We Went to the 'Tory Glastonbury' Festival

Checking out the Conservatives' attempt to have fun.

by Mattha Busby; photos by Alex Sturrock
10 September 2018, 1:50pm

In the garden of a stately home in the quaint Cambridgeshire countryside sit eight little tents, ready to host a series of discussions. Welcome to the Big Tent Ideas Festival. One day. Fifty events. Two-hundred-and-fifty high-profile speakers. Gourmet food. Prosecco. A band. Unlimited sugar-free brownies. You can see – I guess? – why some people call it "the Tory Glastonbury".

Around 1,000 attendees dressed variously as if they’d just come from fox hunts, catwalks and pruning their hydrangeas strolled across the sparsely-populated lawn between the tents throughout the day as a leisurely – but not exactly buzzing – atmosphere took hold in the shadow of a Jacobean-style mansion that now houses a research institute.

If last year’s event was a bit Great British Bake Off – thanks to the top nosh and the almost complete absence of any young people – then this year’s was more like a cross between the Daily Politics and Downton Abbey.

Tory MP George Freeman founded the Big Tent Ideas Festival in the summer of 2017 after seeing tens of thousands of people chanting Jeremy Corbyn's name at Actual Glastonbury. "Why is it just the left who have all the fun in politics?" he asked. It was time for a cultural revival of grassroots conservatism as the party reeled from what felt like an election defeat – despite the fact they'd won – when the country decided they didn't want a death tax.

"Party politics is failing," says Freeman at Big Tent. "Parliament is failing, politics right now is failing, and I think the millennial generation, who've inherited the debt and a broken model of politics, are looking at Brexit as some sort of act of revenge by an elderly, nostalgic voter cohort which they're not going to have to live with."

Or, according to Labour MP Clive Lewis, who declined an invitation to speak at the event, "when all is said and done, [the event is] an attempt at detoxification and brand revival of the Tory party, particularly with young people"."

The stakes have never been higher, and with Labour leading the Tories by four points in the polls, the spectre of social democracy looms large. Meanwhile, as the leadership grapples with the art of the deal, the Brexiteers are circling like vultures about to swoop.

Even some of the Conservative Party's members believe it needs a rebrand. "I think that the government is absolutely hopeless," John Strafford, the chairman of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, tells me. "[Theresa May has] got a small amount of time left; I don't think she'll last past Christmas. It’s a classic example of politicians who know nothing, do nothing and muddle along. The Conservative Party could implode by the time of the next general election.

"As a Conservative, we seem to have lost conservative values. What we’ve got now is gender equality, equal pay, minimum pay, sugar tax – all kinds of weird and wonderful things."

The events at Big Tent – political debates and discussions – vary from asking how to end homelessness to whether heritage matters in the digital age and, somewhat apocalyptically, whether we're reaching the end of the liberal era.

Outside the debate on how to stop the circulation of so-called dark money, one of the speakers, Oliver Bullough, author of Money Land: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take it Back, says the government doesn’t seem particularly interested in stemming the flow of illicit cash.

"Britain created offshore, it was our idea," he says. "We retain the biggest network of tax havens, London remains the biggest international financial centre in the world, so obviously this is where the discerning money launderer washes or spends his money."

Sometime after this talk, I get chatting to Greg de Hoedt, founder of the UK cannabis social clubs, who's here to gauge the interest in legalising recreational cannabis among decision-makers and political influencers in greener pastures outside Westminster.

"People are seeing it's possible now," he says. "I'd say more than half of the people here have tried it, for sure. They must have. I’ve just met some people here who said they’re involved in the club scene. There would be a lot more drugs if this was a Tory Glasto for real. We know Tories are happy with drugs, they just don’t want to talk about being supportive of drug policy while they’re still in office. They're using Class A drugs at work! [a reference to traces of cocaine being found in Westminster]"

Moments later – after an impromptu appearance on the soapbox at the festival's Speakers' Corner – de Hoedt is in the Innovation tent, debating whether the UK should legalise cannabis.

"At the start of the discussion today I believed strongly that it shouldn't be decriminalised, but I have now been convinced otherwise," says Philippa Heart, a local Liberal Democrat councillor, at one point. "It's clear the majority of people here are in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis."

As the day wears on, glasses of prosecco and pints of bitter are knocked back in increasing quantity by the largely indistinguishable coterie of attendees – overwhelming white, middle class Tory party members. One festival goer, however, stands out, the message "IT'S ALL BOLLOCKS" emblazoned across his T-shirt.

I ask this sage what his message is. "What’s all bollocks is the fact you can do anything that will change the world. What’s all bollocks is the fact anything any individual does makes any difference,” says Richard Hipson, a retired doctor, through a pint of bitter. "Also, it sums up my philosophy on life, so why not share it?"

True to the name of the festival, towards the end of the day, an announcer reminds everyone over the tannoy to etch their policy proposals across the art wall.

Beneath "Real socialism has never been tried," somebody has scrawled, "What does that tell you about socialism?" A bunny rabbit beneath an instruction to draw our current government is described as roadkill, while Make America Great (Britain) Again is inscribed in large red letters at the top of the graffiti panel.

Following a discussion on tax reform that concludes with one speaker denouncing the injustice that her mother was forced to pay inheritance tax on a crate of Veuve Clicquot that her grandmother had forgotten about, everyone converged on the Politics tent for the main event: George Osborne in conversation.

Sporting a light blue, long-sleeve shirt beneath a navy blue gilet, the former chancellor confesses that his worst moment in politics was at the Paralympics in 2012, when he received a chorus of jeers.

His greatest memory? "That moment when you walk out the door of Number 11 for the first budget with the budget box *sharply inhales for dramatic effect* is quite a good moment."

The Osborne headline slot is of course a tough one to follow, but that context still makes it no easier to watch this late-teen alt-pop, folk duo play to a couple of dozen people. Apparently they didn’t know Big Tent was a predominantly Tory political festival, and thought they had simply been booked for a music event – apt, really, for a confusing event full of political fogies trying to appeal to the kids.

@matthabusby / @alexsturrock

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