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The death of the Conservative Club It's closing time in the Tory shires

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


July 1, 2024   5 mins

In 1993, the then British Prime Minister, John Major, gave a speech to the Conservative Group for Europe: “Fifty years on from now,” he predicted, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and — as George Orwell said — old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.”

To his audience of liberal Tories, Major clumsily evoked a microcosmic life of the nation that, piece-by-piece, constituted the Conservative Party. His party would survive, Major argued, because it was rooted, not in ideology or activism, but in the daily practices and associations of millions of people: attending church, organising clubs and conducting ordinary business.

Even at the time, Major’s vision of an intact civil society bolstering a centuries-old party was out of date. Indeed, a few years later, in the “invincible green suburbs” of Major’s speech, millions of Conservatives abandoned the party in 1997 for Blair’s Labour.

Yet, there was something concrete in his political elegy. The mediating associations of the Conservatives, although weak, survived 1997 and helped rebuild the party under David Cameron’s vague “Big Society” project. In contrast, the clubs and associations that kept Labour voters loyal — Miners’ Institutes, Workingman’s Associations, Labour Clubs, trade unions and the Methodist chapel — had already declined by the early Nineties. Without these structures, Labour’s core vote in the Red Wall happily turned blue in 2019.

However, from the vantage point of 2024, the Conservative Party’s 14-year revival now looks like a blip. In 1953, the Tories had more than 2.8 million members: almost twice that of Labour. Today, it claims only 172,437.

Historically, the Tory Party relied on “Conservative” or “Constitutional” clubs as auxiliaries, connecting MPs to their communities through cheap booze, snooker, music hall acts and darts. These clubs were once the “non-political” bedrock of the Conservative Party: expressing a paradoxically non-ideological vision of ideology and governance.

Indeed, many members of Conservative Clubs I spoke to refused to concede that their membership was in any way political. “We don’t talk about politics here,” was a common response to my inquiries. Few saw the irony of saying so while sitting beneath portraits of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher.

“In the Eighties, a friend of mine was visited by a Conservative Party worker in the Surrey stockbroker belt and was invited to a BBQ at the local Conservative Club,” Rupert Morris, author of The Tories: From Village Hall to Westminster, tells me. “When he said he would only come if they BBQed Mrs Thatcher, the grand Tory lady replied: ‘Oh, but we’re not political around here, anyone can come.’ There was an unquestioning sense that one would naturally be a Conservative in a place like Surrey.”

Such placid content has since disappeared. Over the last decade, these clubs have closed at a rapid rate: bludgeoned by rising energy costs, Covid-19, declining membership and the expense of entertainment. Some clubs are now trying to change their names, strategising that their political affiliations are putting off punters. When I phoned Charles Littlewood, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Associate of Conservative Clubs (ACC), to discuss closure rates, I was greeted with flat-out refusal and accusations of media bias.

“I was greeted with flat-out refusal and accusations of media bias.”

And so, I travelled to the suburban south coast of West Sussex, to find out for myself. Here, the private Lancing College rises from the South Downs, while fishing cottages, council estates and vast rows of suburban semis crowd the shoreline. In many ways, it is an all too neat encapsulation of Major’s “invincible green suburbs”. It should be the perfect place for Conservative Clubs, if not the party, to thrive.

However, this coastline, once assumed to be representative of the average Tory safe seat, is rapidly changing. While Worthing and Shoreham still possess a few Conservative Clubs, both parliamentary seats are expected to fall to Labour this week. Many in the area understand this as a consequence of high house prices and the migration of young Labour-voting professionals and families away from the extortionate rents of London and Brighton.

Goring Conservative Club, the first venue I visited, is housed in a grand neoclassical building in the middle of an estate. A week before the general election, and there are no political posters or banners of any kind: only flags for the football. In the atrium of the building, I meet Simon Flack, the chairman of the club, and Catherine Lane, a committee member. Inside, there are no openly party-political features. Instead, English and Scottish flags for the Euros are draped over the bar.

“I don’t know necessarily, at the present moment, whether I want to invite him,” says Flack, when I ask him about the club’s connection to Sir Peter Bottomley, the local Conservative MP. “He’s never approached us. A year ago, I had a man turn up who was looking after Peter. He thought they would be meeting here, but they were actually meeting in the library down the road,” Flack adds. “Why he didn’t ask us to use the function room is beyond me.” (One of Bottomley’s staffers later tells me: “We’ve gone our separate ways, over the last nine years we’ve not had an email asking him to attend the club. I can’t believe they would invite Sir Peter.”)

Flack described how the club used to connect its members to the Tory high and mighty: “If you look at our honours board, it’s Colonel So-And-So, Sir Whomever, and several famous MPs, but this is going back to the 1940s and 1950s.” Lane adds that, today, politics is rarely discussed. “Politics is never spoken about here, it’s never seriously spoken about — people come here to socialise, the [Conservative] name is part of the deeds, we have to keep it.”

Indeed, the breakdown between the Goring Conservative Club and the Tory Party reached a tipping-point last year. “An ex-president of ours was as Conservative as they come, and he actually did a video for the Labour Party a couple of months ago,” Flack explains.

Down the road in Shoreham, the local Conservative Club huddles beneath a huge glass development stretching along the river. Inside, the room is packed out for Saturday night’s entertainment. The average age is 70.

Shoreham’s  atmosphere immediately feels more politically charged. The local Tory candidate’s leaflets sit in a large pile at the door. Portraits of the late Queen and Winston Churchill watch over the bar. From the far side of the room, a series of photographs of Conservative prime ministers from Rishi Sunak to Thatcher line the wall. “We skipped Liz Truss,” a bartender jokes.

One table tells me they’re suspicious of the media and politicians. “They’re all the same
 Farage is the only one saying what people think.” They tell me all their children will be voting Labour: “National service scared them off [the Conservatives] didn’t it?”

On another table, two women sip at gins. “I wouldn’t come in here if it wasn’t Conservative,” Carol tells me. Tim Loughton, the local MP, regularly attends the club’s AGMs and seems popular with them. “Have you seen him dancing?” Carol asks. “He swung me around like a bleeding cat.” She goes on to explain that she will vote Conservative: “If Labour gets in, everything will go up in price and my pension only stretches so far.”

Later on, I speak to David, an elderly ex-serviceman, who is having drinks with his family. He explains that he’s 72 and still working, largely to pay for dental treatment. “The Conservatives have been in power for 14 years and I can’t afford things.”

Does he believe that a Labour government will remedy this? “I used to have faith in politics. I’ve always been a working-class man,” he says. “Labour doesn’t support the working-class, so I became Conservative because I was self-employed. I’ll vote Reform now.” He looks around the room. “This is obsolete, these [Conservative Clubs] are dying out. But there’s respect here.”

One of David’s younger relatives, roughly in his early 20s, laughs and tells me he has a tattoo of Nigel Farage’s face. I ask where it’s located. “I couldn’t tell you that, mate.” He laughs again. For the few young people in the club, the pomp and circumstance of conservative ritual seem irrelevant in the face of populist provocation and a sense of looming crisis. For now, politics lies outside association: in the realm of the meme and the extended joke.

Outside, the spires of Lancing College frame mudflats where boats moor and fly fishermen reel in their catch. Numerous hedgerows hide thousands of houses sheltering under the South Downs. However, in these “invincible green suburbs” of Major’s accidental requiem, the Conservative Party is now an exhausted force, disconnected from those it claims to serve. The Labour Party looks likely to win these seats. Despite the vital role Conservative Clubs play for their elderly members, it looks likely that they, too, will soon be forgotten.


Samuel McIlhagga is a British writer and journalist. He works on political thought and theory, culture and foreign affairs.

McilhaggaSamuel

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Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago

Good article but the Conservative party was not “rebuilt” under Cameron’s “Big Society”, it was “refurbed” into a pale copy of Blair’s New Labour.
Cameron didn’t win in 2010, he had to form a coalitionnwithnthe LibDems. He won in 2015 because he promised a Referendum on the EU, but didn’t realise that’s why he won.
Again in 2019 Johnson won the Red Wall by promising to “get Brexit done” but thought he won because he believed he was personally popular. He was, but that’s not why people voted Conservative.
Now Reform will take many of those votes.

Hugh Jarse
Hugh Jarse
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Johnson won because he campaigned with a clear message. Which resonated. What we are faced with later this week is ‘we’ll be better than the other bunch’.
This lack of directional leadership from any of the major contenders is depressing.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
11 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Jarse

Johnson campaigned with a clear message but intended to do the reverse once in power.

peter barker
peter barker
11 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Jarse

He also had an opponent who most people outside of London saw (see) as dangerous for the country.

David McKee
David McKee
11 days ago

Well-written piece, full of atmosphere. But McIlhagga makes the mistake of assuming the fortunes of the Conservative Party mirror the fortunes of the Conservative Clubs.

The decline of the clubs has much more to do with the decline in pub-going. There were 60,000 pubs at the turn of the century, and just 45,000 now.

The decline of the Conservatives will now be reversed. There’s nothing like a Labour government, screwing things up, to act as a recruiting sergeant for the Conservatives.

Phil Day
Phil Day
11 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Agree that Labour will screw things up but am sceptical the Conservatives will benefit for the simple reason they are no longer conservative.
There will be a centre right party in the future but I don’t see how enough people will trust the current Tory party for it to be them

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
11 days ago
Reply to  Phil Day

There is a one off Phoenix & Ashes opportunity for a genuine fresh centre right force embracing Reform voters and Old Toryism to emerge. Together the centre right can prevail against a moribund Progressive State and Labour. We need a Canada Option – tho ideally led by Kemi or Jenrick. This United Front must explicitly reject a the pro EU One Nation pro Mass Migration pro Big State pro High Tax Blairy Cameroon Wets. I think a fresh positive vision of a post EU state supportive of borders, controlled migration, enterprise and wealth creation could attract a clear majority once the scorched earth of Starmerite Socislism has been seen. First page manifesto…determined to create AND SHARE wealth. You all have been warned.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

I agree that pub going has declined. Also the Conservative (and Labour clubs) were the cheapest places to drink…now it’s Wetherspoon’s which has also caused the closure of many other pubs.

Don Holden
Don Holden
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Wetherspoons has been the saviour of the British pub, people can go there to talk without background music, pool tables, and poor quality beer.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
11 days ago
Reply to  Don Holden

“Hear, hear”… literally!

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Wetherspoon doesn’t do anything that’s rocket science. It just spends more of its time giving people what they want, and less time telling them.

It has also closed & sold a number of venues, giving other operators a chance to enter the industry and try their luck.

Most have been woeful.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

I agree with your assessment about the decline in clubs here. I’m a late gen x’er and it seems like since I started drinking at pubs there has been a strong drop off in those younger than me going. They seem to prefer drinking at home and late night clubbing if going out at all.
The social clubs I’ve been a member of have definitely declined with a lack of youngsters signing up. It was seen a lot with snooker teams in the leauge I played in; teams used to frequently complain at a lack of ‘youngsters’ wanting to join up.
This trend has a number of causes – far more forms of entertainment all trying to compete for people’s money and time (however rich you are, we all only have so much of that) alongside changing attitudes to drink and in-person socialising.
The pathways to being members of these places is very different, too. Once it would be an extension of local employment or through familial lines (dad taking son to the club for the first time).

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago

I really enjoyed this essay.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
11 days ago

It would be nice to have more social clubs where you can go for a chat with like-minded people and if so inclined, do activities. So many activity groups nowadays seem to consist solely of exercise or art and crafts stuff which I personally have no interest in as social activities.

annabel lawson
annabel lawson
10 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

At Dickson Tradies Club in Canberra we have stretch classes, dancing, morning tea each week, and Trivia on Thursday mornings – all free. Much diversity of colour, creed, age and income.

William Amos
William Amos
11 days ago

My local Conservative Club in Streatham has felt compelled to rebrand itself under a different name. The Conservative Club in nearby Catford changed it’s name to the Constitutional Club as well. The Yuppies are iron in their party dicsipline when it comes to mixing with potential ‘Toryism’. The strange thing, given the associations of Toryism is that the ‘Con Club’ is actually the most ‘working class’ and ‘diverse’ watering hole in the parish. All ages, races and political outlooks – not that much politics gets talked.
Probably the only hope for these places as going concerns in the 1000 year liberal progressive Reich is that the Tories are so decimated that the very word ‘Conservative’ becomes a de-fanged and gently pitiable old relic.

j watson
j watson
11 days ago

Has this sort of Club been replaced with the echo-chamber internet community? Maybe like UnHerd? Grab a brew and log on rather than walk down to the Club and lean against the Bar etc.
As regards the locality referred to here – there seems potential for what may be deemed a Labour Red Coastal Wall in the South emerging this Friday. Some of this partly because Tories/Reform vote will split, but the Author also touches on a bigger fundamental – an increasing number of folks feel society has become more unequal, that they are struggling more, and that the Right and their form of UK capitalism offers nothing but the continual slide in this direction. People don’t discern quite how this has happened and hence some fall prey to scapegoat distractions regarding migrants. However there is a reason society is inexorably becoming more unequal – it’s what happens when assets become ever more concentrated and our tax system imbalanced. The Conservative Club and it’s values regarding protecting unearned wealth, has sown the seeds of it’s own collapse.

Andrew R
Andrew R
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

“Scapegoats” again. JW do you have memory issues or is narrative as truth and endless projection the only arguments you have.

j watson
j watson
11 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Not me you need to worry about AR. It’s those on the Right who got to stop the scapegoating and understand what has really been going on.

Andrew R
Andrew R
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

But I do JW, I do. No “scapegoating” pnly Left wing Gnosticism..

Robbie K
Robbie K
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Has this sort of Club been replaced with the echo-chamber internet community?

You are definitely on to something there.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
11 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Hardly. Anyone with at least two brain cells to rub together would’ve thought that.

Andrew R
Andrew R
11 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

JW repeating the same thing over and over again. Do you think he exists in his own echo chamber?

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
11 days ago

This article certainly set me off thinking- who owns the premises in which these 45k of clubs are housed? The buying power of that franchise could be enormous. If they were run as a mutual organisation ploughing profit back into facilities and low and steady prices they might mop up the market – especially for the growing silver spenders!

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
11 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

That’s a really good point and one I raised after a visit the other day, to our local Con Club. It was all but empty but had obviously recently undergone a refurb. Drinks were about two thirds of pub prices. The building is impressive and facilities are spread over several floors, including several full size snooker tables. But no one I’ve asked since seems to know who owns it.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 days ago

Christ, I wish they’d put that damn quote to rest.

N Forster
N Forster
11 days ago

In my home town the Tory club was popular because it had a full size snooker table. The only other one in town was in the private club above the Police station. As the writer notes, folk didn’t discuss politics. We preferred to get on with one another.
Perhaps they could rename them “Reform clubs.” may well prove popular. So far I know of no one who is voting Tory or Labour. All I’ve spoken to are voting either Reform or SDP.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 days ago

Indeed, many members of Conservative Clubs I spoke to refused to concede that their membership was in any way political. “We don’t talk about politics here,” was a common response to my inquiries. Few saw the irony of saying so while sitting beneath portraits of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher.

I’m not really sure where the irony is here. I also don’t see people talking about dogs playing billiards or poker, either.
Having been a member of both a Conservative club and Labour club over the years, I can also assert people don’t talk much politics at them either. As astonishing as the claim may be to the author, people really do go to these places to play snooker, darts or doms, sup cheap beer and er, socialise.

R Wright
R Wright
11 days ago

Conservative clubs are as obsolete as the seaman’s mission.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
10 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

It’s a shame really as I used to be both

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
11 days ago

History is now and England.
But now, just history.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
10 days ago

I’d vote for a party promising to conserve what’s left of this country. For some inexplicable reason, the Tories seem to have given up on that.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
10 days ago

The Conservative Party forgot why Britain became great. Britain became great because it offered more freedom for upward mobility( yeoman archers being a good example ), keep the fruits of one’s labour; representative government from 1295 with ability to control taxation, freedom under the law, and allowing individuality( Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions) which was the cause for our genius according to B Wallis. The decline in daring and innovation in many parts of Britain from the late 1870s led to our decline. We could have been the leader in aviation in the 1950s but a combination of Wilson selling the jet engine to the USSR and D Sandys cancelling the Swallow led to it’s demise.
After the defeat of the Armada ” Walsingham said ” This island breedeth courge ”
The inability of politicians, civil servants, union leaders of un and semi skilled unions, teacher, academics , writer to understand that after 1945 other countries were developing their industries, led to further industrial decline.
Thomas Telford FRS FRSE and George Stephenson demonstrate the freedom and individuality of the British people at their best .
The fruits of the British spirit was courage and ingenuity of the individual, not the collective, which as been forgotten by the Conservative Party. Ten millions dullards will not produce one invention, one genius can produce many. A nation of genii such as Florence in the 15th an 16th centuries and Britain from late 16th century to mid 19th century develop civilisation.