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.I’m as much a fan of variety as the next columnist, but it seems that UKIP just can’t keep itself out of the news. This week the focus has been on Nigel Farage’s close shave with a mob from “Radical Indepence” in Edinburgh and the ensuing back-and-forth between Farage and Scotland’s very one ‘Nat One’, Alex Salmond.
There seem to be two broad schools of thought on this. The first, expressed quite nicely here by Allan Massie, is that Farage is really a bit of a big girls blouse for being so upset that his meeting was challenged in a hearty and rumbustious fashion in the best traditions of British politics. The second is more in line with Farage’s own view that there is a nastily fascistic undercurrent to having political meetings broken up by force and something very distasteful by the indulgent treatment the Scottish media has given his aggressors.
Personally, I was most entertained by the Daily Mash’s cutting analysis. But unlike whoever came up with the headline ‘Nigel Farage’s Edinburgh humiliation’, I don’t really see how being mobbed in this fashion actually reflects badly on Farage or UKIP. I experienced much the same thing on a pettier scale when I was an active, elected Conservative in a very left-wing students union. Sometimes your meetings get stormed, sometimes somebody throws at punch at you on election night – it is your response to such attacks, rather than the attacks themselves, that reflect on your character.
In that light, Farage could have done perhaps with even thicker skin. Hanging up on a hostile interviewer and allowing the words “pretty ugly nation” to be attributable to him, without the relevant context, were both missteps. Yet despite that the most important thing is that it doesn’t appear to have done anything to stem Farage’s desire to establish his party in Scottish politics, which is what his opponents actually wanted.
Beyond that, the incident does highlight the interesting point of whether or not the nastier side of Scottish nationalism is going to grow more active – and attract more attention – in the build-up to the referendum. The mainland Celtic nationalisms have all managed to acquire a level of metropolitan respectability largely denied their English and British counterparts, an undoubted factor in their relative success. Part of this is that, the actions of a few Welsh-language ultras aside, there’s not really much of a ‘direct action’ wing to these fundamentally constitutional movements. The dark side of Scottish nationalism, embodied in the ‘cybernats’, lurks in the comments threads of news articles and largely passes the public by.
Will that remain the case if crowds brandishing ‘Yes’ slogans start making the headlines for harassing opponents? Chasing Nigel Farage out of a pub has been easy enough for the First Minister and the SNP to laugh off, but I feel that Salmond would have been better served by playing the statesman and defending freedom of speech, unpalatable as it might have been in the short run to have any kind words for a man so utterly opposed to his separatist vision as Farage,
In condemning the behaviour of UKIP's harassers Salmond could look magnanimous and statesmanlike, as well as putting some clear blue water between the mainstream separatist campaign and the fringe elements of Scottish nationalism. You're not in a good place when George Galloway is taking the higher road.
Better Together London ought to be just the start
One of the complicating factors for any unionist campaign is striking the right balance between a focus on it being a question for the country in question (which it undoubtedly is), and deploying one of the undoubted strengths of the Union: that people from all four home nations support one another.
To my mind, it has never made sense for unionists to fall into the nationalist trap that insists that only people from Scotland should campaign in or contribute to the campaign to keep the UK together. Scots should certainly be the voters, that much is beyond question, but to cut Scottish unionists off from the assistance of Welsh, English and Northern Irish people is to concede vital ground and play on the separatists’ turf. After all it is they who maintain that such people have no business in Scottish affairs – a unionist cannot credibly hold that view.
With that in mind, it was a most welcome discovery to found out about the launch of Better Together London. It’s heartening to see the unionist campaign reaching out to other parts of the United Kingdom, reminding people that whilst Scots are the voters in 2014 the continued existence of the UK is a battle in which every Briton has a stake.
Yet although this is a good first step, there remain a few key questions about the nature and extent of Better Together’s new outreach strategy. First, there is the simple question of extent. It is easy to see how London, being as it is at the centre of the British media world, might make a tempting, high-profile exception to what Better Together intend to be an entirely Scottish-focused campaign.
Thus BT London could be viewed not as the first part of an attempt to marshal the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the pro-union cause, but as an outpost that allows BT to maintain a profile with Westminster and the London media. This would be a great shame, and I hope that in the run up to 2014 we’ll see Better Together branches set up in other cities across the UK.
The other question is whether or not BT London (and any other branches that might get set up) is aimed at the British as a whole or merely at ‘expatriate’ Scots. The tone struck by the BT London event seems to suggest the latter. The initial justification that “London contains thousands of Scots” made sense but a recent update on the page asked people to invite “any Scottish friends you have in London”.
Again, that’s fine in and of itself but I’ve taken the liberty of inviting friends from all over the UK who might be in London and want to demonstrate their support for the unionist cause and probably contribute, if the means are made available. I hope that we non-Scottish partisans in the unionist cause are made to feel welcome and exploited to the fullest in the battle to come. We’ll find out on June 5.
A trades union declares for the Union
In April, I lamented the apparent decline of the staunch opposition of Scottish trades unionists to Scottish nationalism, and linked to an article explaining how a belief that a separate Scotland will be left-wing forever, combined perhaps with a decline in the number of true-believers in the fundamentally internationalist doctrine of socialism, was leading Scottish trades unions into the separatist camp.
Well, at least one has bucked this unhappy trend: the Scottish wing of ASLEF, the train drivers union, has unanimously voted to oppose independence. They even overcame their suspicions about cooperating with the Conservatives and officially affiliate to the Better Together campaign. May it be the first of many.
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.
Britons against Britain!
This is an odd one. In the Scotsman a chap called Tony Banks stakes out the view that, far from being a nationalist, it is his belief in Britain and his British identity that is making him vote for independence!
That works about as well as you’d think. Essentially, the argument is that the withdrawal Scotland’s three-score deputation of left-wing MPs will be the catalyst that shifts the rUK away from a “London-centric” economy, diminishes the political power of the South East, and turns us wayward South British back onto the righteous path of social democracy. No evidence is proffered to support this rather mystifying conclusion.
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.
UKIP: A national party?
“The scale of the advance of Ukip has shocked both the two main parties. As expected, it seems to have taken votes primarily from disgruntled Conservatives, but it is also establishing itself in traditional Labour areas. As Tim Congdon has pointed out, if that trend should continue Mr Farage would be able to claim that his was the only truly national party with strong support across the whole of England.”
Above is Lord Tebbit, temporarily forgetting that Alex Salmond has yet to win the 2014 referendum campaign. I know that Anglonats read this column but individual opinions aside, UKIP is very explicitly the United Kingdom Independence Party. It contests Scottish and Welsh elections. It even managed to beat the Conservatives to an MLA in Northern Ireland.
The problem is that, despite its clearly British sentiments, UKIP doesn’t appear to have a game plan for outside England. It continues to poll poorly in elections to the devolved chambers. It at least beat the Liberal Democrats to an MEP in Wales, and former two-term Conservative MEP for North Wales and so-called “Celtic Iron Lady”, Beata Brookes, recently announced her defection. Yet despite being in the unique position of being able to focus their resources on a single council, the Welsh wing of UKIP didn’t even put up a fight for Isle of Anglesey council.
Its performance in Thursday’s local elections was impressive but they are the worst possible local elections for judging UKIP’s non-Conservative reach, consisting as they did almost exclusively of rural English councils. The real tests will come over the next couple of years.
First up are the council elections in 2014. In Manchester, where I studied, the Liberal Democrats look on course to be wiped out, leaving Labour the only party on the council. If UKIP really do have the ability to reach out to Labour voters, then getting elected in a city that last elected a centre-right councillor in 1992 will be a good litmus test.
Next are the European elections. Whether or not UKIP can increase their performance in Wales, more interesting still will be to see if they can scoop a Scottish MEP (if they do, whether they simply unseat the Tory). In Northern Ireland the third European seat is currently held by a Tory-allied Ulster Unionist. Yet that alliance is now over, with the UUP in the doldrums and the still-miniscule NI Conservatives failing to break through. If the Tories run a proper European campaign in the province, which it looks like they will, the UUP seat could be vulnerable.
In response, UKIP have touted their own Faustian pact with a Northern Irish party: the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice. TUV leader Jim Allister is a former DUP MEP and has worked with UKIP in the European Parliament. With UKIP’s resources behind him it might offer a decent challenge to the seat, although obviously the impact is limited if the branding is all TUV.
At the general election It seems fairly safe to predict that, if UKIP to manage to win any seats in 2015, they’ll be in England. Nonetheless it will be interesting to see whether they can build up a vote outside England, particularly if it starts to cost the Tories their very precious non-English seats.
Then there are the devolved elections. The Northern Irish Assembly is currently scheduled to go to the polls in 2015 (although it might get delayed by a year). UKIP have beaten the Tories to a defector and thus David McNarry will be defending his seat as a UKIP MLA. If he holds it, let alone if UKIP scrape a second one somehow, that’ll be very embarrassing for the local Conservatives.
Finally, there are the Welsh and Scottish elections in 2016. These elections have an element of PR, so the question is whether or not UKIP can win any seats on the regional lists (and who from). Unlike Wales, where some small progress has been made, UKIP is very much the outsider in Scotland – to the extent that the unionist campaign have declined to include the party in their official bid to maintain the UK. With their combination of Anglo-centric right-wing politics and plan to abolish MSPs (but keep the Scottish Parliament, with Scotland’s MPs sitting part-time), it is very hard to envisage them making a real breakthrough.However, UKIP themselves seem more confident and are taking steps to ensure that their Scottish members influence the party’s image and policy making, which is a positive start.
It is these elections, and not English rural councils, which will demonstrate whether or not UKIP is able to genuinely carry the centre-right standard into territories which have spent the best part of twenty years resisting the Conservatives.
The future’s bright, the future’s…
Your columnist is up in Northern Ireland this week, spending a week on placement in the archives of the Orange Order in Belfast. It’s very nice to be back in the city, which is one of my favourites, and enjoy a few days buying things with pounds and catching up on iPlayer. It’s an interesting experience.
I’m staying in West Belfast, with the Catholic chairman of Conservative Future Northern Ireland. The archive is on the other side of a city, in a loyalist community. My journey to work and back takes me past painted kerbstones, rival flags, murals, and all the iconography of the scary Belfast we see on the news.
Yet contrary to what you might expect if you only experience Northern Ireland through the mainland news, on the whole Belfast and most of Northern Ireland is lovely. If you steer clear of a few trouble spots the people are friendly, the scenery stunning, the grand Victorian buildings splendid and the modernist monstrosities hard to find.
It isn’t normally my intention to turn this column into an extension of a tourist office, but with its Soviet-style public sector economy, unsavoury politicians, armed militants and frightening history Northern Ireland often gets something of a bad rap, which I suspect contributes to the sizeable “what’s the point” attitude you can find in England. To my mind, nobody who has visited Northern Ireland recently can fail to see why it’d be our loss to see it go. I got my first impression of Belfast during the recent flag riots and managed to fall in love with it anyway.
By the by, can you guess which biscuit is the favourite at the Orange Order HQ? Club Orange, of course. Testament, I am sure, simply to their excellent taste in chocolate snacks.
Teaching national history, avoiding nationalism
How to teach history in schools is a fascinating, complicated and important topic. It is also a fundamentally political one. Given that most school pupils do not go on to study history at an academic level at university, or even past GCSE level, their school lessons can underpin their understanding of the past for the rest of their life, an understanding which often shapes someone’s identity and even their politics.
I recently wrote elsewhere about the hornet’s nest that is the teaching of ‘national history’. That article was prompted by a debate held in the closing stages of my Masters degree here in Dublin about the practical impact of changes in historical understanding and practice (called ‘historiography’). Between them, the Irish and British examples demonstrated the problems both of teaching a historical narrative to school pupils and of not doing so.
Salmond’s Scotland: Out of the loop and off the money
Another of the strangely integrationist ramifications of Alex Salmond’s separatist ambitions came to light this week, when a Treasury paper revealed that in the event of a post-separation currency union between Scotland and the continuing UK, it might no longer be possible to continue issuing Scottish banknotes.
According to the Treasury, this is because Scotland’s weaker commitment to sterling under a currency union might have a negative impact on the confidence of the public and currency speculators in the “Scottiish pound”, in case Scotland were ever to withdraw from the union and devalue. Those notes issued and backed directly by the central bank underpinning the currency – the Bank of England – will be a safer bet. And despite SNP claims that the right to issue Scottish notes is ironclad, the relevant legislation – most recently the 2009 Banking Act – is issued by Westminster.
Yet Salmond’s plan will have farther-reaching consequences than simply sparing cashiers south of the border the occasional squabble over the legality of an unusual note. The Treasury is also expected to argue that for Scotland to maintain a ‘sterling zone’ it would have to accept budget constraints set in London - a foreign city where, Nicola Sturgeon’s unilateral declarations notwithstanding, Scotland would no longer be represented. Unionist politicians such as Alistair Darling and Danny Alexander maintain that Scotland would have to face cuts to sustain an economic union.
Thus the currency becomes another one of those strange issues where the SNP seem to be shrinking from the shiny new levers of statehood that independence is supposed to proffer them. Indeed, in this instance they appear to have stumbled into reverse gear.
And of course, all of this assumes that a currency union can be made to work at all. As one of Salmond’s former advisors points out, that’s the opposite lesson drawn from the Eurozone. A viable currency union seems to need a degree of banking union, fiscal union, political union… In short, it really just needs a Union. Happily enough, we’ve got one.
According to a report seen by Wales Online, Wales might be seen as a softer target by terrorists looking to avoid the tough security climates in places like London. It also mentions the risks of domestic extremists inside the Welsh Muslim community. Earlier this week, a pair of would-be terrorists who trained in Snowdonia were jailed.
Whilst England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have each had their share (doesn’t seem right to say “fair” share) of terrorist experiences in the last few decades, Wales has been spared most of it, and with the above-linked article taking great pains to stress that the authorities are on top of things in Wales we’ve every reason to hope that remains the case.
After all, the security services have past form when it comes to rigour in their treatment of Wales. Don’t take my word for it: read this report from the Wales on Sunday about MI5’s monitoring of Welsh nationalists in the run up to the Prince of Wales’ investiture back in 1969, after a series of “bomb outrages” perpetrated by hard-line nationalists. They weren’t being completely paranoid either – two men apparently blew themselves up on the eve of the investiture in what is believed to be an attempted attack on the Royal Train.
Happily Welsh nationalism declined to go down the urban warfare route and the programme was closed after the ceremony. Today’s Plaid activists can rest safe in the knowledge that they are no longer considered a threat to realm.
Though cowards flinch, and traitors sneer…
…we’ll keep the red flag flying here! At least, they keep it flying at the Scottish Labour conference, which was held in Inverness this week. It seems rather surreal, since I always associate that song with footage with those Labour conferences from the Eighties when they were busily and democratically engaged in helping Margaret Thatcher get re-elected. It seems like something Blair would have abolished. But as Dan Hodges discovered, “there’s no New Labour in Scotland, and there never has been”, which is disheartening for those who hoped that some vestige of the Blair election machine might be rolling like a unionist panzer onto Alex Salmond’s lawn.
Not, of course, that there will be much push in that direction from the UK party. Turns out that Blair did ban the socialist anthem from the Labour conference, but that like so many of the trappings of Labour’s less successful phase, its back. Is there a video? Oh yes. Be warned though, it is as exactly as excruciating as you would expect.
The changing face of Saint George’s Day
For those of you who sometimes complain in the comments that this blog seems to focus on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but not England, I’ve got to break it to you that that is its entire purpose. My remit for this little corner of the site is to keep an eye on the goings on of our three smaller partner-nations and occasionally put that into the broader British constitutional context.
If you do want to read about England from that perspective, I can heartily recommend this article from the Telegraph about the challenge posed by the resurgence of Englishness to the future of the British constitution and nation. There are also a couple of good pieces up on Open Unionism, if you’ll excuse the plug, including one from a former vice-chairman of the Campaign for an English Parliament.
Since this goes out on Wednesdays I hope that all of you had a happy Saint George’s Day, English or no. I intend to set out to see if I can find somewhere to celebrate it, which I admit isn’t my usual game, but I’m in Ireland and filled with a spirit of bloody-minded adventure. Which, as no doubt at least one person I meet in my little quest will tell me, is itself a rather English state of affairs.
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.
Here's a snapshot of some reaction to Margaret Thatcher's death from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Thatcher: The bogeyman of Welsh politics?
One of the clearest illustrations of the gap between the Margaret Thatcher of history and that of folklore is in this excellent article by David Williamson, political editor of Wales Online. In it, he draws attention to many of the discrepancies between the Thatcher of today’s remembering and the one Wales experienced. The best passage is worth quoting at length:
“When the Assembly took its first, often faltering, steps Mrs Thatcher’s memory was regularly evoked by AMs. Devolution, for all its imperfections, had a purpose: to prevent Thatcherite policies ripping through Wales again.
“Just as the myth of the bogeyman has been used by generations of parents to make children scamper upstairs at bedtime, the image of Mrs Thatcher as the nemesis of Wales has served an electoral purpose."
He lists the dry, psephological facts: that some three in ten Welsh voters backed Thatcher at the ballot box in each of her election victories. That in 1983 the Conservatives returned 14 Welsh MPs. That they did all this despite facing three consecutive Welsh leaders of the Labour Party in Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock, MPs for Cardiff South East, Blaenau Gwent and Islwyn respectively. One of the most memorable moments of the 1979 general election was David Dimbleby informing the nation that Keith Best was the first Tory MP for Anglesey since the Viscount Bulkeley… in 1722.
He also points out that, despite Margaret Thatcher being in Wales as in Scotland allegedly one of the key driving forces in the devolution movement, when their moment came in 1998 the Welsh only seized self-government by the skin of their teeth, 50.3% to 49.7%, despite the only party campaigning against devolution being the now MP-less Welsh Conservatives.
Failing to unite the United Kingdom
Indeed, the complex and disputed role of Thatcher as recruiting sergeant for devolution is also examined in this piece by the BBC’s Welsh political editor Betsan Powys. Whilst the full extent of her influence may be disputed, I’m not convinced by Ron Davies’ assertion that devolution would have happened irrespective of her time in office – if the Iron Lady truly were the daemon so many Welsh politicians claim she was, the ‘Thatcher Factor’ must surely have amounted to the measly 0.3% of the vote that formed the Yes victory margin.
The legacy of Thatcherism in Scotland, much like in Wales, is that she seems to have grown more monstrous as she grew more remote from contemporary experience. It seems hard to believe now that when the Conservatives won in 1979 they did so with 22 Scottish seats, up from Heath’s 16 and including seats in Glasgow and across the Highlands. She left with ten, and in the post-Thatcher 1992 election the Conservatives not only recaptured by-election losses like Kincardine and Deeside but recaptured Aberdeen South, lost in 1987, off Labour.
Yet today, Thatcher’s legacy is commonly taken as the reason that we only have a single MP and a shrinking corps in the Scottish Parliament – a view neatly captured by this BBC roundup of reactions to her death by Scottish political figures. Brian Taylor, the BBC’s Scottish political editor, sums it up:
“In many ways, she typified the conundrum which confronted the Conservative Party and continues to do so to this day. Her instincts, their instincts, were for a powerful brand of economic liberalism applied uniformly and with vigour across the United Kingdom.
“By contrast, the Scots were demonstrating their appetite for tailored politics, for distinctive treatment. For self-government, in short.”
As in Wales, one of the central planks of the analysis of her reign is that Thatcher, a staunch unionist and avowed opponent of devolution, ended up one of the great driving forces behind its eventual implementation. Sad as it is it seems hard to deny. Personally it always struck me that on the constitution, as in few other places, she was an unimaginative and cautious premier.
The defeat of devolution in the two 1979 referendums, and the rise in support for integration in Northern Irish unionism under her old mentor Enoch Powell, offered a real window for finding an alternative to national assemblies by passing power directly from Westminster to genuinely local government. Yet following the murder of Airey Nieve she allowed his reforming vision to die with him, and her centralising instincts brought Westminster to the zenith of its power but sowed the seeds for its post-1997 fragmentation. Indeed, one of the current debates in Scottish politics is the impact her passing will have on 2014.
A 'one nation' legacy lost
But probably the most interesting was Allan Massie’s comparison of Thatcher to that other long-standing Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin. It is well worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll quote his conclusion:
“Of course the times and the situation were different. Nevertheless Baldwin was right in his understanding of what the Tory Party should be, and Lady Thatcher, for all her many admirable qualities and achievements, was wrong in hers. Despite the efforts of her successors, the Tory party has come to represent, and be seen to represent, sectional interests. It needs a new Stanley Baldwin if it is ever to be a national party again.”
Doubtless that will not sit well with most Tories, since Thatcher was “for the most part … adored by her party in Scotland, just as in England”. But it falls to Thatcher’s defenders to find a better answer to the question of how we are “ever be a national party again”.
Black bunting in bad taste
But of course, as in England the response was not just contained to thoughtful columns and the respectful contributions of allies and opponents. The already-infamous “death parties”, not limited to looting London charity shops or attacking Bristol police officers, took place on an apparently more peaceable scale north of the border, with three hundred people marking the occasion in Glasgow’s George Square.
If you follow the link you’ll see the partygoers wearing posters bearing the slightly surreal slogan “Gotcha! Now get the rest”, which suggests they believe Lady T’s passing is the first stage of a cunning attempt to pick off Conservative politicians using human biology and time.
I actually debated against one of the Glasgow celebrants for the BBC World Service (in the second half of the show), and what struck me about all four of the anti-Thatcher panellists lined up opposite me was their shrill defensiveness. Naturally none of them supported celebrating the death of an old lady personally, good lord no. But how dare Conservatives try to suppress criticism of Thatcherism and censor people’s right to free expression? Of course, nobody is trying to do any such thing. There is a world of difference between censoring someone’s free speech and censuring them for how they exercise it.
These morbid parties also cropped up in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast and Londonderry. Revellers defied the calls of a PR-minded Martin McGuinness, who like Ed Miliband was clearly worried about the freer spirits of his political movement drawing popular ire.
Legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland
Other Northern Irish responses hinged on her approach to the troubles. First Minister Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, praised her as “one of the greatest political figures in post-war Britain” whilst referencing the deep divisions between Ulster unionists (including Powell) and Thatcher left by the Anglo-Irish agreement, and noted commentator Alex Kane proclaims that he “will always be a Thatcherite”. Others take a different view: Timothy Lavin of Bloomberg is particularly scathing about her Northern Irish legacy.
Gerry Adams meanwhile has clearly taken out a lucrative insurance policy on a glass house, for he set about throwing stones with gusto. “Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister,” he claimed, adding that “her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering.” That seems a little hard to stomach given that the ‘war’ was rather a terrorist campaign aimed at tearing Northern Ireland out of the UK against the democratic will of the majority of its inhabitants, waged by an organisation with which Sinn Fein is, to say the least, not unconnected.
Missing the point
But rather than leave the last word to the IRA, I thought I’d end with this piece on Thatcher in, of all places, the Belfast Telegraph’s Sports section. The author maintains that NI sportsmen and women “defied” Margaret Thatcher by “growing ever faster, higher, stronger” despite her cutting their public funding.
It strikes me that by buying into the myth that Thatcher cut public money to try to kill things, they miss the point. Teams and individuals thriving and growing despite a reduction of state involvement is the polar opposite of a challenge to Thatcherism. If anyone pointed these triumphs out to her at the time, I’m sure she was all the prouder of them.
The bedroom tax unites the kingdom... against it
The government’s new welfare measures, greeted with such decorum by the left-leaning national press, have made waves in the devolved regions too.
The ‘bedroom tax’ - or spare room subsidy, if you prefer - was front and centre in most coverage. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations have criticised the new policy, as has the Scottish government – although they have stopped short of a Labour proposal to outlaw evictions stemming from the new rules. Opponents of the measure in Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh joined others from across the UK in a series of coordinated public demonstrations.
The long term political implications aren’t clear yet, but people are already trying to capitalise on the visible anger provoked by the new rule. I wrote in a previous column about Welsh politicians using it to make the case for the devolution of welfare, whilst the New Statesman carries a piece about how such measures – and Labour’s inevitable commitment to some form of austerity if and when it returns to office – are apparently driving Scottish trades unions towards supporting independence. Long gone, it seems, are the days when Scottish NUM leader Mick McGahey said: “Scottish workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.”
From the perspective of three months writing this column, what has struck me most about the bedroom tax response is that it’s one of the first truly “British” stories I’ve encountered that hasn’t been some form of constitutional angst. It is very rare to encounter in the news a Westminster policy, certainly a domestic policy, which actually affects the entire British people in this way. Normally, Westminster features either as the sparring partner of a devolved politician or group, or in the ‘rest of the UK’ section. This, hopefully, is something that pro-union politicians will reflect upon when they’re dreaming up their vision of the “next stage” of devolution.An all-Catholic final for Northern Ireland Conservative Future Chairmanship
Most of you will likely be happily unaware that Conservative Future had their leadership elections in the past week. CF is the youth wing of the party everywhere except – in a piece of mystifying Murdoism – Scotland, and I’d like to draw attention to the interesting and heartening fact that two of the four candidates for the Northern Ireland regional chairmanship were Irish Catholics. Stephen Goss and Eimhear Macfarlane apparently not only topped the poll but tied the vote, with Goss’ name being picked out of a hat at CCHQ (and by Macfarlane’s campaign manager, no less!).
It strikes me that with sectarian tensions simmering in Northern Ireland and the ‘McUnionists’ declining the NI Conservatives red (blue?) carpet welcome in favour of a new party, this is exactly the sort of thing the local party needs more of. What better way to demonstrate that they’re a genuinely new force in centre-right, pro-union politics than having Catholics duking it out for senior leadership positions?
Sadly, such things appear confined to the youth wing for the moment. The NI Conservatives still don’t have an official leader, elected by the party membership. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case – perhaps they wanted to leave such a position vacant as an additional lure to a potential MLA defector – but since that eventuality is now looking remote it seems like something the party should set about rectifying.
In the meanwhile, that burden will have to be shouldered in part by their new youth chairman. Goss, from Andersonstown in West Belfast, has enjoyed a media profile in the province since he addressed the Ulster Unionist Party conference back in 2008. He’ll doubtless be a useful asset for a party that desperately needs to find a direction before the McUnionists take all their political oxygen. But no serious party can have its media fronted by its youth wing. Northern Ireland’s young Conservatives have chosen a leader – it’s about time their elders did the same.
Cameron's choice: Salmond challenges PM to independence debate
The SNP, you will be amazed to hear, are not very keen on English Tories. Many aren’t hugely keen on our Quisling cousins north of the border either, of course, but compounding Conservatism with Englishness is a sure-fire way to put yourself on the wrong side of the Yes campaign.
Indeed, so concerned were they about the referendum being “bought and sold for English gold” (a line based on old but questionable claim that the Treaty of Union was secured by mass criminality] that they campaigned hard to impose tight spending limits on the race. When the staunchly unionist Sir Alex Ferguson accused them of trying to close down the debate, the Yes camp specifically raised the spectre of “Conservative Party fundraisers held in England” to justify their stance.
In light of this, the SNP’s newfound enthusiasm for getting David Cameron, just such a dastardly Angle, more involved in the Scottish independence debate might seem rather surprising. Yet the SNP are now set on having the Prime Minister go head-to-head with Alex Salmond in a television debate on independence. Indeed, according to Better Together they’ve even gone so far as to snub Alistair Darling, the Scottish unionist leader.
Once you set aside the sheer inconsistency of it, of course, the SNP’s thinking becomes perfectly clear. Despite his surname David Cameron is the English leader of a mostly-English party with a very English accent. In any debate the SNP’s subliminal message will likely be along the lines of: “Look at this strange and alien fellow. Do you really fancy him ruling over you again?” Such a debate would also allow Salmond to frame the clash as between “Scotland” and “Britain/England”, rather than as between two groups of Scots with divergent senses of identity. For the SNP, trying to side-line the many capable and articulate Scottish unionists makes perfect sense.
Does all this mean that Cameron shouldn’t speak? Probably not. For starters, polls show a strong majority in favour of the Prime Minister stepping up to the plate, so ducking the challenge might well do more harm than good. The best way to avoid marginalising Better Together is probably for Cameron to publicly make his debate appearance conditional on Alistair Darling also getting one.
Moreover, there might be much good to be wrung from it, for party and country both. Cameron is a strong media performer and a man whose unionism is wholehearted and completely sincere. His speech on the matter last year went down rather well – indeed, Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman described it as “the strongest explicitly Unionist speech made in Britain since the 1950’s”, claiming that Cameron was one of the most effective voices on the pro-union side.
So by appearing, Cameron could bring his formidable talents as a debater and rhetorician to bear on the First Minister, who remains unchallenged in Scottish domestic politics, and do much good for the pro-Union cause. If he is to limit his appearances in a fundamentally Scottish debate to a few key interventions, this seems a good one.
It could also be good for the Conservative Party. Cameron strikes me as one of those political phenomena that are easy to demonise in the abstract. Going head-to-head with Salmond would give Scottish voters the opportunity to get to know Cameron as he debates Scottish issues (unlike the pan-UK general election debates). It might afford many who have not seen or heard him speak before the opportunity to see him and our party in a different light.
And in a campaign where people are using the prospect of future Conservative governments to try to raise support for independence, he can rise above such attitudes by arguing, as he clearly believes, that country comes before political difference and that Tory or not, Scots are our countrymen. With any luck, he’ll convince at least a few more Scots to feel the same way about him.
Last week, I mentioned as an aside the entertaining notion put forward by a member of the Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign that leaving the Union would ‘allow’ Scots to smoke less. One week on it appears the SNP administration has decided not even to wait until that happy time, but to launch the war on smoking right now with a drive to make Scotland nearly smoke-free by 2034. Alongside the usual public awareness campaigns, the plan includes a few concrete pieces of anti-tobacco legislation: enforcing plain packaging for tobacco products; smoke-free hospital grounds; and outlawing self-service cigarette vending machines. The plain packaging proposal has also been examined by this Government.
Both are following the example of Australia, which brought in the first plain packaging regime and is something of a petri dish for anti-smoking legislation, including Tazmania’s novel if questionable ban on selling cigarettes to anybody born after the year 2000, which raises the awkward question of why an adult Tazmanian citizen born in 1999 is capable of exercising greater judgement over their life and body than someone born a year later.
Based on the press coverage, support and opposition to the proposals is coming from the usual quarters: public-health authoritarians like ASH, some doctors and academics in favour; tobacco companies and FOREST against. Personally, I’ve much more sympathy to FOREST’s view of things: tobacco is perfectly legal, and it is not hard to imagine the self-same public health activists campaigning for olive-green cola cans in a couple of decades. The freedom to choose to do and consume things a doctor wouldn’t approve of is an important freedom, and such cases always put me in mind of CS Lewis’ wonderful quotation about the tyranny of “well-meaning moral busybodies”.
The distaste of a Tory columnist aside, there are obvious downsides to anti-tobacco legislation. In Dublin, where I currently live, the black-market trade in smuggled cigarettes is booming. It’s not hard to see why: not only are illegally imported cigarettes sold at half the price of government (dis)approved product, but smuggled packs often lack the big, graphic warnings the Irish government recently introduced, which can make just owning one pack a little visual reminder of defiance.
The net result of all this government action in Ireland, combined with the natural side-effect of prohibition that is criminals exploiting new markets, is that “Premiership-style criminality” is costing the Irish state hundreds of millions of euro in lost revenue which it can ill afford. Given the vast amount that smokers currently contribute to the UK exchequer (far more than it costs the NHS to treat them), this is something the Scottish and British governments ought to consider. Prohibition is usually a way of channelling vast revenues into criminal hands – just ask the Americans about their attempt to de-normalise alcohol. Meanwhile, for smokers who don’t have access to smuggled cigs, Australian company Box Wrap will surely be looking at setting up a Scottish branch post-haste.
Fifteen years after what the BBC dubbed “Northern Ireland’s single worst terrorist atrocity”, a pair of Republicans were found liable in a civil court for the 1998 Omagh bombing.
Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly, who declined to appear at the trial, are now being pursued for damages by relatives of the bomb’s victims, and along with two other former members of the Real IRA have been ordered to pay damages of £1.6 million.
This, coming in the same week that the parents of a young boy murdered by another Republican bomb addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly, provides a jarring reminder for a mainland reader about how strong the legacy of the Troubles still is in the province.
For me, with an Irish family but too young to remember the Troubles, it’s also a weird reminder of just how long they lasted. Grainy footage of soldiers and smoke from the 1970s, or Margaret Thatcher defiantly addressing the party conference after evading the Brighton Bomb, is history for me, and I was only vaguely aware of John Major’s premiership. But 1998, coming as it does during the reign of Tony Blair, seems uncomfortably proximate, and for someone more familiar with the daily dysfunctions of modern Ulster politics, this conviction serves as a timely reminders of how far Northern Ireland has come.
It’s been have-your-cake-and-eat-it week at the Silk Commission on Welsh devolution, as they received the official submission of the Church in Wales. The Church’s position, like so many other bilateral devolution proposals, takes two strands, which are as follows.
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.
Last week, I wrote about the decision of the “McUnionists” – Basil McCrea and John McCallister – to start a new pro-Union party rather than defect straight to NI Conservatives. In the week since speculation has continued as to the new party’s prospects and potential.
Writing for the Belfast Telegraph, Alex Kane sets out a fairly optimistic case. To his mind, the UUP’s cleaving to the DUP has opened up a space in Northern Ireland’s crowded political arena: “territory which Alliance has never been able to claim and which the Conservatives and UKIP don't even recognise.”
What do you do when you realise that your white knight isn’t riding to the rescue after all?
That is the question that faces the Northern Ireland Conservatives this week, as Basil McCrea and John McCallister announced their intention to establish a new “liberal unionist” party. The pair resigned from the UUP after the announcement of a ‘Unionist Unity’ candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election.
Both of these defections have been expected for some time. The question has always been where they would go afterwards. They had four options: remain independent unionist MLAs; establish a new party; join the Lib-Dem-alike Alliance Party; or join (and inevitably lead) the NI Conservatives. Of these, the worst outcome for the Tories was a new party.
It represents a wound on two fronts. First, it brings a new party with a charismatic and elected local leader right onto the territory the NIC’s were hoping to occupy. Second, it probably hammers the final nail into the coffin of the notion that the NI Conservatives are likely to attract many UUP defectors and should thus plan around such defections.
The arch-devolutionaries, who I referred to last week in the Welsh context, have unveiled a new slogan: “Heads we win; tails you lose”. In both Wales and Scotland, the federalist wing of the pro-union camp has been out in force this week. In Wales, the Labour administration in Cardiff put forward its vision for the future of devolution in Wales.
True to the “more powers” tradition, it consists of a radical list of new devolutionary demands, to be implemented largely by the end of this decade. More importantly, Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, calls for a fundamental shift from a ‘conferred’ devolutionary model – where powers are explicitly bestowed upon devolved government – to a ‘reserved’ model, where the opposite is the case. In a final flourish, Jones asserts that all this should happen without any further reference to the Welsh electorate.
I read the news that Grant Shapps intends to include Scottish seats on the party’s list of forty targets with no little sense of relief. It’s a welcome sign that the party is taking Scotland seriously. I had shared the FT’s ‘previous expectations’ that we would likely target almost exclusively English seats, spiced up perhaps with a smattering of Welsh ones.
I worried about this not just because being written out of Scottish politics makes it harder for us to win general elections, but because it is bad for the Union. If ever we did find an England-only route to secure political power, the UK would probably be placed under heavier strain than Alex Salmond could ever hope to exert, as the temptation to avoid the compromises necessary to win over Scottish voters would be immense – after all, we wouldn’t ‘need’ them.