Why you should care
Libertarianism has found a home among young Conservatives in the British Isles … and it could sway the next election.
Alexandra Paterson doesn’t stand out in a crowd. The small, ginger-haired young Conservative seems like an average British student, with casual locks topping a dull gray sweater. But that’s OK, because her power is in her voice — a not-so-secret weapon she’s been honing since age 12, when she debuted as Ivy the Terrible, the mischievous 4-year-old British TV cartoon character in The Beano.
Her office buzzes like a newsroom, and Paterson expertly handles colleagues’ drive-by queries while juggling questions about her past, present and future. In August, the 29-year-old was elected chair of the Tory youth wing’s Conservative Future — a 15,000-strong, under-30 network founded by Leader of the House of Commons William Hague — after a whirlwind 18 months of activism. Next challenge: to unify young conservatives across a widening ideological spectrum while launching her own political career in the run-up to next spring’s general election. Not easy.
The youth wing reflects the rise of libertarian beliefs among young Britons who champion social freedom, fewer taxes and less welfare.
Success depends partly on whether Prime Minister David Cameron manages to unify senior Tory members. The populist, right-wing, Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party — which has attracted Tory defections in recent months — is polling at 15 percent, forcing British conservatism to the right. This has sparked mainstream debates on EU membership and immigration. But Tories leaning to the center or left feel the cold, and that could cost Cameron votes. The youth wing, meanwhile, reflects the rise of libertarian beliefs among young Britons who champion social freedom, fewer taxes, less welfare and more personal responsibility, and for whom social conservatism and big government have become naughty terms.
Who could bring it together? Maybe Paterson.
She’s an unlikely Tory, though perhaps no more so than the shopkeeper’s daughter Margaret Thatcher. She hails from the Labour heartland of Salford (near Manchester) and talks that way. She took her grandparents’ politics to heart at a young age and placed Thatcher firmly on a pedestal. She admires the conservative Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a major influence on Thatcher, but it was in Ayn Rand where she found a kindred spirit. The Russian-American novelist trumpeted rational self-interest and inspired a generation of libertarians. Her book Atlas Shrugged “is the foundation of my political philosophy. From thence, I became very involved in the party,” she tells OZY.
Yes, she said “thence,” but with an unposh Mancunian twang that betrays a middle-class upbringing and state-funded schooling. Not that her humble beginnings have blunted her ambition. She attended university in Liverpool and London, earning a master’s degree in journalism before pursuing a graduate law diploma in night school over two years while working full time.
The trained solicitor took over as the Conservative Future chairman for greater Manchester in 2013 before becoming the face of the party’s new campaign mechanism, RoadTrip 2015, earlier this year. There, her drive and communication and organizational skills attracted notice. Having friends in high places also helped. Paterson’s been trained by the Young Britons’ Foundation, a nonprofit think tank known for favoring libertarianism.
The ballet enthusiast gave up her legal work after the election and moved to London, where she’s now an account executive at Curtin & Co., a public relations firm focused on political activism. For a new political operator, she is perhaps too composed. She provides measured answers to queries — even ones that should stump her — without skipping a beat. She’s borderline brochure-like with succinct, party-line answers on the big issues. She wants less government interference in her daily life; hates the idea of national ID cards; believes in a reformed Europe, immigration control and lower taxes; and thinks youth are attracted to conservatism because they want to “have a say in their own lives,” rather than nanny-state rule.
Paterson thinks youth are attracted to conservatism because they want to “have a say in their own lives,” rather than nanny-state rule.
Paterson’s liaison work between Conservative Future and RoadTrip 2015 sees her managing campaign strategies and logistics — from venue hires, bus schedules, speeches and car shares to social media updates — bringing several hundred young conservatives into U.K. constituencies nearly every weekend. The goal? To help her party win the vital 40 seats it needs for a parliamentary majority — the first since former Prime Minister John Major — by canvassing enough areas with a simple message: “We’ve done a good job over the last four years.” That’s a matter of debate, of course.
Will she run for parliament in 2020? She won’t say and laughs uncomfortably when asked, perhaps because she lost in a Salford council race earlier this year. A Conservative majority next spring, should the party manage it, could help cement Paterson’s career.
Photography by Gaelle Beri for OZY