Henry Hill: When a Welsh-speaking Tory MP was met by the snarl: "You're English"
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
The University of Glasgow has just announced its Gaelic language plan,
a one-university attempt to bring to Scottish administration all the
bi-lingual joy of Welsh administration. This will doubtless have pleased
the Scottish Government, which seems irked by having one less drum to
bang than Plaid Cymru and is thus sinking hundreds of thousands of
pounds into the promotion of Gaelic.
There are all sorts of different flavours of nationalism. One which you don’t tend to see much of in Scotland is the linguistic sort. This has in many ways set Scotland apart. Welsh and Irish share more of the Quebecois model, where a linguistic fixation plays a major role. This can be the liberal and positive, based voluntary measures aimed at increasing awareness and availability of the language for those that want to learn it.
It can also be narrow and authoritarian, built around forcing the language onto people, forcing people into cultural pigeonholes, and defining against the non-speaking other. For example, nothing quite lays to rest the notion that Welsh nationalism is a wholly progressive, social democratic phenomenon quite like listening to this exchange on the Jeremy Vine show between Monmouth MP David Davies and a Welsh nationalist caller. Note the venom with which the caller snarls “you’re ENGLISH” at the Welsh-speaking but London-born Davies.
As a result of this collection of disheartening precedents, I’m always uneasy when I hear about new instances of linguistic nationalism, especially when backed up by public money (Scotland not having tuition fees) and not meeting a genuine need. I don’t think Glasgow University was suffering greatly, or indeed at all, from not performing all its back-office functions in a language David Mitchell describes as “not far above the level of a private code”. Surely, in these austere times, that funding could have been put to a more productive use.
The undertaker, "Unionism's Lazarus"
In all the excitement over Eastleigh, it is very easy to forget that there has been another by-election last week. Yet while mainland politics has been distracted totally by Eastleigh, in Northern Ireland politicos and commentators are shifting through the entrails of Mid Ulster, and nobody can really decide whether it was a significant political milestone or not.
The headline figures are hardly something to write home about. On a truly miserably low turnout, Sinn Fein comfortably held a very safe Sinn Fein seat. The reason it’s interesting (in theory) is because the UUP and the DUP got together to run a single “Unionist Unity” candidate, rather than competing against one another. Since this decision has already cost the UUP two high-profile liberal MLAs, the pressure was on for the UUP to be able to claim it was worth it.
Despite the strong potential for an emotive grappling with the legacy of the Troubles – Lutton’s father was murdered in 1979 in an IRA operation which Sinn Fein candidate Francie Molloy strenuously denies any link to – the race was a moribund affair. The actual result can be read any way you like. Nigel Lutton, the Unionist candidate, received a marginally higher share of the vote but a lower total vote than the general election, while Sinn Fein’s majority was slashed.
Yet unlike Fermanagh & South Tyrone in 2010, where pro-Conservative ‘Unionist Unity’ candidate Rodney Connor came within four votes of unseating a Sinn Fein MP, there’s no evidence that a single unionist candidate is actually a route to winning back Mid Ulster. All of which leaves means that the by-election has settled very little. A poll on the News Letter’s website describes Lutton as “the undertaker who resurrected unionism”, the only credible part of which is that he is in fact an undertaker – which is not an auspicious choice of profession for a candidate intended to be unionism’s Lazarus.
Meanwhile, the UUP are at once fending off talks of a merger whilst talking up the prospect of much closer cooperation, which is starting to bear an ominous similarity to the unhappy fate of the SDP - as anyone involved save David Owen will agree, if you’re going down that road its best to simply get it over with. Lie back and think of Ulster, and all that.
Politics and culture overlap more heavily – or at least more obviously – in Northern Ireland than the mainland. As a result, this by-election result and the fate of Unionist Unity aren’t (just) matters of high politics. The bigger issue behind it is whether anti-separatist politics in the province can break out of their Protestant cul-de-sac or not.
As the Belfast Telegraph reports, and as polls have been showing for a long time, there exists a substantial portion of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland comfortable in the UK. That might surprise people whose only experience of Northern Ireland is hearing about two communities locked in a state that ranges from ‘Cold War’ to ‘Civil War’, but it’s a consistent fact of Northern Irish polling nonetheless.
This opens up the possibility of NI being able, at some point, to properly move on from the troubles and start to develop the sort of civic and political culture normal to a democracy in our part of the world. But that can’t happen while the political parties are all frozen in aspic, reflecting the polarised and culturally-driven province which everybody is meant to be trying to leave behind. ‘Unionist unity’ looks to be nothing more than a circle-the-wagons attempt by unionism’s political leaders to unite the ever-decreasing amount of the Protestant electorate which can be bothered to go to the polls, rather than risk stepping outside their comfort zones to appeal to potential Catholic and ‘Irish’ pro-Union voters. Viewed in that light, Lutton seems more undertaker than Lazarus to me.
Provo on wheels
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. They might not have beaten Sinn Fein, but unionism proved itself on fighting form when it took on the might of car manufacturer Kia. The crime? Unveiling at a car show a prototype car called the Kia Provo. Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell tabled a motion in the Commons asking for a name change.
Kia was quick to point out that they had not in fact named the car after the Provisional IRA, and that they weren’t planning on selling it in the UK or in fact putting it onto the production line at all.
“It won't have the slogan No Surrender on the boot, we're not going to do a Free Derry special edition or anything of that nature”, according to Stephen Kitson, corporate communications director at Kia Motors UK, who was clearly taking the whole episode rather less seriously than the DUP.