party conference this week was a little subdued, and no wonder. As those who watched the television coverage will know, everyone entering the secure zone had to run a gauntlet of potty-mouthed protestors. It’s not easy to celebrate after you’ve just been showered with spit and called a ‘Tory murderer’.
On Tuesday, as I made my way to the convention complex, I came up with a brainwave. Instead of just walking through the police barriers, eyes glued to the ground, I would invite one of the protestors to have lunch with me. My plan was to persuade them that I wasn’t an evil scumbag, but someone who shared many of the same values as them. It would be a small victory in an otherwise unsettling few days.
Sure enough, I was met with a chorus of abuse as I approached the barrier. A line of police officers stood between the protestors and me and I asked one of them if it would be OK if I wriggled through. ‘On your head be it, mate,’ he said, stepping aside.
‘You’ve probably never met someone like me before and I’ve never met anyone like you,’ I said to the first group I came to. ‘Why don’t I buy one of you lunch and we can spend some time getting to know each other?’
The man closest to me, a white Rastafarian with a torn T-shirt, took umbrage at this. ‘Of course you’ve never met anyone like us,’ he said. ‘We’re far too common for a Tory squire like you.’ He then broke into a chorus of ‘Common People’ — ‘I want to sleep with common people’ — which had everyone around him in stitches. But a middle-aged, grey-haired woman agreed to talk to me.
As we strolled down the street, looking for a restaurant, she told me she didn’t want any lunch. ‘The policies of this government make me so sick, I couldn’t eat anything,’ she said. But she agreed to let me buy her a cup of coffee. We settled on a curry house opposite the convention -complex.
She was a 63-year-old private maternity nurse whose last job was looking after the baby of a Premier League football manager and she’d obviously done quite well for herself. She lived in a housing association flat, but was intending to take advantage of the government’s extension of the right to buy so she could leave something to her son. ‘I’m not a hypocrite,’ she said, catching the look of surprise on my face. ‘I told Jeremy Corbyn that I wish he had that policy.’
As expected, she was a huge fan of Corbyn and had joined Labour in order to vote for him. But, surprisingly, ‘right to buy’ wasn’t the only Tory policy she approved of. She also wanted Britain to regain control of its borders — ‘I think there’s too many foreigners in London’ — and on some issues, such as foreign aid, she was to the right of the government. ‘I think we should look after our own people first,’ she said.
Yet in spite of this, she was still happy to brand Conservatives ‘scum’. ‘Those people going in there, they don’t give a toss,’ she said. ‘They live in a nice little world, where everything’s nice. Why did they go into politics? These people — George Osborne, David Cameron — look like they’re full of their own self-importance. You should only go into politics if you want to improve the world, if you’ve got something you really care about.’
‘But they do care,’ I said. ‘You may disagree with their policies, but, believe me, that’s why they went in to politics. To improve the world.’
She looked completely flabbergasted by this. She cited the benefit cuts as evidence that Tories were ‘evil’ — ‘Forcing people on their deathbed to go back to work’ — and threw in Nick Clegg for good measure. Before she joined Labour she’d been a Lib Dem, but became -disillusioned after the coalition was formed.
In the end, I didn’t manage to convince her that Tories were in politics for the right reasons. But she certainly confounded my expectations. She wasn’t a ‘Trot’ or an ‘anarchist’, and some of her political views were closer to Nigel Farage’s than Jeremy Corbyn’s. My reluctant conclusion is that she — and the other protestors — don’t need much of an excuse to engage in demonisation and two minutes of hate. The wolf is in all of us, prowling around the unconscious, always looking for permission to be let out.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.