HCH Hill is the Editor of Open Unionism. He authors the blog Dilettante and writes for many places, including the Daily Telegraph’s website.
I’ve had an article published in the latest edition of Crossbow, the journal of Tory-aligned think-tank the Bow Group, on the historical relationship between the Conservative Party and political unionism. You can read it in its original format on pages 16 and 17 of the magazine here. Alternatively, it is reproduced below:
Conservatives and Unionism
The 1984 Brighton Bombing marked the end of an era for the Conservative and Unionist Party. Speaking to the party conference the next day, a tired-looking Mrs Thatcher announced that the UK would be entering into negotiations to hand the province of Northern Ireland to the Republic.
This marked a seismic change in policy for the party once defined by a vigorous commitment to the Union, but there were many supporting murmurs from the wider party. After all, since 1974 Ulster had not returned any MPs who took the Conservative whip, and the cost of the troubles was enormous – why should they continue risking life and limb for so ungrateful and expensive a part of the country?
Of course, none of that happened. In 1984 the suggestion that Mrs Thatcher or her party would countenance the partition of their country over something as trite as a terrorist outrage was unthinkable. For the Conservative and Unionist Party, the notion of the break-up of the UK was met with universal horror.
Since the late Nineteenth Century unionism had been a defining part of what it meant to be a Conservative, and the party’s iron commitment to the union had played a major role in shaping the nation. Just as Margaret Thatcher’s unflinching resistance to the IRA helped to get them to the table during the Major-Blair peace process, the vigorous defence of the northern Unionists by the Conservatives and their allies in the early 20th Century secured Northern Ireland’s exclusion from Home Rule and her place in the UK.
Unionism first became a defining political issue during the long struggle against Gladstone and the Home Rule Bill in the 1880s. It was during this period that Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists split from the Liberal Party and started cooperating with the Conservatives, lending our party strength in Scotland and big cities like Birmingham which the narrower appeal of the ‘English’ Tories had not delivered.
Subsequently, the coalition of Conservative, Liberal Unionist and Irish Unionist MPs that gave Lord Salisbury his majorities led to his governments simply being described as ‘unionist’. By 1912 the Union had become the pre-eminent dividing line between the Liberals and Ulster-raised Bonar Law’s unionists, to the extent that, according to the Conservatives’ official historian Alistair Lexden, when the Tories merged with the
Liberal Unionists in 1912 it was only strong protests on the very day of the merger that
saved the name ‘Conservative’ at all.
Throughout the 20th Century, the Conservative position on the Union has remained strong. The Official Unionists served as the party’s Northern Irish branch until 1974 (through a period when Harold Wilson was considering cutting and running from the province) and when they finally pulled out of the party completely in 1985, we had established an independent branch there in time to come close to capturing North Down in the 1992 election.
Aside from their attempt on Thatcher’s life, nationalists murdered Airey Neave in 1979, killed Sir Anthony Berry MP in 1984, and went on to murder Ian Gow in 1990. Yet none of these led to any wavering on the Tory commitment to be a party of the whole UK.
The question then is why a point of political principle that has survived assassinations, insurrections and terrorist campaigns is fracturing in the face of a nationalist threat confined solely to the ballot box?
After all, the Scots didn’t murder any Conservative MPs. They simply voted them out of office. It wasn’t even a nationalist landslide that carried them away: they voted en masse for Labour, as did the rest of the country. Losing an 11,600 majority in Eastwood was certainly embarrassing, but it is hardly cause to wish away the northern portion of our nation.
Devolution certainly hasn’t helped. Prior to its enactment under the Blair government, the Conservatives had maintained a policy of principled opposition to nationallevel devolution, and campaigned against it both in Scotland and in Wales (where they came within a whisker of carrying the day). Even in Northern Ireland, our candidates in 1992 stood in part on an equal rights/integrationist ticket.
The passage of devolution thus did two things to damage Conservative prospects outside England. First, being alone on the losing side of the two referendums allowed supporters of devolution to cast our party as being on the wrong side of an inevitable and inexorable road to devolution. Second, it created insular ‘national conversations’ in those nations with devolution in which our diminished party was side-lined.
UK politics up until then was almost entirely a Tory versus Labour struggle: our clashes
defined the political landscape, and thus our policies and our representatives mattered to people. Devolution, as intended, locked us out of Scotland because while we were wobbling between third and fourth in the polls, Labour and the Nationalists became the compelling two-party story. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, we had to defend a governmental record that was being demonised by both of Scotland’s major parties.
This failure outside England was exacerbated by – and exacerbated further in turn – the vicious pruning back of our representation and talent to southern England following the 1997 election. The result was a vicious circle. The Scottish Conservatives, struggling to make an impact as a third party, found their one advantage – pan-UK relevance – turned into an Achilles heel by a national party almost totally alien to Scotland. In turn, the national party did not get any new Scottish members who might have allowed it to reconnect. Unlike in Wales, the singleMPs elected since 2001 have not signalled any resurgence.
Somewhere in the party psyche a shift took place to make a virtue of necessity. Attention shifted from our deficit in Scotland to our strength in England, with our ‘English mandate’ wielded to try to de-legitimise Labour legislation. While a natural outworking of Tony Blair’s asymmetrical devolution settlement (although hotly denied at the time), this has led to some members abandoning the party’s old pan-UK focus altogether. “If we’re strong in England”, the theory runs, “then let us govern England!”
Yet focusing on England only reinforces the current trend towards what the Spectator has dubbed ‘Tricolour Britain’, where the Tories are hemmed into certain areas of the country and locked out of others. If party strategists aren’t trying to build a message that encompasses Scotland, it is surely an almost religious act to expect a revival there.
In the face of repeated defeat, some have found it comforting to act as if we don’t really care about Scotland anyway. It is sad that courage in the face of violence seems easier
to maintain than good grace in the face of rejection. But those seeking a message to carry the Tory standard into low-income, urban seats would do well to remember, especially in light of the public response to the Jubilee, that few issues transcend class more than
honest, principled patriotism.
When time and time again pollsters find that the albatross around the neck of the Conservative Party is a perception that we are fundamentally in politics for ourselves, the
suspicion that we wish to break this country up to win elections will do nothing to dispel that illusion.
Instead, we should seize the opportunity posed by the upcoming referendum to recast our image and demonstrate, not just to Scotland but to everybody, that we are the party that puts the country first. That Tory or not, Scots are our valued countrymen and we want
them to stay that way.
That’s a message we can take into the cities, into the North, into Wales, and even into Scotland.Share on Facebook