The depiction by a leading Tory of his own party activists as swivel-eyed loons left me with conflicting emotions. I laughed at the phrase, but inside I faced a harsh reality. For I was once one of those loons. And while it is clearly offensive and foolish to describe activists in such terms, it must be admitted that the parties do offer a place of safety where the undiagnosed loon can feel at home.
This, therefore, is a difficult column to write, not because I am unwilling to admit to my days of lunacy but because I need you to know that I really, honestly have moved on. Weekly meetings at Loons Anonymous have helped me master my addiction to the point where I can no longer even name the entire shadow cabinet (along with their constituencies, majority and share of the vote).
In mitigation, it is now nearly 30 years since my activist days ended. I was, you see, a teenage swivel-eyed loon. I’m not sure my eyes ever actually swivelled but they could certainly widen. Perhaps these ocular shortcomings lay behind my ultimate disillusion and break with party politics. Perhaps if I had mastered the orbital technique I might now be branch treasurer – or even membership secretary. Instead, unable to cut it in ophthalmic rotation, I grew disenchanted, came to question other values and entered the no-man’s-land of the floating voter.
Three decades on, I can see I was not cut out for the SEL life in the Young Conservatives. I did not, for example, wish to hang Nelson Mandela, which some of my more enthusiastic colleagues seemed to think was a good idea. I did not know all the words to The Sash my Father Wore or any other Ulster Loyalist songs. These marked me down as suspect among activists of my time.
I had joined because, in the early 1980s, the ideological divide seemed important. But among the SELs, nuclear deterrence and trade union reform were entry-level stuff. A true believer supported the Contras, Jonas Savimbi and General Pinochet. Anti-communism was the ultimate defence for any leader or creed, however reprehensible. Today, many of those people hold senior positions in their local party. Some even made it to parliament. So when that senior Tory talked of swivel-eyed loons I not only knew what he meant – I could name them.
Many Tory party members, especially outside the big cities, are not SELs. They are simply rather old and take a view at odds with modernity. They wish we still lived in a slower, more traditional English world. They long for an England that no longer exists outside The Archers. The problem is that a combination of older folks and more energetic younger rightwingers is building a party ideally suited for 1950s Britain – no surprise then that so many would feel at home in Ukip.
Supporting a political party is an entirely reasonable activity and many party workers are thoroughly decent, normal people. But the degree of participation shown by the most committed merits its own place in a taxonomy of obsessions. And as party membership declines, there is less normality to dilute the hardline elements.
But the real problem is not the presence of SELs among activists. That, after all, is where you would expect them to be. Our senior Conservative misdiagnosed the issue. The problem is not mad activists; the problem is that too many of them are breaking through into parliament.
It happened to Labour in the 1980s. Now it has happened to the Tories. The fundamentals of SEL-dom are simple; no deviation from the true path, no compromise, permanent vigilance against an untrustworthy leadership. And most sacred of all: defeats are due to a lack of ideological purity. Tories therefore cannot be too eurosceptic, too tough on public spending, too traditionalist on gays. Whatever the polls or electoral logic may say, you know that elections are never won from the centre but from the edge because the British public has always admired a fanatical hardliner.
This, then, is the true dilemma facing David Cameron; it is not that his MPs are gullible fools being led on by loons. It is that the loons are taking over the asylum.