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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: We will have to raise our game to gain from any collapse of the UUP

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.

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.”

Political territory can have two meanings: policy and voters. In policy terms, the chief position highlighted by Kane is the prospect of an “Opposition”. Stormont’s all-shall-have-prizes structure and mandatory cross-communal coalition means that there is no official opposition such as we’re used to in better-functioning parliamentary systems. As Jim Allister, the sole MLA for the Traditional Unionist Voice and until now close to a one-man opposition put it, Stormont “Functions by denying the very right of an Opposition to exist and by telling Northern Ireland's voters, "Oh yes, you can vote, but you can never change your Government" and, "Oh yes, you can tinker with the pecking order in government, but you cannot vote a party out of government if it retains a handful of MLAs." That is not democracy: that is built on the very antithesis of democracy.”

Aside from being democratic and something generally seen as desirable by many voters and commentators, opposition has the added advantage of guaranteeing McCrea and McCallister the sort of media exposure they have grown used to as the “internal opposition” of the UUP.  Such continued media attention will be critical if a new party is to gain and maintain a hold in the public imagination.

The precise nature of this territory in terms of potential voters is harder to determine, but appears to consist of the sort of moderate, middle-class unionists who currently trend towards the border-neutral Alliance but who might prefer an openly pro-union home, as well as the tantalising but evasive Catholic pro-union vote, the existence of which is affirmed and reaffirmed by repeated opinion polls but which political unionism has never managed to attract to the ballot box.

As I wrote last week, this looks like a good two-thirds of a description of the NI Conservative target vote. In fact, Kane seems to have written off the Ulster Tories, going so far as to say that “a new party may pick up votes from Conservatives, who have given up on making their own breakthrough.” Judging from his earlier reference of our inability to “recognise” the space the McUnionists are targeting, Kane’s analysis seems to be that the NI Conservatives are simply not very good at negotiating the province’s political landscape.

This view might well chime with that of the “two Macs”: according to someone who’s talked to them about it, the only things the NI Conservatives could offer by way of inducements were a list of big names from London and plenty of money – money which McCrea and McCallister thought unlikely to be spent effectively.

The Irish Times, meanwhile, offers a southern perspective on the so-called splintering of unionism. Rather than focusing on the new party, they take a broader view of the gradual disintegration of the once-monolithic UUP, charting the long decline in its vote, its disappearance from Westminster, and the ever-lengthening string of defections of which the McUnionists are just the most recent.

The prospect that the IT holds out – one which should have the NI Conservatives as well as the Alliance and the McUnionists watering at the mouth – is one of a total collapse of the UUP as an independent political force, its right absorbed by the DUP and its left taken by whichever of the current contenders has best placed themselves to receive it. Our party will have to substantially up our game if there’s any prospect of that party being us.

Welsh separatism has never quite enjoyed the success of its Scottish counterpart. It is their bad luck to have a people decidedly less energised by the prospect of breaking up the UK than many Scots – the Welsh barely voted for devolution in the first place, and even then plumped for a 1979-style “assembly” rather than the grander-sounding “parliament” which the Scots were getting. Since then, constitutional affairs don’t appear to have taken on the same existential significance in Wales that they have north of the border. So, remora-style, Welsh devolutionaries and separatists have spent the past week doing their best to attach themselves to the more energetic and effective Scottish effort.

First up is Rosemary Butler AM, the presiding officer of the Scottish Assembly and a Labour member of the Carwyn Jones persuasion. Following the pattern I previously laid out about members of devolved institutions invariably seeking to aggrandise that institution, in her submission to the Silk Commission on devolution she calls for the assembly to be expanded by one third and rechristened a “parliament”.

She also calls for “a redefinition of Wales' legislative status to recognise that the Cardiff Bay body had the final say on decisions that affect Wales.” This is in line with Welsh Labour’s previous election slogan, which was to the effect of “laws which effect Wales should be made in Wales”. It is a particularly interesting position because it isn’t in fact true – the Cardiff Bay body has final say on decisions that are devolved to it, and reserved decisions are made by Westminster whether they effect Wales or not, as per the logic of union.

Plaid leader Leanne Wood described this as “interesting” but called for it to be accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the number of Welsh Westminster seats. I’m frankly surprised this is the first time I’ve seen someone bring up the logical argument that an extension of devolution should entail a reduction in Westminster representation – a move which combines solid financial logic with great potential to weaken the union and make Westminster seem ever less relevant to people living under devolved administration.

Hopefully her proposal will rouse the Westminster wing of the Welsh Labour Party, which for obvious reasons is less wildly devolutionary than its Cardiff counterpart and whose members even disinter the anti-devolutionary reason of the pre-1999 era when it comes to arguing against reductions in their own relevance.

Suffice to say, a view which takes decisions made on the British level as illegitimate in Wales is not a unionist view, which helpfully explains why this stance has also been taken up by Plaid at their party conference. Seeking to exploit the shifting of tectonic plates under our “beleaguered” union, Elfyn Llwyd MP has called for the establishment of “a separate Welsh jurisdiction in a debate on the future of the union” and ‘parity’ with Scotland – in essence, a perpetuation of both the disjointed and fundamentally bilateral devolutionary process and the “more powers” bidding war.  Suffice to say that the UK government should take pains not to accept advice so clearly offered with no goodwill to the Union.


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