Jul 23

Henry Hill: Our schools must teach British values, for Britain’s sake

The debate about teaching British values in schools is timely. As Scottish nationalists close in on their date with destiny and Eurosceptics pave the way for a referendum of their own, Britain’s two unions are under pressure as never before. Supporters of both or either must recognise that no political body, no matter how rationally constructed, can survive without a soul, writes Henry Hill.

British values

The debate which flared up recently about whether or not to teach British values in schools is not a new one. In fact it is perhaps as old as the very concept of ‘education’, which certainly did not originally evolve as the impartial transmission of knowledge. As a postgraduate history student I was party to debates about the broader political and cultural ramifications of teaching my subject in schools.

Yet said flaring has come at a very good time, for recent events are highlighting the importance of using schools to inculcate common values very clearly indeed. The events in question are the upcoming plebiscites – one certain, one seemingly inevitable – that will decide the fates of Britain’s two unions, British and European.

What does education policy have to do with these matters? Put simply, the teaching of common values is a vital part of ensuring that a state has a ‘people’ – that its citizens feel that they have a common, fundamental bond with each other.

I believe that this is vitally necessary to the long-term health of any state, and that it is because of the weakened (or non-existent) condition of the British and European demoi that their attendant states/super-states are under threat.

You might not pick this up from a quick scan of the debate, however. Both the pro-EU case and the pro-UK ‘Better Together’ campaign have taken to couching their arguments almost exclusively in dry, rationalist terms. In both instances it was judged that an emotional, identity-based campaign would be counter-productive. For Europe, for whom few today harbour actual affection, that makes perfect sense. It should – and does – trouble supporters of the British union that their campaign reached the same conclusion.

The rationalists view the case for each in mechanical, utilitarian terms: each union overcomes divisions to allow more people to work together to maximise good outcomes. There’s very little by way of emotional engagement, and in some quarters little understanding of the emotional dimension in evidence at all. Writing in the Telegraph, Dan Hodges writes that:

“There is a Right-wing strand of English Unionism that also cares passionately about the Union. The fact this constituency uses diametrically opposed arguments when debating union with Scotland and union with the EU is incidental. Again they care.”

The fact that these people advance opposing arguments to attack the EU and defend the UK appears to puzzle Hodges, but the answer is very simple: the people advancing them feel British in a way that they do not feel European. At root their support for Britain stems from their self-identity – hearts, not minds.

Even if all of the very real problems with the EU’s modus operandi and governing machinery were to be fixed, many of these people would still view the EU as fundamentally illegitimate in democratic terms because they are being ruled by the votes of ‘outsiders’. It’s not often at British Future that we have cause to write this, but Enoch Powell actually summed it up very well:

“Europe cannot be a democracy, for there is no European demos.”

You can see the same arguments advanced by Scottish and Welsh nationalists demanding the break-up of the UK, and also from supporters of devolution. In both cases their preferred outcomes are remedy to the fact that the smaller Home Nations suffer ‘English rule’ under a united parliament.

Without Britishness, i.e. the sense of common feeling between all the citizens of this kingdom that legitimises collective government, any decision taken by the British people collectively can be cast as an ‘English’ decision because the English are in the majority.

Not everybody believes that a demos, this sense of ‘x-ness’, is necessary or even useful. Writing in the Times David Aaronovitch provides an arch-rationalist case (£) for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He posits that:

“Its government was seen as lacking legitimacy in the eyes of its component nationalities, or at least in the eyes of nationalist politicians. But its dismantling was a disaster for Europe. In no way other than administrative simplicity were the countries that replaced the empire superior in offering security, democracy or justice to their citizens.”

As it happens I share Aaronovitch’s fondness for the cosmopolitan ideal of the Empire, even if the reality of it is disputed. But surely the lesson of Austria-Hungary is how incredibly fragile a state based on regulating the competing interests of more coherent, more ‘legitimate’ sub-groups actually is.

Despite holding together in the good times, when times are hard and people are falling back to looking out for their own such flimsy units have a tendency to fall to pieces – the history of the Balkans since 1918 provides ample evidence of that. Indeed the 20th Century is littered with examples of multi-national states falling apart under localist pressure, from Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to the USSR and Yugoslavia by way of the British Raj.

This does not mean that cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic states are impossible. But the lesson of history is that if it intends to depend on the consent of its subjects, a successful state must foster bonds of common loyalty between all of them. There has to be something for the heart, as well as the head.

The failure to foster – despite repeated attempts – a strong sense of European identity means that resentments fester between members that do not exist between, for example, the states of the USA. Closer to home, an inability to define and unwillingness to articulate a common Britishness in the latter half of the last century has led this country to its present, fragmented condition.

For the UK, at least, this need not be the case. Research conducted by British Future discovered very strong public support for teaching British values in our schools. Respondents believed that teaching what we have in common can help to bridge the gaps not just between the Home Nations, but the variety of ethnicities and cultures found in modern British classrooms. We also found a strong indication of what these values should be: respect for the law, free speech, private property, and democracy topped our list of options.

The long-term future of the United Kingdom will not be secured by a ‘No’ vote in September: such is the present debate that such a vote will for many have been a simple economic calculation. Teaching British values in schools – whatever we decide they are – is an important step towards defining and strengthening our common, British identity.

We should take it – after all, without a demos a country’s constitution is like a body in a vegetative state: alive, but scarcely living.

This article first appeared at britishfuture.org.

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Jul 21

Chris Jaffray: The hollow promises of independence

Chriss Jaffray (Square)Chris Jaffray is an exiled Scot in England. He is a graduate of Leeds University looking to start a profile as a blogger, and this is his first post for Open Unionism.

Taken back to its core, the message of Scottish Independence is similar to arguments for devolution: ‘the best people to make decisions about Scotland are the people of Scotland who live here’. It is a simple proposition, and one that seems difficult to dispute. It could even have intellectual rigour behind it.

But I don’t think it does. If it is based on the idea that Government is inherently inefficient and so is done best when closer to you, and with greater accountability, then it is plausible. Yet this does not make sense when the SNP are intent on a centralised regime in Scotland. Why are people of Aberdeen not best placed to make decisions about Aberdeen?

Rather than this, the proposition relies on some notion of fundamental difference between English and Scots, which thus far the SNP have failed to articulate. Their most recent, and probably last attempt, was that UKIP had never held its deposit in Scotland, and this was proof of superior Scottish tolerance. Whatever we make of this principle, it is not on offer from the SNP, because of their plans for currency and the European Union.

It seems enough has been said about currency, and the matter seems to have been let lie in the referendum. Sturgeon and Salmond keep repeating their soundbite that ‘it’s in the best interest of England’, with no evidence. England exports more to the Eurozone and USA than Scotland. Even if it made spectacular sense, which it does not, the rUK taxpayers will not guarantee the deposits of a newly foreign country. Polls suggest a majority would not support it in England.

But let’s just hypothesise that it were to go ahead. This would mean the monetary policies of Scotland would be decided by the Bank of England, not the ‘people of Scotland’. It would mean Scotland would have to remain synchronised with the United Kingdom’s for the eternal future of its independence. It is currently synchronised to a coefficient of 0.9 with the United Kingdom. It would mean any deviance now possible would be impossible. At best Scotland could hope for would be a presence of one on the panel of nine on the Monetary Policy Committee. This shows the SNP’s offer is not credible.

The other issue is the European Union. You do not have to be a believer that ‘75 per cent of our laws are made elsewhere’ to think the European Union means that some laws about your country are made outside that state. The SNP’s line is that they are okay to choose to ‘share sovereignty’. Yet as David Torrance has pointed out, arguments against the Union with England are similar to those for withdrawing from the European Union. Scotland may lose sovereignty in sharing a country with England, but its democratic representation at Wesminster is far stronger than would be its democratic presence in the European Commission. The SNP embraced Juncker, yet complain about a lack of Tory voters in Scotland.

The European Union will make bad decisions about Scotland and complains won’t be heard or the SNP’s mantra repeated. The most obvious example is the Common Agricultural Policy, which sees surplus fish in Scotland thrown back in to the water because they exceed the European Union quota. The EU estimates one million edible fish are thrown back into the sea. The SNP would never be heard to complain of a lack of representation here. Furthermore the direction of travel in the European Union was made clear after the recent election results. Merkel’s telling line to Cameron was that it was okay, Britain could join ‘ever closer union at a slower pace’ if it wanted to. The prospect of staying still, or reversing ‘ever closer union’ expressed in the Treaty of Rome.

Scepticism may be felt about the prospect of further devolution after a no vote, and the SNP will refer to the failed bid of 1979. For it to work well Britain has several constitutional issues to address, England may need home rule. But there is a far greater chance of this happening, allowing decisions to be made in Scotland, than there would be of an independent Scotland, in the EU, being able to move against the trend of ever closer Union.

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Jul 17

A brand new UK is on offer if we vote No

Effie Deans is a Scottish unionist and enthusiast for Russian literature. She blogs at the Lily of St Leonards. The original post appeared here

The independence debate that is going on in Scotland will change the nature of Scotland’s relation to the other parts of the UK no matter the result. If we vote Yes, we will become a new nation state and the relationship will become international, but if we vote No, we won’t go back to the place where we were before the debate began. We will rather have decisively rejected independence and defined ourselves as part of the UK forever.

The reason for this can be illustrated by the example of the US Civil War. Prior to that conflict it was common to describe the United States in the plural (The United States are) afterwards in the singular (The United States is). The Civil War fundamentally was fought over the question of whether a state had the right to secede from the Union. Force of arms answered the question in the negative.

We in Scotland are asking a similar question albeit in a peaceful way. The United Kingdom, (unlike the United States in relation to South Carolina), has given us in Scotland the right to determine whether we wish to leave the Union. But no nation state can forever be faced with an existential question as to whether a part will decide to leave. For this reason the choice will be irreversible.

Scotland will become a part of the UK in the same way that Aberdeenshire is a part of Scotland. Nationalists, who think that they can continue to push for referendums on independence every few years, will find that that the Westminster consensus on this issue will have changed. We will have gone through the crisis and Scotland will be no more able to secede than South Carolina. Secession will become something for history books. Of course Scottish nationalists could always try to persuade Scots of the merits of a unilateral declaration of independence, but the moment would have passed and they will rapidly become a dwindling band toasting the memory of their lost cause over the water.

Just as in the United States, the present struggle over independence will make the relationships within the UK stronger, but also and for this very reason much looser.  Once it is recognised that devolution is not a stepping stone to independence, the process of devolving powers can be extended almost without limit. This is the prize that is becoming available to us precisely because we are going through the trauma of the present independence debate.

The problem of devolution was always that it was asymmetric. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given parliaments, but England had none. We’re all familiar with the unfairness of this situation. But with the new powers on offer to the Scottish parliament something will have to be done about England. A wide ranging discussion is therefore going to take place on how more powers can be granted to Scotland, but also to England.

Mr Salmond wants a currency union together with close ties and cooperation with the other parts of the UK. There is much in our present relationship that he wants to retain. The problem with this sort of relationship is that an independent Scotland would be sharing part of its sovereignty with a foreign power, but we would have no popular representation with which to regulate that relationship. At present the UK shares part of our sovereignty with the EU, but despite all of its faults with regard to democracy, at least in the EU we have a shared parliament and representation on the European commission.

But Mr Salmond’s vision of what we would share with the other parts of the UK is far greater than what the UK shares at present with the EU. It makes much more sense therefore to have a shared parliament to regulate what we have in common with the other parts of the UK. But that is precisely what we have already. It’s called Westminster. Why would you want to get rid of our representation there? It would be like being in the EU but withdrawing our MEPs from Brussels.

There is an alternative on offer to us now. If only we reject independence there is the chance to create a federal UK. Why not have a parliament that deals only with English affairs, Scottish affairs, Welsh affairs and Northern Irish affairs, plus a parliament that deals with what we have in common. But it is precisely this that will inevitably occur once power is devolved to England. This sort of federal relationship would give us practically speaking as much control over Scottish affairs as independence, but we would still be able to influence the matters we share with the other parts of the UK.

Naturally Scottish nationalists dismiss these offers of extending devolution. They have never wanted devolution, they only want independence. It is also true that the new devolution settlement that would take place in the UK has not been put to the people of the UK either in a General election or a referendum. There is therefore the degree of uncertainty that is inherent in the democratic process. But any fair assessment shows that there is uncertainty on both sides of the independence debate.

The vision of independence put forward by the SNP depends on the cooperation of those who have already said No. Mr Salmond hopes to be able to reverse that No through negotiation, but no one in Scotland can know if he would succeed. Everything that is said about the pound and about EU membership is so much speculation governed by the bias of whether the person supports or opposes independence. But one thing is certain. These matters are uncertain.

The major UK parties could renege on their promise to extend devolution, but remember it was Labour and the Lib Dems who introduced devolution into Scotland in the first place.  The Tories now have been persuaded precisely because the irreversibility of the independence referendum result takes away any risk of extending devolution.

The future is uncertain. But there is at least as good a chance of Scotland becoming part of a fully federal UK as Mr Salmond getting his vision of independence. A federal UK moreover has the virtue of the fact that we know it would work, just as it works in countries like the USA and Germany. The nationalists of course don’t want this and will try to persuade us that it is not on offer.

But this proposal is quite real, sincere and naturally follows from caring about both the interests of Scotland and  the United Kingdom. It is an offer for those Scots who want the maximum amount of devolution that is consistent with us remaining a part of the UK. It’s for those who don’t want to risk losing the pound or a messy divorce mucking up the UK’s economic recovery. It’s an offer that’s worth grasping with both hands as it will never come again if we reject it.

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Jul 15

Union Jack chat with Calum Crichton

Calum CrichtonThese are some excerpts from five interviews that Pearl of Tyburn has worked on over the past few months for “Union Jack Chat”. She hopes to demonstrate the broad spread of Unionism and diversity of its adherents, bringing to life the human side of the movement by talking to activists, sympathisers, and ordinary British citizens of every stripe who believe that the unity of the kingdom should be preserved.

Excerpt from with Calum Crichton, Student at the University of Strathclyde, released on the 20th of February, 2014

Pearl of Tyburn:  Being a student of economics and finance, what are some of things that have convinced you to support the NO campaign in the upcoming referendum?

Calum Crichton:  Well, I think there are 5 main reasons why I will vote NO:

1) Being part of the United Kingdom allows Scotland to maximize the potential of its human and natural resources.

2) Scotland’s opportunities to engage with the international community are far greater as part of the United Kingdom.

3) The fiscal challenges lots of developing countries face can be better faced by pooling and sharing our resources across the United Kingdom.

4) Scotland has the best of both worlds as part of the United Kingdom.

5) Scotland has strong cultural and emotional ties with the United Kingdom that are not worth throwing away.

If you are a unionist and would like to contribute towards UJC, please get in touch and we shall forward your details. Calum’s blog may be read here.

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Jul 10

Stephen Cooper: Return of Haass shows Westminster’s contempt for unionism

Stephen CooperAfter leaving the British Army, Stephen Cooper served as an advisor to Robert McCartney Q.C., leader of the UK Unionist Party. He contributes regularly to the News Letter and is working on his latest book, which is an analysis of the ongoing appeasement of terrorism which he remains vehemently opposed to. He was recently elected as TUV councillor for Comber.
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“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” – Voltaire, philosopher (1694-1778)
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The folly of advocating a shared future with an organisation whose raison d’etre is to destroy NI has been sidestepped by the great and good, and instead is now accepted by mainstream media as a progressive ideal, rather than the juxtaposition it actually represents. The elevation of terrorists into the heart of government has been a backward step, rewarding those who maimed and murdered thousands with direct influence and control over the entity they have sought to eradicate.
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The conditional reduction in violence is a consequence of the on-going blackmail at the crux of the appeasement of republican terrorism, with further concessions being the only comeback from a spineless government, determined to accept peace at any price. The return of Haass shows the refusal of Westminster to accept the democratic wishes of the unionist community.
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On the back of an increased endorsement from the electorate, we in the TUV are as determined as ever to resist the overtures of Haass and oppose any further diminishment of our British heritage and stand full square against any attempt to re-write the truth about ethnic cleansing and the mass genocide from sfira over the decades.
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The intolerance of the CNR community has been ingrained by those manipulated by the republican movement and brainwashed into accepting the mythical legacy of a false history written by those desperately trying to justify the unjustifiable. Stormont has failed miserably to appropriately allocate finances and manage ministerial departments. Millions have been squandered on projects doomed from the outset, exacerbated by the freedom from outside interference or restraint.
NI deserves better.
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It is a perfectly reasonable aspiration to desire a future for the next generation free from the rogues and criminals who maintain their grip on progress and stymie any opportunity of justice for the victims and closure for their families. It is time the people of NI had a chance to discard terrorism and really move forward in a pluralist NI, prospering economically and thriving to make this part of the UK as prosperous as the rest.
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Unionism must unite against any dilution of our right to fly our national flag, and provide positive and morally sound mechanisms to punish and deter those who remain guilty of criminal charges. As we approach the zenith of the marching season I hope that primacy is afforded to protect the law abiding and zero tolerance is shown to those protestors who show a complete absence of tolerance to their Protestant neighbours whilst they express their historic cultural traditions.
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The rule of law must be re-established and fill the gaping vacuum of the absence of any present example from central government of any policy that exemplifies the moral standpoint that violence shouldn’t pay. Until the individuals responsible for thousands of murders and billions of pounds of damage are removed from influence and public office, I and others cannot find any valid argument for sharing any future with an organisation hell bent on destroying Northern Ireland.
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It’s high time to leave them behind and build a better NI for all of our citizens, free from the shackles of terrorism and their negative and backward looking ideology.

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Jul 03

NI Conservative post-mortem: Trevor Ringland

trTrevor Ringland MBE is a solicitor and former rugby international, who represented Ulster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions. Trevor is a strong advocate of a shared future and is well known for his cross community work. He chairs the One Small Step Campaign and is active in Cooperation Ireland and Peace Players International, an organisation which uses sport to unite and educate young people. He is also a winner of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in Sport.

Trevor is from Larne and currently lives in Belfast, with his wife and three children. He is NI Conservatives’ spokesman for social development and culture, sports and leisure.

It’s heartening to see four political commentators take such a close interest in the fortunes of the NI Conservatives. Some of their comments were very fair and constructive, other verged on the gratuitously negative or even offensive.

As the outgoing co-chair of the NI Conservatives, and, incidentally, someone with extensive political and electoral experience, I want to make a few brief points about the election campaigns which have just ended.

Firstly, the results were undoubtedly disappointing.  Still, no-one who is genuinely committed to the goal of normalising politics here or building a centre-right political force in Northern Ireland ever believed the task was going to be easy.  We always knew it was going to be a long, difficult process and we are not easily discouraged.

Whether or not the commentators at Open Unionism and elsewhere believe that NI Conservatives are the answer, most agree that politics in Northern Ireland has to move on.  The current set-up at Stormont often seems to revolve around a flag and not much else.  That is unsustainable and proper politics, dealing with proper issues, has to prevail eventually.

The Conservative results in local government and European elections didn’t offer immediate hope of change, but there were a few encouraging signs.  Firstly, our vote in the North Down area rose significantly, despite stiff competition from a new party, NI21.  North Down & Ards also contributed roughly three quarters of Mark Brotherston’s European vote, as the only area where the electorate had the choice of a Conservative candidate in every council DEA.

We know that this type of coverage should have happened right across the province and, if it had, we would be discussing a very different result.  Quite simply, we need to stand far more candidates across a far greater swathe of Northern Ireland.  To put it bluntly, we needed ten Conservative associations like North Down, active in the local community, addressing local issues, fielding local candidates, supporting local candidates and backing up their European candidate, into the bargain.

All of this has to go alongside a clear vision for Northern Ireland as a place which is peaceful and prosperous, plays a full role within the United Kingdom and has great relations with the people of the Republic of Ireland. This can only be achieved by developing and implementing policies that tackle the real issues that impact on people’s lives whether they be on the economy, education, health and so many other issues.

That’s something to work toward, as we move forward.

I believe Northern Ireland badly needs a centre-right, pro-Union party, which carries no sectarian baggage, more than ever.  Peter Robinson seems to realise this, but he can’t deliver it with the DUP, which has too much historical baggage and is limited in its ability to reach beyond a fairly narrow constituency.

Mike Nesbitt has to decide whether he can, or wishes, to take the UUP in that direction.  The Ulster Unionists missed a brilliant opportunity, by jettisoning the Conservatives and Unionists, to take politics in Northern Ireland somewhere better and away from the sectarian stand-off currently suffocating political development.

At the moment, NI Conservatives are still the only party in Northern Ireland espousing centre-right policies and attempting to give local voters a meaningful say in the government of the United Kingdom.  We’ve suffered a blow at the elections, but that just means those who believe in more normal politics need to fight all the harder to give people here the opportunity of something different at the ballot booth.

Only by building alternatives, around a more constructive politics, can we bring out the best characteristics of the people of this beautiful country that belongs to all of us who live here.

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Jun 27

NI Conservative post-mortem: Mick Fealty

mick_fealty_140x140In his column for Conservative Home, OU editor Henry Hill called on Conservative HQ to ‘root out the rot’ in the NI Conservatives following a dire performance in the recent elections. Some of them accused him of taking an incomplete picture, so he contacted four Ulster opinion formers for their take.

Mick Fealty is a writer, analyst and the founding editor of Slugger O’Toole, one of Northern Ireland’s leading political blogs. His study of the future of Unionism in Northern Ireland was widely acclaimed on all sides of the political divide.

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Some general thoughts…
  • 1) The market, particularly the unionist market, is very heavily crowded in Northern Ireland. The problem with all attempts since Lawrence Kennedy’s success in the 80s is that the Tory pitch has either been inaudible, or smacked too much of an aggressive buyout of a local brand (UCU-NF)…
  • 2) ‘Brand Cameron’ is Toryism shorn of its nationalist credentials. That could be an advantage in NI, but looking at Scotland the SNP have managed to wrestle much of that off them. In Wales, the Tory party has been rather self conciously cultivating a firm anchorage in Welsh language and culture than is markedly different from a generation ago. It’s the only space beyond England where they have seen any kind of resurgence.
  • 3) NI21 is now a warning from history. They polled better than you guys, but largely because they stood councillors in far more places. They were working off a trace element sentiment more evident within a media looking for a nice human interest story as a break from the unrelenting grind of our sectarian politcs as usual.
  • 4) As a party of government you are the enemy of almost every other party active in Northern Ireland, for the simple legislated reason that our devolved ministers spend money, your people also have to worry about raising it. This poses a question for any party of the centre right (not least because as a party in power you are also the London Party).
  • 5) None of the above mean there’s no hope. Catholics in particular will set the question of the Union to one side. The Alliance party has proven that. But the policy pitch has strongly appeal to their enlightened self interest. The greater the focus on policy the more likely you are to attract people of like mind. I’d add that the DUP’s pitch probably affects as a demotivator of nationalist voters rather than getting many to turn out. However, whilst we do know that attracting wealthy middle class Catholics is not impossible it is not enough to seal any long term deal. You need clear cogent regional policy that’s grounded in the realities of Northern Ireland, rather than Westminster. NI Conservatives *feel* derivative, even if they aren’t. Perception being the enemy of reality and all that.
Last piece of advice: accept you are small, and that influence is a necessary stop before power. Getting heard is a prerequisite to further growth.

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Jun 26

NI Conservative post-mortem: Newton Emerson

Newton EmersonIn his column for Conservative Home, OU editor Henry Hill called on Conservative HQ to ‘root out the rot’ in the NI Conservatives following a dire performance in the recent elections. Some of them accused him of taking an incomplete picture, so he contacted four Ulster opinion formers for their take.
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Newton Emerson is a columnist for the Irish News in Belfast and the Sunday Times Ireland edition.
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If you had to pick one thing above all others, where have the NI Conservatives gone wrong?
UCUNF, the appallingly-named UUP-Tory link-up, is the mistake that still hangs (perhaps rather unfairly) over the NI Conservatives. The concept was good but it would have required major reform of the UUP to be credible, and that wasn’t sought in any way.
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What political space, if any, do you believe exists for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland? What would you describe as their unique selling point? What steps do the Conservatives need to take to establish themselves as a credible force in Northern Irish politics?
The space for all non-tribal politics in NI has turned out to be miniscule and the space for the NI Conservatives would be even smaller (only the NI Labour Party has ever enjoyed a brief flowering of this type in NI’s history). It would be better for the NI Conservatives to reconcile themselves to this and focus on building up an influential constituency – in business, for example – or simply by positioning themselves as the authoritative voice of the Tories in NI. Conservative secretaries of state and NIO ministers could be more help with this.
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In your view, which constituency is the best prospect for the Conservatives to cultivate with a view to winning an MLA or MP in the medium-to-long term?
North Down is the only long-term prospect of an MLA, but only because it’s the only constituency that can throw up any surprises in NI. Its unassailable unionist majority seems to create the security unionists require to experiment with ‘normal’ politics. But note that north Down’s MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, who detached herself from the UUP over its Orange Order links, has sided with Labour in the Commons despite her ideal soft-unionist Tory pedigree. She has never explained why – but it has been very successful for her.
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Does the ongoing collapse of NI21 pose an opportunity to the Conservatives?
NI21 got 2% of the vote in a week of scandals, redesignation and apparent collapse. The NI Tories would be ecstatic with that, but it was a 2% vote for a progressive, young NI-identity concept that just isn’t natural Tory country.
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Does the DUP’s recent effort to reach out to Catholic voters mean there is space for a genuinely non-sectarian, centre-right party?
Since Peter Robinson’s ‘outreach’ to Catholics, the flag protests and the unionist response to them have proved conclusively that the outreach was bogus and Robinson really just had his eye on the liberal unionist and Alliance vote. There’s a great deal of Protestant and Catholic social conservatism in NI but the scale of public spending has completely divorced it from economic liberalism. David Cameron’s style of modern Conservatism is essentially the complete opposite of what there might be a market for here.
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What is the significance for the NI Conservatives of UKIP’s slow breakthrough in Northern Ireland? What lessons can they draw from it?
UKIP remains an outlier here due to the dominance of a few figures who owe their office largely to defection from existing parties. Its vote has grown but only be hoovering up a lunatic fringe that would do any other party more harm than good.

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Jun 25

NI Conservative post-mortem: Ian Parsley

Ian ParsleyIn his column for Conservative Home, OU editor Henry Hill called on Conservative HQ to ‘root out the rot’ in the NI Conservatives following a dire performance in the recent elections. Some of them accused him of taking an incomplete picture, so he contacted four Ulster opinion formers for their take.

Ian Parsley is a strong proponent of anti-sectarian politics. He was the UUP-endorsed Conservative candidate for North Down at the 2010 General Election, but returned to the Alliance Party disenchanted that the relationship broke down and both parties moved to the right. He now runs a PR company; but did co-ordinate the Alliance Party’s campaign in Lisburn at the recent Local Council elections, where it won four seats for the first-time ever.

It’s very hard to answer those questions without first asking and objectively answering a more basic one fairly and objectively: is it actually possible for the NI Conservatives to break though electorally in Northern Ireland?

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Honestly, I think the answer to that is “no”. Essentially, this is because the type of interest represented by (and principles promoted by) the Conservative Party in Great Britain are already represented and promoted by other parties in Northern Ireland. This was implicitly accepted in 2009 when the Conservative Party sought a “new force” with the Ulster Unionists. A recent Belfast Telegraph poll showed that half of DUP members identified with the Conservative Party in Great Britain (the other half didn’t identify with any British party; almost none with Labour or the Liberal Democrats).
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1. If you had to pick one reason above all others, where have the NI Conservatives gone wrong?
So, in truth, where the Conservatives have gone wrong is adopting the belief that they can achieve anything electorally in Northern Ireland independently. It is time they faced facts – they have had not a single elected representative at any level since the Agreement, and a frankly embarrassing 0.66% of the vote at the recent European Election. Remember, this was in spite of: a) a fully funded office; b) a salaried campaign manager; c) direct canvassing assistance from senior parties figures; and d), frankly, a perfectly competent candidate. The brand is just utterly meaningless here – and, insofar as it has meaning, it is plainly negative. It is time to stop arguing with 20 years of obvious electoral facts.
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2. What political space, if any, do you believe exists for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland? What would you describe as their unique selling point?
So no, there is no clear space for the Conservative Party here – as noted above, everything they stand for is already represented by other parties (in the eyes of the NI electorate – the only people who matter). The USP would be a direct connection to UK politics, but again the simple fact is that option has been presented to the NI electorate clearly, and rejected decisively, for two decades.
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3. What steps do the Conservatives need to take to establish themselves as a credible force in Northern Irish politics?
The Conservatives took the step they needed to make to establish themselves as a creditable force in NI politics in 2009, by attempting a merger with the Ulster Unionists. For a range of reasons, it did not work – one of those reasons, counter-intuitively, was that the relationship was unbalanced because in fact the Conservatives needed the Ulster Unionists more than the other way around (when this obvious truth was abused by the Ulster Unionists, there was nothing the Conservatives could do about it).
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4. In your view, which constituency is the best prospect for the Conservatives to cultivate with a view to winning an MLA or MP in the medium-to-long term?
The Conservatives have not even mustered a Councillor in Northern Ireland since the Agreement, never mind anything else! The nearest in 2014 was in the Downshire West DEA of Lisburn-Castlereagh, in which the candidate notably all but omitted reference to “Conservatives” from his election literature (standing instead almost effectively as an independent campaigning for a bypass). If they cannot break through at Council level, there’s no hope at any other level.
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5. Does the ongoing collapse of NI21 pose an opportunity to the Conservatives?
The collapse of NI21 in fact offers a classic lesson about what happens to parties which try to occupy the space between the Alliance Party and Unionism. Actually, there isn’t any! The fact also is that a party with no purpose, with almost no recognisable candidates, and with no policies to speak of, fell apart in acrimony the day before the election and *still* outpolled the local Conservatives by 5:2! If NI21 has no future (and it hasn’t), it is plain that the NI Conservatives haven’t either.
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6. Does the DUP’s recent effort to reach out to Catholic voters mean there is space for a genuinely non-sectarian, centre-right party?
I don’t quite follow the premise of the question here – the DUP sometimes *says* it would like to reach out to “Catholic Conservatives”, by which they really mean Catholics who, on social issues and education, are to the right of UKIP! Such attempts have consistently failed. 90% of voters in Northern Ireland vote for sectarian parties – that leaves very little room over, and frankly those occupying that space need to work together to reform our politics, not split up further to be defeated even more heavily.
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7. What is the significance for the NI Conservatives of UKIP’s slow breakthrough in Northern Ireland? What lessons can they draw from it?
UKIP is a different thing altogether – a pressure group which has a particular appeal in more rural parts of the UK which yearn for yesteryear. I’m not sure it would make much difference, but they did do a few things the Conservatives should long since have done:
  • Their Leader, Nigel Farage, visited Belfast and walked the streets, i.e. he actually asked the people of Northern Ireland to vote for him (and backed this up with billboards etc) – David Cameron did no such thing in 2010, hiding in a hotel and speaking only to candidates and the media, not to the voting public;
  • They actually have secured defections of elected representatives from other parties – something again the NI Conservatives, for all the grand talk of their current Chair, have never once managed post-UUP link-up; and
  • Their brand is not a turn-off because they do not need to do the tough job of defending the record of a governing party – during the 2010 General Election campaign, NI candidates received no prior warning of policy or priority announcements and yet were expected to defend them anyway at short notice (most notoriously when David Cameron said Northern Ireland was the first place he would target for public spending cuts).
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There is another very significant problem, even if a breakthrough were possible, and it is simply this: the NI Conservatives simply do not contain any expertise at all about electoral politics in Northern Ireland (by definition, no one among their number has ever won one). What is more, with the noble exception of the North Down Association, they resented such expertise when it was actually available during the 2010 campaign.
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Put bluntly, the NI Conservatives are *not* a political party (far less a movement), but rather a social club which happens to put names on ballot papers occasionally – that is not to say they don’t work hard once those names appear, but hard work is useless if you don’t know how to deliver (and if you’re offering something the people have told you countless times they don’t actually want).
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If the Conservative Party is serious about winning elections and political influence in Northern Ireland, it will have to find a partner which actually knows about Northern Ireland politics. They actually did that in 2009 and they will have to do something similar in future – although next time, they will have to learn to distinguish between those with knowledge of elections who actually know what they are talking about and those in the Social Club who frankly haven’t a clue.

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Jun 24

NI Conservative post-mortem: Alex Kane

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In his column for Conservative Home, OU editor Henry Hill called on Conservative HQ to ‘root out the rot’ in the NI Conservatives following a dire performance in the recent elections. Some of them accused him of taking an incomplete picture, so he contacted four Ulster opinion formers for their take.
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Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a commentator on a range of BBC, UTV and RTE political programmes. He began is career as a constituency organiser for Enoch Powell in South Down and was a former Director of Communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

If you had to pick one thing above all others, where have the NI Conservatives gone wrong? 

I think it’s a problem that goes all the way back to the late 1980s, when the model associations were set up and seeking formal affiliation. There’s far too much deference from the NI end. They were afraid to stand their ground or pick fights because they believed that Central Office would give them the boot. So they took everything that was thrown at them with barely a quibble or complaint. In the end Central Office didn’t take them seriously. Occasional pats on the head and visits from senior party figures—and the promise of money and support: but never anything more substantial than that. Cameron didn’t even come over to support them during the election campaign: and Villiers limited herself to a couple of hours of door-knocking in North Down.

I have no idea why Central Office continues to keep the local show on the road. Maybe they still want to describe themselves as a genuinely pan-UK pro-Union party. They clearly have no interest in the operation here because, if they did, they would have taken charge of it by now and wrestled control from the bunch of incompetents and complacents who run it.

About two years ago there was talk of a revamped and re-launched ‘more local’ party which would have greater appeal to people in NI. I have seen no evidence of that re-launch. Indeed, the party has less of a presence now than it had then.

At the heart of the local Conservatives is the delusion that they matter to Central Office and the party leadership. They don’t. Most of the key players here have no experience of politics and electioneering. They don’t understand what is required to build grassroots support and ‘get out the vote.’

 

What political space, if any, do you believe exists for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland? What would you describe as their unique selling point? 

There is no space for them. That’s why Central Office/Cameron backed the UCUNF project in 2009-10, because they knew there was no core vote or potential new vote for their party as a stand-alone operation. The Conservatives did fairly well in the 1992 general election (just under 6%) but since then they have been dead in the water. Nobody takes them seriously. And very few people took seriously the UCUNF nonsense about having “influence from the council chamber to the cabinet table.” There is no USP for them because most of the members don’t think beyond supper club conversations and the occasional photo-op with Cameron in London or Villiers here.

 

What steps do the Conservatives need to take to establish themselves as a credible force in Northern Irish politics? 

None. They are dead in the water. They’re like one of those trolley patients wheeled into shot in TV hospital dramas with the blanket pulled over their heads. This October marks the 25th anniversary of their official recognition in NI and they can’t even muster 1% f the vote in the Euro or council elections.

 

In your view, which constituency is the best prospect for the Conservatives to cultivate with a view to winning an MLA or MP in the medium-to-long term? 

If they could create a very tiny constituency centred around their office in Bangor then they might just—just—win a seat. Otherwise there is nothing for them. North Down and Strangford deliver nothing for them. The candidates (some of whom have been standing and losing for years) make no impact and still delude themselves that saying “we’re part of a national party” often enough is going to fool some poor folks into voting for them.

 

Does the ongoing collapse of NI21 pose an opportunity to the Conservatives?

 No. They weren’t appealing to the same type of voter, anyway. And even though their collapse began two days before polling started they still got almost three times the votes of the Conservatives and even managed to win a council seat. It boils down to this for the NI Conservatives—if people haven’t been minded to vote for them since 1989 it’s very unlikely they will start now!

 

Does the DUP’s recent effort to reach out to Catholic voters mean there is space for a genuinely non-sectarian, centre-right party? 

Possibly, but the Conservatives are not that party. They have been here too long and reinvention, let alone anything resembling revival/resurrection, isn’t happening. They have been eclipsed already by newer vehicles like the Greens, UKIP and NI21.

 

What is the significance for the NI Conservatives of UKIP’s slow breakthrough in Northern Ireland? What lessons can they draw from it? 

There is a hard core of anti-EU supporters in NI (of whom I would be one) who wanted to cast a vote which they thought would have some sort of impact. That’s why UKIP did well here. But many of those voters are also Belfast Agreement sceptics, too and they won’t be voting Conservative: partly because they don’t like/trust Cameron and partly because they don’t support power-sharing with Sinn Fein. In other words, they won’t be voting Conservative.

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