The Northern Ireland Conservative Party AGM and the East Belfast Conservative Association Barbecue, both held over the weekend, were an opportunity for me to assess the temperature of the Conservative Party in terms of evolution towards a non-designated centre-right party. I had some interesting conversations with activists about the role of unionism in Conservative Politics.
Before explaining this exercise further, I want to make if absolutely clear that almost all of these people are British in a National and emotional sense. That was not what I was looking to find out about. What I really wanted to know was how activists viewed unionism as a working ideology in Northern Ireland.
The Conservative Party has two main ideologies. They are conservativism and unionism. Conservativism makes up the bulk of the definition of the party and how the party puts its politics into practice. Conversely, unionism is a very small part of the party’s definition. In the past, unionism played a much more significant role in the party’s politics. Today, it might have a place in some of the rhetoric but its place in the party’s policymaking, although present, is barely visible. When it does come into play, it is subtle and pragmatic.
That was not always the case. Previous generations of Conservatives adopted an extremely clumsy approach to the Union. It could even be argued that Unionist politics was a threat to the union itself. Historians are unlikely ever to reach a unanimous conclusion that Ireland would have become a republic if Home Rule had not been opposed by the Conservatives in the late 19th century. In more modern times, the party opposed devolution to Wales and Scotland right up until they lost office in 1997. As with Ireland in the past, it could be argued that Conservative unionism and opposition towards devolution was so overbearing that had it continued, it could have led to the Independence of Scotland.
David Cameron is a unionist in every sense of the term but he is pragmatic too. He and his colleagues have rightly made their priority making the union happier so that the people in its constituent parts do not seek to break away from it. This has resulted in a change of approach to policymaking. The Conservatives now support more revenue-raising powers for Scotland. David Cameron’s new approach for forging relationships with the regional governments of the Union is another example of modern unionist policy being put into practice.
Unionism is being put into practice in Northern Ireland as well. The Prime Minister will be continuing to make his visits to Stormont. The Government will also be staying neutral on changing the Northern Ireland constitution. Owen Paterson has repeatedly said that a Conservative Government would not be legislating to alter the constitution at Stormont without cross-community consent.
Some unionists might find it difficult to get their heads around this but that is actually pragmatic unionism being put into practice. To summarise Conservative unionism in practice, it has become a maintenance exercise which is actually indistinguishable from good practical government.
So where does that leave unionism for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland?
In practice, there is absolutely nothing that the Conservatives can do, politically, to “defend” the Union on a regional level. The Good Friday Agreement has resulted in the two communities accepting the principle of consent. All policies being put forward by the Conservatives will now be purely centre-right policies.
Unfortunately, not everybody will see it that way. When conservative canvassers in Northern Ireland talk to some of the voters on the doorstep, they are quite often pigeonholed as unionists, in an intimidating sense. Having talked to some of the Conservatives on Saturday, I got a sense that there was an irritation that the “u” word was being mentioned far too often.
If the system is going to change to a new form of politics, subtle new ways have to be found to influence voters. The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland is not yet ready to follow the model which I have proposed. Therefore, I am wondering if the membership might still be prepared to look at a ‘halfway house’
I have said that a new independent Conservative Party should dispense with its unionist identity and its unionist ideology. What if a new party was to keep its unionist identity but disposed of its unionist ideology? Can this happen in practice?
If Conservatives can accept that the Unionist ideology is completely redundant, it certainly can. The question is; could they sell the idea? Would many voters actually understand the distinction between identity and ideology?
In practice, the Northern Ireland Conservatives would be saying that they would never make a policy, which had as its object the preservation of the Union. They would underpin that by saying that there is no need for unionism because the principle of consent is settled by the Good Friday Agreement. In effect, they would be telling the people that the Conservative Party of Northern Ireland was no longer a unionist party even though it would remain a party of the Union.
I have not changed my view that normal politics can only successfully developed in the sterile conditions of a political party which is completely neutral on the union. However, such radical changes to the nature of the party may have a greater chance of reaching that end, if the changes made are incremental.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing I found on Saturday was that rank and file Northern Ireland Conservatives want normal politics and they are determined to succeed in that regard.