The major ideal at the heart of the CU project was that the alliance offered a way of offering people within Northern Ireland the opportunity to vote for a party capable of national government; a mainstream, mainland UK political party, in their case the Conservative Party. When some countered that the unionist party contained some members with more left of centre political views the suggestion was made that following the success of the CUs (illusory as that proved) the other GB political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would also stand. This notion is of course far from new: it inspired much of the UUP intergrationalist movement of the 1980s and for a time seemed to have significant traction within the UUP. The failure of the CUs at the Westminster election has led to considerable soul searching especially within that section of unionism which was highly attracted to the CU project. The recent news that the NI Tories are in some confusion as to the way ahead is unsurprising and although the concept of a new centre right party is interesting it again looks like suspiciously like a politicos dream rather than a viable political alternative.
Each of the mainland GB political parties has significant obstacles to succeeding in Northern Ireland and all seem to be centred on the simple fact that Northern Ireland is a place apart from the rest of GB, just as Scotland: Wales and the regions of England are each somewhat distinct from the other areas.
The Conservative Party is clearly weighed down by considerable baggage in a Northern Ireland context. In the minds of many nationalists and republicans it is completely unacceptable as the party which presided over the Hunger Strikes, Thatcher’s “As British as Finchley” comments and such like. In addition there seems at times to be a feeling amongst some in nationalist politics that the Tories are the party of privilege and empire; almost that the Tories are to blame for most of Ireland’s problems going back into the mists of time (though of course the Liberals were in charge during much of the Famine). Unionists are often almost as ill disposed to the Conservative Party: the Tories are the party which prorogued Stormont, introduced Sunningdale, then the Anglo Irish Agreement, announced they had no self interest in NI and produced the Downing Street Declaration etc. Whether or not Cameron’s response to the Saville report will have any effect is an interesting question: it may somewhat please nationalists but it is unclear if that will change their voting habits and his words’ effect on unionists is also uncertain.
One central problem, however, is that it is far from clear whether Northern Ireland’s society is actually that in tune with the attitudes, views and wishes of the current Conservative Party. Clearly there is not a single unifying world view amongst Northern Ireland voters, not even within each of the two main traditions. However, the median Northern Ireland voter, be s/he unionist or nationalist is probably to the political left of the current Tory Party on economic matters. In part this may be because of the large number of public sector workers in Northern Ireland but in addition NI people are not an especially economically right wing. Clearly they are also far from socialist but there is a clear commitment to a wide range of fairly social democratic type positions such as free prescriptions, free travel for the elderly and a significant welfare state. In addition the communal nature of Northern Ireland’s politics tends to make people support the benefit of their community more than a largely economic analysis of political self advantage.
Whilst in economic terms the average NI voter may be to the left of the Conservative Party, on social terms they are likely to be to their right. The Conservative Party in its quest to modernise and moderate under Cameron has tended to adopt social positions which are markedly more liberal than it did during its last period in government. Teresa May’s comments about ceasing to be the nasty party and Cameron’s carrying through of these changes has tended to focus largely on social issues: hence the embracement of a much more liberal position on homosexuality (as evidenced by the disavowal of section 28), the advocacy of reducing the surveillance society etc. Only the support of the married couples allowance is left as an evidence of social conservatism. In contrast, although Northern Ireland is not as socially conservative as many of its detractors might suggest, the simple fact is that the median Ulster voter is more likely to be considerably less socially liberal than the positions currently advanced by the Tory Party.
It is somewhat over the top but one might argue that the fiscally conservative, socially liberal model currently espoused by Cameron is actually remarkably similar to that traditionally espoused by his social class: obsessions with morality has always been more of an interest of the middle classes than the minor aristocracy from whom Cameron and indeed many of the current Conservative and Liberal front bench are now drawn. The current government seems to be the poshest of recent times and that is a potential further barrier to Conservative success here in Northern Ireland. The aristocracy have long been less powerful here in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK: they have not owned most of the land since the nineteenth century land acts. The relative lack of deference and indeed suspicion of their social betters is a common position of NI unionists. The reasons for this are complex: in part it may be due to the internal social cohesion within unionism which, whilst by no means complete, is clearly greater than the internal cohesion between the working and middle classes in much of England. In addition the egalitarianism of the predominantly non conformist denominations most unionists traditionally follow could represent a barrier to them supporting what might be seen as the party of inherited privilege. Finally it may simply be a form of inverted snobbery but whatever its cause suspicion of posh mainland Tory politicians is fairly deeply ingrained within Northern Ireland unionists which is a further difficulty if only in terms of perception for the current Tory Party in Northern Ireland.
Although these factors seem to argue very strongly against any real future for the Conservative Party in NI there are a couple of other more positive factors worth considering. The Tory Party of David Cameron is actually a coalition of differing groups. Although the views espoused by Cameron and the largely London metropolitan party leadership (disparaged as the Notting Hill Tories) may be somewhat different from those of the average NI voter, they are also a little different from the views of other Conservatives. In Wales and Scotland and indeed in the English regions outside the immediate area of the metropolitan South East, Conservatism is often socially considerably more right wing and indeed may be economically more left wing. Those areas, although willing to share in the pain of fiscal retrenchment, are not remotely averse to arguing for support for their own local economies. It was not just in Northern Ireland that Cameron suggested the state was too large an employer, it was in the North East as well, and there too feathers had to be smoothed. On the issue of social conservatism, it also seems pretty clear that many Tories in the shires and Wales and Scotland are closer to the median NI voter than the views put forward by Cameron.
Hence, there may be a way forward for Conservatism in Northern Ireland but the simple fact is that the model as tried at the Westminster election was deeply flawed. It was top down both in terms of the UUP with Sir Reg pronouncing it from on high and everyone being expected to accept it and also in terms of the Tories with Cameron and the central leadership being the main drivers. A much wiser strategy for the tie up would have been to start some time earlier and have many of the contacts with Scottish, Welsh and North of England Conservatives who would have been much more likely to have appealed to the average UUP member and NI voter. Of all the leadership figures to front the Tory side of such a campaign the likes of William Hague, a Northerner who went to a comprehensive would have been a much better option.
The fact that the Conservatives tried is laudable even though they failed. It may be argued with some justification that the GB politics have drifted too much away from Northern Ireland to make a mainland party likely to gain sufficient political advantage to make the risks of standing worthwhile. However, there are alternatives: one is as the NI Tories seem to be considering, namely to set up a new party within Northern Ireland without a mainland affiliation. That, however, runs the problems of being a new party without the advantages of being part of a potential party of government. A compromise position may be possible whereby a mainland party affiliates to an NI party. That was tried with the CUs but I would suggest that there were many problems and the link was, in contrast to what some suggested too close and not too distant. The closeness created problems when a UUP member was not completely on message such as Adrian Watson. In addition it meant that the CUs had problems in Fermanagh where a grass roots demand for a unity candidate caused the CUs no end of vacillation and refusal to accept Norman Baxter before having to accept Rodney Connor who whatever his merits was probably a weaker candidate than Baxter. More than anything, however, if any form of link or indeed new force of a mainland party standing here in NI is to be considered it needs to be a grass roots up position or at least one with very considerable and spontaneous grass roots support. For that local politicians or would be politicians form here would need to consider more closely the differences between the current party leaderships and the median NI voter. Then they might consider highlighting the similarities and benefits of linkage with Scottish, Welsh and English regional politicians rather than the at times remote and quite different politicians of the Westminster bubble.