Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 16:39 UK

Dispatches from the Freedom Zone

By Brian Wheeler
Political Reporter, BBC News, Conservative Party conference

If your idea of freedom is pouring yourself a large gin and tonic, sparking up a cigarette and sticking two fingers up at petty officialdom, then I may have discovered your spiritual home.

Pub sign
TFA want smoking brought back indoors in designated rooms

In the main conference hall at the Tory Party conference it is all fruit smoothies and wholemeal sandwiches from the General Well Being cafe.

But just outside the security cordon another world exists. A world where fatty foods and fast cars are de rigeur, Eurocrats are not to be trusted and political correctness has not yet gone mad.

It is the world of the Freedom Association - the self-styled "conservative wing of the Conservative Party", who are holding a series of fringe meetings in Manchester under the Freedom Zone banner.

Like most Conservative sects they are looking forward with keen anticipation to the party winning power next year, but are at the same time fretting about how much influence they will actually have over a Cameron government.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling kicked off the Freedom Zone programme on Monday with a speech on what patriotism means to the modern Conservative Party, which, it turned out, dovetailed neatly with current party policy on reforming Parliament, abolishing ID cards and standing up for civil liberties.

Politically correct

He also backed a "diverse" society but criticised the "misplaced and misguided doctrine of multi-culturalism", stressing the need for "community partnerships" to bring different ethnic groups together.

It was all a little anaemic and (whisper it) politically correct for some in the audience.

Why had Mr Grayling not made any mention of the EU or immigration in his speech, asked one audience member, particularly when a "significant minority" of immigrants were bent on "undermining" the British way of life.

The shadow home secretary took issue with the word "significant", stressing that extremists really were a minority.

He chose his words even more carefully on Europe. The shadow cabinet could not live with what was "on the table" over the Lisbon Treaty but now was not the time to debate it, he told them.

Mr Grayling was warmly received by the meeting - but you still sensed a certain hankering for the days when Freedom Association fringe meetings featured tressle tables draped in the union flag and dire warnings about communism and the trade unions.

The cool, ultra modern environs of Manchester's Bridgewater Hall were all a bit, well, Cameroon.

'Bully state'

The next session - on the rise of the Bully State - was a bit more like it.

Author and former MSP Brian Monteith, who has written a book on the subject, explained how the original "nanny state", which was focused on improving public health, had "mutated" into the Bully State, which was concerned about individual health and would stop at nothing - including using the full force of the law - to get its way.

Even those who believe in the great carbon myth are tired of hearing it
Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP

Smokers were getting a particularly hard time, he argued. They were being deliberately cut off from society, not to protect people but "so that their habit, their choice, can be controlled".

Alcohol and fatty foods would be next, he warned.

Freedom Association chairman Roger Helmer went further, setting out what he sees as an all-encompassing threat to individual liberty from the massed ranks of government advisers and other prodnoses.

"It is clear that a great number of our fellow citizens are getting sick to death of being constantly criticised and told what to do," the Tory MEP told the meeting.

If it wasn't the "food police" warning about too much salt or fat in our children's snacks, it was the alcohol police.

"I don't want to be told to cut down on my alcohol. I enjoy my alcohol and I think I am old enough to decide what is a reasonable amount," said Mr Helmer.

'Carbon myth'

He went on: "If we are tired of being constantly nagged about the food we eat, surely we are tired of being constantly nagged about the carbon footprint we are responsible for."

People were "tired of being told they will have to spend an extra £2,000 on their Range Rover," he argued.

"They are tired of being told they will have to spend an extra £500 on a long haul flight to Thailand for their summer holidays.

"Even those who believe in the great carbon myth are tired of hearing it. Those of us who doubt the great carbon myth are getting very, very cross indeed," he said to a smattering of applause.

Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson would probably feel at home in the Freedom Zone

Mr Helmer also spoke out in favour of relaxing the smoking ban, although he said there were few signs from the Tory front bench that this would happen.

And he backed the scrapping ID cards and the DNA database and the iniquities of speed cameras, confessing that he has been forced to go on a speed awareness course, after being caught one too many times.

The meeting was a little like being trapped in a lift with Jeremy Clarkson and it is not clear how much of this policy agenda will be adopted by Mr Clarkson's Oxfordshire neighbour David Cameron - particularly the stuff on climate change, which remains a priority for the Tory leader. Mr Helmer is optimistic.

"If we work within the party to promote this agenda I think we might achieve more success than perhaps is apparent at this time," he told the meeting.

There is certainly no doubt that there is a strong libertarian streak running through Mr Cameron's Tory Party - and his vision of a "post-bureaucratic age" is very much in tune with the Freedom Association's belief in shrinking an over-mighty state machine.

But you suspect that the rest of the Freedom Zone programme - which covers everything from the cost of the European Union to the "BBC question" - might offer a better insight into what life might actually be like in Cameron's Britain.



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