The Conservative conference drew to a close yesterday with the leaders of each of UCUNF’s composite parties addressing the main hall. First, contributing to a debate on the Union, Sir Reg Empey emphasised the importance of Northern Ireland playing a full role in UK politics, and expressed the hope that Ulster Unionist MPs would form part of the next government. Then David Cameron delivered a keynote speech, describing the substance of his compassionate take on conservatism. Unionists will be particularly interested in the Tory’s leader’s remarks on Britain as a nation. Cameron stressed that the integrity of the United Kingdom is central to the politics which he espouses.
“In recent years we’ve been hearing things about our country we haven’t heard for a long time. People saying they don’t know what it is to be British, what this country stands for. People in Scotland who want to leave the United Kingdom and people in England who say let them go. I am passionate about our Union and I will never do anything to put it at risk. And because of the new political force we have created with the Ulster Unionists, I’m proud that at the next election we will be the only party fielding candidates in every part of the United Kingdom. Britishness is not mechanical, it’s organic. It’s an emotional connection to a way of life, an attitude, a set of institutions. Make these stronger and our national identity becomes stronger. To be British is to be open-minded. We don’t care who you are or where you’re from, if you’ve got something to offer then this is a place you can call home.”
For all the cynicism which has greeted the Conservatives and Unionists initiative, it is highly significant that a probable future prime minister puts at the heart of his programme a commitment to maintain the Union, and put Northern Ireland at its centre. That is something that hasn’t been on offer to pro Union voters here, for a very long time.
When Cameron commits ‘never [to] do anything to put [the Union] at risk’ he is pledging to test policy consistently against its likely constitutional effect. Of course, undertaking to avoid knowingly inflicting damage upon the Union is one thing, avoiding unintentionally bolstering separatism is entirely another.
But the Conservatives are promising to govern with a unionist sensibility, with the UK’s integrity always in mind, which has to be an attractive prospect for pro Union voters.