The Freedom Zone
In the last few years I have really enjoyed the Freedom Zone section of the Conservative Party Conference. It’s previously billed itself the “real fringe” because it was prepared to tackle popular and controversial subjects that didn’t make the agenda in the most “on message” and sanitised sections of the conference. It was a fair billing too because it did very much what it said on the tin and it wasn’t uncommon for our ragtag band to spend a fair bit of the conference in the Freedom Zone debating issues like press freedom, free trade, the EU, the effects of new media on politics and so on.
Of course I don’t always agree with the Freedom Zone speakers and audience positions – that’s the point. You can have the debates instead of avoiding issues which are, frankly, smouldering angrily in the background. But I’ve always been of the view that you cannot pretend an issue doesn’t exist and expect it to just “go away.” They don’t. They fester.
The reason the Freedom Zone has been able to “get away” with a somewhat radical agenda is because it is always located just outside the official conference area. You don’t need a conference pass to get in and you don’t have to pass the intensive security that is needed elsewhere. It’s like a mini-Conference, held right next door to the main conference.
This year, though, I wont be supporting or attending the Freedom Zone. There are two reasons for this. The first is a broad one – to my mind the Freedom Association, under whose umbrella the Freedom Zone is set up, has taken a wrong turn. It has always billed itself as non-partisan organisation where members of any political party or of none can take part for the purposes of furthering the causes which the Freedom Zone champions; Euroscepticism, patriotism, liberty, sound economics and the like. But recently it has seemed to me that it has become a party vehicle for UKIP. And while there is little doubt that UKIP are Eurosceptics and broadly patriotic, I am not at all convinced that they are a party of liberty or of sound economics. They make a good talk about their Libertarian views, but in practice I’ve seen their councillors and supporters do quite the opposite. Nor do I want to be part of an organisation which is being overrun by them.
But I could move away from enjoying the Freedom Association’s activities for a while without boycotting the Freedom Zone, I know. However, I read recently that their “keynote speaker” at the Freedom Zone is going to be Nigel Farage. Indeed, they were having a lot of fun with how that would infuriate the Conservative leadership and what mavericks this bold move would make them. They thought this was somehow a really powerful statement.
Nigel Farage is a good speaker and he should feel free to stand on his own soap box where and when he wants. I’ve enjoyed the things he says on a number of occasions, though there is a limit to how many times he can be photographed with a fag and a pint and declare what a “man of the people” he is before it starts sounding a bit practised. But for the Freedom Zone to book him to appear at the “real fringe” of the Conservative Party Conference is provocative to say they least. It’s like taking a packed lunch into a restaurant and saying: “No, I don’t need the menu, I brought my own food.” What they seem to think is an edgy and clever move just seems to me to be plain rude. I’m sure UKIP will love it, but I doubt I am the only Conservative who will henceforth take a whole different view of them.
There is nothing absolutely wrong with booking Nigel Farage to speak just outside the main annual party conference. Had he booked himself a venue I would have just been wryly amused at his usual attention-seeking escapades. It is the Freedom Zone’s active participation and glee about it that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve heard a few colleagues refer to it not as the Freedom Zone but as the UKIP Zone and I suspect that will change the nature of participation quite a lot. I’m not sure this is a move that will look as clever to them in hindsight.