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The Young Conservatives were primarily a social club, hosting dances, beauty contests, car rallies and winning endorsements from sports stars. They made a virtue of this apolitical reputation to recruit a mass, middle-class membership, and with rhetoric of service and citizenship embedded themselves in local civil society. This article reflects on why this associational culture has been neglected by political and social historians. In the approach of Raphael Samuel's ‘Lost world of British Communism’, it explores the worldview and lifestyle of YCs in 1950s and 1960s Britain, drawing on national, local, and oral sources. Boasting of being ‘the free world's largest youth political movement’ it was a considerable political resource and confounds Conservatism's aged public image in this period. The article accounts for the Ycs' falling membership through the 1960s and discusses its legacy. Decline came as it experienced social and cultural change, as the value of mass party membership diminished and as, after the Macleod report, YCs sought to become more conventionally ‘political’. The resulting debates about politics–social mix are illuminating about political culture more generally. It argues the YCs were not simply victims of social change, but that the decision to become ‘political’ was also a factor. Until the later 1960s it contends the YCs attest to the persistence of strands of Conservatism described by interwar historians like McKibbin and Light – an associational appeal, whose light touch deftly avoided the appearance of being partisan in anything other than name.

Corresponding author
Department of History, Durham University, 43 North Bailey, Durham DH1
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Thanks for feedback are owed to seminars at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities, the 2007 Political Studies Association (Bath) and 2008 European Social Science History (Lisbon) conferences, Laura Beers, Philip Williamson, to the editors and referees, and to former YCs in Nottingham and Birmingham, who corresponded or were interviewed by the author. This research was funded by AHRC (d000092/1) and British Academy grants (sg-42672).

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Catherine Ellis , ‘The younger generation: the Labour Party and the 1959 Youth Commission’, Journal of British Studies, 41 (2002), pp. 199231

Martin Pugh , ‘Popular Conservatism in Britain: continuity and change, 1880–1987’, Journal of British Studies, 27 (1988), pp. 259

Leon D. Epstein , ‘The politics of British Conservatism’, American Political Science Review, 48 (1954), pp. 27–8

Catherine Ellis , ‘No hammock for the idle: the Conservative Party, “youth” and the welfare state in the 1960s’, Twentieth Century British History, 16 (2005), pp. 441–70

Steven Fielding , ‘Looking for the new political history’, Journal of Contemporary History, 42 (2007), p. 518

Martin Francis , ‘The emotional economy of three Conservative prime ministers, 1951–1963’, Journal of British Studies, 41 (2002), pp. 354–87

David Jarvis , ‘“Mrs. Maggs and Betty”: the Conservative appeal to women voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History, 5 (1994), pp. 129–52

A. Jackson , ‘Labour as leisure: the Mirror and DIY sailors’, Journal of Design History, 19 (2006

P. Seyd , ‘Democracy within the Conservative Party’, Government and Opposition, 10 (1975), pp. 219–37

Helen McCarthy , ‘Parties, voluntary associations and democratic politics in interwar Britain’, Historical Journal, 50 (2007)

Liette Gidlow , ‘Delegitimizing democracy: civic slackers, the cultural turn, and the possibilities of politics’, Journal of American History, 89 (2002), pp. 922–57

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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