At night, I sometimes lie awake in bed wondering if I suddenly died at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m now living in an alternate reality. Is this my afterlife? That may seem like an odd and morbid thought to meditate on but it seems to be a completely reasonable conclusion given that my life has taken such a wild deviation from its previous trajectory.
How can it be that within the space of a few months I am now writing regularly for a national newspaper and have just attended the Conservative Party Conference? One day I am walking through the council estate where I grew up, speaking to old neighbours and friends. The next day I am lighting a cigarette in the smoking area outside of the Tory conference venue and having a polite conversation with a member of the House of Lords. I lead a somewhat surreal and unbelievable double life. I consider it to be a very true and rare privilege that I am able to inhabit both environments
Last Sunday morning (3 October), I accepted a lift into Manchester. I sat in the passenger side of the car, looking out of the window to take in the sights that I know like the back of my hand. Usually I detest the consistent monotony of my landscape but I was soothed by it like a warm blanket as I ventured towards a world that is seemingly so alien to my own.
I was nervous, tense and atypically timid, like a child on their first day of school, but as we slowly approached the area, I forced myself to adopt a confident and assured persona. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but it does require an extraordinary amount of guts to walk into a place like that alone, with a contact list consisting of virtually zero.
After collecting my pass, a sudden wave of superiority washed over my being. This must be what they call a “power trip”. It is shameful to openly admit, but I think it is an important admission to make. They say that power corrupts and it is accurate to a certain extent – nobody is safe from the seduction of prestige and access.
The police in all manner of forms were everywhere, protecting the political fortress and its inhabitants. I felt like Charlie Bucket as I made my way through the turnstiles, shocked by how quickly the real world exited my mind. I momentarily empathised with well-intentioned politicians who abdicate their responsibilities and morality – feeling special is a drug that is difficult to resist.
For those who haven’t been, the conference is like Tory Glastonbury. It’s a place where like-minded individuals can socialise and envisage a country in which fervent right-wing agreement is the norm. It’s a sort of compact Tory Disneyland and of course, Boris Johnson assumes the role of Mickey Mouse.
Within these confines, MPs and delegates are shielded from the disapproval that is in full throng just a short walk away. The event hall is a political market in which people go to shop for ideology, ideas and intellectualism but also cheese toasties and Tory souvenirs. T-shirts adorned with “Boris, Boris, Boris” are sold but with the exception of one serious fan girl doing laps around the venue, they don’t appear to be popular.
I was struck by the uniformity of the crowd. I had never felt more uncomfortable to be wearing a red skirt within such a blue landscape – as if my northern accent didn’t set me apart enough already. The conference hall sells a vision of opportunity and hard work and the prestigious Midland Hotel represents the party’s penchant for grandeur and wealth. The Tory Party is a tale of two cities and these separate buildings represent it beautifully.
The Midland Hotel bar isn’t where people go to relax; it is where people go to do politics. The hall is a well-managed arena, that carefully manufactured personalities visit to deliver carefully crafted speeches. But the bar is where ticket holders go to gossip and peacock. Alcohol is consumed like pop and I wonder how people cope living like this regularly as I lie awake in bed one morning at 4am telling myself not to vomit.
There is an old Chinese proverb which translates to something like “there is no such thing as friends, merely eternal interests” and that, I think, best explains your predicament when you’re sat within that space. Many don’t want to know you, they want to know what you do and how you might be of use to them. I’m not sure if it’s being northern, working-class or a lefty but I find this form of rampant individualism particularly hard to stomach. This is a community that you must struggle to be a part of and I find it depressing and disconcerting (and yes, I am annoyed that I wasn’t invited to one of their canal boat parties).
Over the course of the four days, I became less and less impressed when someone I recognised from the telly walked past me. I was no longer uncomfortable in my skin and I began to view this as a tiresome show. I enjoyed speaking to the staff, listening to their thoughts on life and the relaxation of common banter. By the end, I no longer saw the conference area as a glamorous world but a sort of prison, and I felt heartily sad for those who live this one dimensional trap on a day to day basis.
No wonder they are so out of touch with reality. But do I want to go again? Of course I do and therein lies the predicament of prestige. I don’t want to be one of them, but I oh so dearly want to be near them.