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October 30, 2006

FCS twenty years on - Harry Phibbs remembers his days in the Federation of Conservative Students

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Federation of Conservative Students (FCS), of which Harry Phibbs was a leading member, was closed down by Conservative Central Office twenty years ago - to re-emerge as the Conservative Collegiate Forum and later as part of Conservative Future. Here Harry Phibbs remembers his time in the FCS. The views expressed in this article are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

An invitation to a 20th anniversary party marking the end of the Federation of Conservative Students prompted much nostalgic reflection. Of course there will always be some sort of body to coordinate and promote the efforts of University Conservative Associations around the country. It used to be called the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations - until it was decided that FUCUA was an embarrasing acronym. It is now called Conservative Future.

But there was something special about the FCS phase, there was more to it than a change of name. It was an attitude of mind.

For a while, especially in the late 1970s its leadership was very much on the Left of the Conservative Party. Those Conservative Students who wanted to praise the free market, or fight the cold war, or disaffiliate their college from the National Union of Students did not expect help from FCS but from the Freedom Association. Some asked whether FCS was "the Conservative wing of the NUS or the NUS wing of the Conservative Party." A group of past FCS chairmen defected to the SDP when it was formed in 1981.

In 1980 Peter Young was elected FCS Chairman and the organisation was transformed. Instead of a strategy of appeasing the National Union of Students and the Left generally, a confrontational approach was adopted. Disaffiliation campaign were held with widespread success resulting in most of the Scottish universities pulling out of NUS and spending the money on cheaper beer in student union bars.

The posters, leaflets, stickers and pamphlets produced by FCS developed a tough edge in both style and substance. Hitherto the message had been non political ("join us and have good time") or politically bland or worthy (anti-apathy, pro-participation, anti-extremism, pro-democracy, or something involved with the minutia of student issues usually calling for increased public spending).

Under the new regime campaigns took place in solidarity with those fighting Communism around the world, whether Eastern European dissidents or groups fighting civil wars in Africa and Central America. A shocking policy was adopted in support of a students loans scheme. The battle of ideas was fought for freedom and the free market, against socialism and state control.

It wasn't all noise at Freshers' Fayres. The thirst for ideas went deeper. Endless philosophy seminars were held where speeches by such people as Antony Flew, Ken Minogue and Madsen Pirie were greedily devoured. Under Young a barrage of publicity material was produced by Brian Monteith, a subsequent FCS Chairman himself and now a Member of the Scottish Parliament. For the first time the Tories were producing livelier, more radical propaganda than the Left.

Often humour was deployed. One poster of three Labour MPs photographed in front of a tank in Afghanistan which had just been invaded by the Soviets included a quote from one of them:

We looked around in vain for tanks.
A lapel badge declared:
Nationalise Crime - Make Sure it Doesn't Pay.
Factionalism was rife. There was considerable intolerance of the wets who were regarded as fifth columnists in the battle to thwart Socialism. Communist states were regarded as evil. Our moral crusade was to end them both to free the people who lived in them and to
thwart the threat that we ourselves might be enslaved. The contempt for the Foreign Office establishment view that it was more sophisticated to accommodate these regimes was greeted with contempt.

Tory Ministers in the Thatcher Government coming to address FCS conferences would be bemused to find themselves robustly denounced for not going further. This would be by an audience of several hundred students, a large number of whom were Scots, overwhelmingly casually dressed and often the first in the family to have been to university.

So the factional divide was wide. There were the traitors who wanted to collaborate with NUS and those - the "sound" faction - who were described as Thatcherite but were beside themselves with frustration that the Thatcher Government wasn't Thatcherite enough. Paradoxically Paul Goodman, the capable leader of the FCS wet faction who managed to get elected FCS Chairman in 1983 in something of a blip, is now a very "sound" Tory MP.

On the other hand there was John Bercow who was a "sound" FCS Chairman and is now something of a "wet" Tory MP. These things are complicated. Bercow is not that wet - he is still a Eurosceptic. When I saw him not so long ago he agreed that describing his views as being in line with Michael Portillo would be fair. Also he wasn't that "sound" when he was FCS chairman. I fell out with him when I edited the FCS magazine New Agenda and I interviewed Count Nikolai Tolstoy concerning Harold Macmillan's role in the forced repatriation of Cossacks at the end of the Second World War - something which went beyond the Yalta Agreement which restricted those to be handed over to their deaths to those holding Soviet citizenship.

When Marc-Henri Glendenning was elected Chairman in 1984 FCS became more controversial than ever as the heady ideological brew included the application of libertarian ideas to the social as well as the economic sphere with issues such as the legalisation of drugs being discussed. This meant that, as well as being smeared as fascist, FCS found itself smeared as being anarchist - sometimes by the same people.

The strains between FCS and the Party leadership were understandable. Some Party Chairmen were more supportive than others. Cecil Parkinson thought FCS did a good job and kept up its budget. John Selwyn Gummer made an attempt to close it down but this was bungled when it turned out the degree of damage caused at a party in a Hall of Residence during FCS Conference in 1985 at Loughborough University had been exaggerated to a ludicrous extent. Norman Tebbit went ahead and closed it down a year later. Only Nixon can go to China.

The new body was given the name Conservative Collegiate Forum, the very name might have been designed to discourage the excitable element and to make sure elections were abolished. But it gradually improved and rebranded, notably under the impressive leaderhip of Iain Smedley, and later reemerged as Conservative Future where there seems to be plenty of factionalism but a shortage of ideology. This is a pity. If we don't proclaim our beliefs we can scarcely expect to make converts.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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This is a very "sound", accurate and perceptive account of FCS. Incidentally, the wheel has turned full circle. While the Conservative Party leadership may now lack the stomach for the fight, The Freedom Association is returning to the fray and supporting students seeking to free themselves from the unreformed clutches of the National Union of Students. As Harry so rightly points out, it is important that the ideology of the free market should be championed in our colleges and universities and TFA intends to help conservative-minded students to do just that.
Simon Richards - Editor, Freedom Today

Posted by: Simon Richards at November 1, 2006 12:08 PM

Have you any idea what you are writing about here? I was in FCS in the 1970's and do not recognize the FCS you describe. We were not bland or apolitical. I was a university chairman through the miners' strike and subsequent elections. We had to hold the line when the country was being brought to its knees by people like Scargill and company, and the issue was was who ruled the country, the democratically elected Conservative government or the unions? Nobody knew where this was going to end. In fact the government lost (and the British people lost) because although they got more votes, it translated into more Labour seats so we got Harold Wilson. The university students did not join in the picketing for the most part or the violence, and FCS was active to prevent that. I guess you just had to be there. I cannot speak to what FCS later became, but it was not the "join us and have a good time" party you suggest. WSe had a god time, but because we were very political.

Posted by: Valerie at May 18, 2008 01:36 AM

Sorry, Valerie the miner's strike was in the eighties not the seventies and FCS up till people really began to take hold of the organisation was an Oxbridge social care network - working for the politically bewildered. I was one of the Loughborough three and the debates raging when I became involved were incredible. If only politics was like that now ...

Posted by: Donald Stewart at October 23, 2008 01:29 PM

There were miner's strikes in both the 1970s and 1980s.

The year long strike was in the 80s which was led by Arthur Scargill.
I am sure he was also active in the NUM in the 1970s but he didn't lead them.
Joe Gormley was the leader for the whole of the 1970s.

I also remember Harry Phibbs at Thames Poly (now Greenwich University), which was described by Maggie as ' a hotbed of revolution'. He managed to disturb a hornet's nest of left wing students who went after him. This was around the time of both the Miner's strike, to which Thames students lent a lot of support, and attacks on the Poly by far-right wing skinheads.

It certainly was a bolshy place: in my time there, Thames students staged our own protest in central London in which we were outnumbered by the Metropolitan police but still managed to block Waterloo bridge, run amok in Whitehall (one student was depicted in the national press riding the statue of a horse in Whitehall), and another student claimed to have punched Sir Kieth Joseph outside the Ministry of Education.
A member of Maggies' think tank joined a debate between mostly Marxist lecturers and left in hurry when he was verbally attacked by virtually everyone in the hall.

We occupied the Poly closing it down for three or four days, disrupted a council meeting that had a final deadline to set the rate to meet Maggies public spending cuts forcing its abandonment which led to the prosecution of the councillors for failing to set it, and we had to board up all of the windows of the Poly to resist the attacks of armies of skinheads.

The FCS tried make a mark- and Harry certainly was controversial but the political tide there flowed in another direction.

Posted by: Steve Cannell at May 25, 2009 02:17 PM

I'd say Valerie's memory was correct: I was NW area vice-chair of FCS in the early 70s and recall 'sound' meaning pre-Thatcherite right wing, with a right-wing whip maintained by area chair John Kershaw.

Generally we supported but somewhat also despised Heath for his 'wetness', epithets also applied to national FCS luminaries like Andrew Neil and David Davis who were chairs or on its steering body, although not to Neil Hamilton who may or may not have been a full member but certainly turned up to conferences.

Posted by: JohnnyFox at February 27, 2010 11:03 AM
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