Henry Hill: A new party for Northern Ireland; a new approach for Better Together
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.
NI21 “looking for fresh voices rather than defectors”. Ouch.
John McCallister and Basil McCrea launched their new party last week, and the event itself seems to have gone down rather well. Although still small and lacking the resources that the Conservatives might have offered, they appear to have pulled together an energetic group of volunteers, some members, and a fairly clever logo that plays on their (still to my mind rather tragically) modern-styled name.
According to Slugger O’Toole, McCrea even took pains to point out that they are looking for fresh voices and pitching to people who have stopped voting, rather than building a strategy around the hope of defections. That’s one in the eye to the NI Conservatives, then. Our Ulster wing was also mentioned by the Newsletter, who pointed out that NI21 had ‘stolen the march’ on us beneath a picture of John and Basil that wouldn’t look out of place in a wedding album.
Speaking of weddings, the party chalked up another milestone with their first media gaffe. In this instanceit was McCrea’s intensely relaxed, state-out-of-the-bedroom attitude to consensual polygamy that raised eyebrows in what remains by far the most socially conservative part of the UK. It did at least make a refreshing change of pace from the recent rash of Conservative and UKIP gaffes, though.
Nobody seems very sure of the party’s long-term prospects. With its emphasis on niceness and modernity it as the whiff of the SDP about it, and despite claims to be pitching at people who don’t vote (which seems unlikely to be particularly fertile soil) it will undoubtedly be hoping to win seats and voters off of the UUP and the Alliance, whilst denying any breathing room to whatever the new NI Conservative strategy is.
Better Together strike new note in London launch
The Better Together London launch was a great success. The venue, larger than that originally booked, was full, which always augers well. The speeches were good too. Alistair Darling naturally represented Labour, whilst Danny Alexander took the podium for the Liberal Democrats. Although David Mundell, our lone Scottish MP, was in attendance, we were represented by Lord Strathclyde, who proved a good speaker. The Telegraph reports that the London branch is “the first of several such groups that will be set up south of the border”, which is what I’ve been arguing for, and they even laid on decent non-alcoholic drink for we teetotal types.
Beneath the organisational level, Fraser Nelson detected an important tonal shift in the Better Together message. Instead of focusing purely on bookkeeping matters – the ‘policy fire-fights’ I’ve mentioned before – the whole event tried to take a slightly more poetic, identity-based note. Although the video Nelson mentions is as old as the Better Together campaign, this is the first time it really seemed to mesh with what the rest of the campaign was doing. Only Danny Alexander really gave the traditional Union-by-numbers speech.
The Q&A was good too, with Darling reiterating that he’s more than willing to go toe to toe with Salmond in a debate if the First Minister wasn’t “feart”. Salmond instead wants to debate David Cameron, despite the SNP’s insistence that the referendum be a purely Scottish affair.
Let’s hope Better Together can keep this up, and have more branches south of the border set up soon.
A lesson from the French
Walking from the Better Together launch to the pub, I noticed an eye-catching display in Parliament Square: the flags of all our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. I didn’t know what event had prompted their being broken out, but to see them all collected there looked splendid regardless.
As I passed I mulled over the fact that, if the British imperial remnant were run on French lines, then this eclectic collection of islands and archipelagos would return a troop of MPs to parliament, and I’d get to write about them more often. Perhaps even land myself a subsidised junket or two. For research purposes only, of course.
Another week of separatist woe
Whilst I maintain that the dry practical aspects of the debate are less important than fundamental questions of identity, there’s no denying the allure of the policy fire-fight when the unionists have such a good track record in them. The SNP’s shakey vision of independence without the downsides took another series of blows this week.
First, we have Theresa May pointing out the surely obvious fact that if Scots vote for independence they will be a separate state to the UK and will have no say in whether or not they are entitled to hold or retain British passports – a fact which outraged SNP MP Pete Wishart, who insisted that Scots would be allowed both passports and that the Scottish government was preparing a white paper saying just that. For good measure, he pointed out that when Scotland is an independent, oil-rich kingdom of peace and harmony nobody will want a British passport anyway – whilst separatist campaigners insisted that Scotland will still be “British” post-independence.
Speaking of British things, a report commissioned by the SNP government suggests that the British benefit system is so complex that it would be best for it to continue to be administered on a UK-wide basis in the years following separation. The big downside of this, they note, is that it would restrain the Scottish government’s freedom of action regarding welfare policy in the transition period. As in banking, currency and so much else, the SNP’s version of the word “cooperation” is markedly more one-sided than any I'm familiar with, as Nicola Sturgeon claims that any cooperative policy would only be on Scotland’s interests if it allowed Scottish ministers total freedom from day one.
The biggest benefit of these policy attacks, however, is that they open up the fissures in the separatist coalition. The SNP itself is a very broad tent that ranges from the centre-right to the left, and its various allies add yet more potential schisms. Forcing a battle on the shape of a separate Scotland has the socialist utopians looking askance at the low-corporation-tax, business-friendly nationalists, and the levels of interconnectedness the SNP are having to concede is irking those who envision a more complete, if impractical, breakaway.
In all, it was another week of setbacks for the nationalists. Little wonder then that Margo Macdonald suspects that MI5 might be behind it.