It’s easy to dismiss 'Tory Glastonbury'. But George Freeman's Ideas Fest is asking the right questions
The Conservatives are a party with a grassroots problem. The answer? A field in Berkshire, themed tents, a fiddle and a handful of dressed-down MPs: welcome to the ‘Ideas Fest’. Sebastian Whale reports.
The first rule of Tory Glastonbury is don’t call it Tory Glastonbury. Instead, refer to it by its Christian name, the Big Tent Ideas Fest. That is if you don’t want to upset Conservative MP George Freeman, who laments the quick thinking of a particular media outlet in rebranding his brainchild. It’s actually more like the Great British Bake Off meets University Challenge, Freeman says as he opens the event, reminding me of David Brent’s “I’ve sort of fused Flashdance with MC Hammer shit”.
Indeed, the occasion is like Glastonbury insofar as they both have festival in the title. That’s about where the comparisons end. Swap muddy Somerset fields for the sprawling estate of Mark Davies, a Tory donor who was formerly managing director of Betfair, the online gambling company, Wellington boots for brogues and Ed Sheeran for a violinist playing Bach.
I confess to arriving at the event in Berkshire on a glorious Friday morning with a degree of scepticism. The Labour party under Corbyn successfully appropriated the festival-scene this summer. It’s a trend that Freeman is seeking to tap into (“why is it just the left who have all the fun”). But, in truth, there’s probably a reason for this. The Tories’ grassroots and membership, as one MP told me, is a “disaster”. And rejuvenating the party’s offer while in office is an uphill task. But Freeman, who chairs Theresa May’s policy board, is not hanging around to get things moving.
So, to the festival itself. The 200 invited guests have a choice of three tents to visit, each with a theme: economy, politics and society, pointed out by elaborate handmade signs. Other messages dotted around the garden include motivational quips such as “Human history is, in essence, a history of ideas” and “A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind”. This speaks ultimately to what the festival is about – ideas. And Freeman is hungry for them. Guests are asked to write down a policy proposal of their choosing as they depart.
Among those in attendance include Tory MPs James Cleverly, Chloe Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Alan Mak and Bim Afolami, all in their casual best, alongside a scattering of Conservative peers, former Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry and writer Sir Roger Scruton. A curious Lord Adonis is also in attendance, while Labour MP Liam Byrne is a speaker at the first fringe event in the economy tent on Brexit. He’s here as an agent provocateur, he muses. “I’ve got Labour party membership forms with me… I left the Momentum forms at home,” he adds.
Attendees are predominantly white and middle class, with a high concentration of Barbour jackets and beige trousers. But the average age is far lower than that of your token Tory party member. The festival is as much about sticking rocket boosters under the centre ground, promoting entrepreneurialism and reforming capitalism as it is of Conservatism. Subjects for discussion include millennial disengagement through to the UK’s national debt, housing policy through to the opportunities and threats posed by AI. The use of whistles instils iron discipline by making sure events don’t overrun.
After a busy morning, guests are treated to a violently delicious lunch of ham (quiche for vegetarians) with honey mustard sauce, chickpeas, lentils and salad while the violinist gets to work. Proceedings are paused at half past two, as Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence is live streamed in the society tent, as though some major sporting event is taking place. Instead of cries of “referee” and expletives, not a word is said for the entire period. The feeling after the “big” speech is anti-climactic.
As the day whittles away the sense of scepticism turns towards a quiet admiration. Resplendent in a burgundy jacket and beige chinos, Freeman compères the day. He exudes a quality not often associated with the Conservative party – passion. He bounds across the festival, taking part in debates while keeping tabs with the crowd.
Freeman is not alone in recognising that the Tories need to redress their young people problem. Alan Mak says: “I think it’s the case that we need to do more to reconnect with young people who probably haven’t seen us as the natural choice. Addressing issues like housing, jobs, wages, pensions, mortgages, are all on the agenda and it’s only by having events like this that we can actually come together and talk with external experts as well as talking among ourselves.”
Freeman plans to take the festival around the country. He’s already had interest from the North East (“always the first”) and targets a larger festival with around 20 marquees next summer.
His big announcement is the creation of the Capital Ideas Foundation, a non-political charitable foundation “of entrepreneurship for entrepreneurship”. This will carry out policy work and grow the concept of the Big Tent Ideas Festival. Freeman’s colleague, Tory MP Phillip Lee, then wraps up proceedings.
Just how inclusive the event proves to be remains to be seen – it was certainly a jolly for your average policy wonk, but maybe not for your run of the mill voter. Indeed, a collective cynicism broke out in the mainstream when Freeman first mooted plans for his festival in June.
But while others in the centre ground twiddle their thumbs, waiting for the dust to settle, Freeman is at least trying to rebuild his political home.
As he puts it: “If we’re going to inspire other people with the idea of good politics, if we’re going to reach out and connect to a generation who see politics linked to a capitalism that isn’t working for them, then a generation of us who believe that capitalism can and must work better, have to adjust and reach out and open up and show them that we’re prepared to ask the difficult questions.”