Henry Hill: Devolved politicians contest Thatcher's legacy
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 Welsh Assembly remembers the lady; the Scottish Parliament debates her legacy
The Welsh Assembly opened its first post-Easter session with tributes to Lady Thatcher, which played out much as you might expect.
First Minister and Labour leader Carwyn Jones focused on her role in allowing Welsh coalmining to decline, as well as her (quite unintended) role in beckoning in devolution. He also accused her of alienating both sides of the Northern Irish issue, which is probably inevitable if you both fight the IRA and seek an accommodation with peaceful nationalism. He praised her role in liberating the Falklands and, in a rather barbed compliment, noted that her 1983 total of 14 Welsh Conservative MPs – including three from Cardiff – has never been repeated.
Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies was naturally laudatory, praising Thatcher as “a force for good” who turned Britain around. Yet as in Westminster, there were those who chose to stay away, from both the Labour and nationalist parties. Plaid leader Leanne Woods distinguished herself by rebuking the “no such thing as society” line by stating that Wales believes in “community”. To my mind, the full quotation is in fact all about the distinction between community – a tangible, local and personal phenomenon – and an abstract and remote ‘society’ that can only be represented by the state.
The long shadow of the Troubles, Lady Thatcher... and Oliver Cromwell
Sinn Fein had their annual conference (Ard Fheis) this week. For all the image given at the top of SF becoming a normal, post-conflict political party, it isn’t every conference that sports badges bearing the silhouette of an armed man with the message “sniper at work” – although I’m sure the TUC might have whipped some up for Lady Thatcher had they thought of it.
Yet beneath the cosmetics, interviews with regular party members also demonstrated continuing and worrisome tendency to endorse extremist positions and tactics. Only a third believes it their civic duty to report armed dissidents to the police, whilst most shockingly of all a quarter of respondents declared their belief in the legitimacy of an armed struggle for so long as the British remain in Ulster. Clearly Sinn Fein’s route to true political normalcy will be a long one.
Yet if the Republicans retain an element of ruthlessness (to put it nicely) when it comes to their willingness to countenance bringing about a united Ireland through force, the Iron Lady in her heyday was quite prepared to be ruthless back. The Belfast Telegraph disinterred revelations from 2001 about Margaret Thatcher’s somewhat surreal plan for the repartition of Ireland when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was in trouble.
This frankly surreal proposal came in two parts: first, the redrawing of the border of Northern Ireland into a straight line to make it more defensible – as if any attempt to update that border is ever going to end up as anything other than a long meander around local population clusters that want to be on one side or the other. A beachhead down the rabbit hole thus established, the plan could move onto its next phase and set about moving those northern Catholics who wanted to live in a separate Irish state to the pre-existing one.
Suffice to say, there must have been times when the Troubles looked completely insoluble.
North-eastern opportunities for the Scottish Conservatives
Let’s not get over-excited – the prospects of an immediate Conservative revival north of the border are always long. But if you can resist the urge to get over-optimistic, trying to spot avenues of advancement for our party in Scotland can be quite a fun, fatalistic little psephological parlour game.
I mention this because of a recent poll of north and north-eastern Scotland, summarised here in the Press and Journal. Clicking through will show positive findings for the Union across the board, but the two results of most immediate interest to party strategists, I think, will be Aberdeenshire and Moray.
There are grounds to think that each of the yellow parties might be vulnerable in Scotland in 2015. The Liberal Democrats, suffering from their first experience of office and especially being in partnership with us, are likely to see a dip in support. The SNP, meanwhile, may well be in a pretty poor state after losing the 2014 referendum (if they win, of course, all this is entirely moot). Defeat will likely have a serious impact on party morale, not to mention funds and energy, and the general election will follow a mere seven months after the event. Furthermore, a party which has gained much by downplaying its cause célèbre and positioning itself as an alternative home for centre-right anti-Labour voters will have to spend the next year and a half dyeing independence into the very fabric of its public image.
All of which is good news – potentially – for the Conservatives. A lot of SNP voters are former Tory voters. When Alex Salmond stood down from Banff and Buchan before the 2010 general election, that election saw the Conservative vote double and the SNP majority was dashed from 11,800 to a hair over 4,000. The swing of 10.6% was the largest in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Tories are the only credible challenger Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine, where the Liberal Democrats have a majority of 3,700 and the SNP are in third. If both of those parties take a hit in 2015, it’s not impossible to envision the Tory candidate pushing through.
Of course, all of these are long shots and any number of local or national issues might intervene to keep the party stuck in second place. But then essentially every Scottish shot is a long shot at this point. I can’t find the full list of the party’s forty target seats, but Scottish seats will be on it. It will be interesting to see if the north-east gets a look in.
The not-so-'+ive' case... "England would bomb our airports"!
In the build-up to the Scottish referendum next year, the Better Together campaign is currently built around something called the ‘+ive’ case. In essence, the idea is to avoid giving Salmond opportunities to accuse unionists of “talking Scotland down”, and instead focusing on building the positive case for why Scotland should remain inside the UK.
There’s obviously some tension in this approach – it would be very easy to focus strictly on the hard, economic and strategic case, which would risk turning what is fundamentally a country with a common (if multi-faceted and layered) identity into a rather mercenary arrangement, a point with BT sort-of address with their ‘Interdependence’ point. Yet for all that it’s a good place to start.
What is not helpful to building a positive case for the Union is anything that generates the headline “English ‘would bomb our airports’”.
Now I don’t know, because the above article didn’t see fit to include, the exact setting of Lord Fraser of Carmyllie’s remarks (although it does take care to mention that he’s a Conservative). It might be that it was simply a small-part of a well-reasoned and speculative discussion about the security implications of independence in the long term. Certainly the circumstances described – an enemy seeking to land forces in Scotland to threaten ‘England’, and England/rUK having to thus bomb Scottish airports – seem rather improbable.
Of all the downsides of Scottish independence, I don’t think that a revivification of the “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and whomever England happened to be fighting is very likely beyond the world of sport. Nonetheless, perhaps a little more care over the opportunities presented for mischievous headlines would be welcome.