Delayed revolution: The centre-right must join the new NI Conservative vehicle, rather than wait for other parties to change course
When the Belfast Telegraph conducted its ‘True Colours’ survey before last year’s election, it revealed that the ‘average voter’ in Northern Ireland is moderate and just to the right of centre. That represents some evidence for a political preference which has often been supposed, but never proven at the ballot box.
Northern Ireland’s traditional parties simply don’t reflect the same left-right socio-economic differences as their counterparts in Great Britain. There may be a lot of voters and party members who can be identified as ‘centre-right’, but none of the current groups at Stormont represent the values of UK Conservatism with any accuracy.
On the unionist side, Democratic Unionists are certainly socially conservative, with a small ‘c’, to the point that many modern big ‘C’ Conservatives view the party as old-fashioned and reactionary, but the DUP spans a wide range of economic outlooks. The result is a hotch-potch finance policy, which often presents itself as low tax or business friendly, but remains wedded to big government and suspicious of attempts to rebalance the economy.
In his recent NI Tory article, Richard Price contended that the UUP is Northern Ireland’s natural ‘centre-right party’. Unfortunately that doesn’t bear scrutiny either.
Certainly, the UUP has a history linked with the Conservative Party, many Ulster Unionists are Conservative by inclination and the recent UCUNF pact was an attempt to rekindle that historic connection. However the havoc and confusion which accompanied the link-up with an unambiguously centre-right party tells its own story.
The UUP leadership has proved unwilling or unable to move away from its traditional ‘broad church’ approach, or to embrace wholeheartedly the UK mainstream. Most recently the new leader, Mike Nesbitt, ruled out a new Conservative link because it upsets the left-wing of the party. True to its roots as an umbrella for pro-Union groups, the UUP remains a coalition of disparate and often irreconcilable interests.
Its former leader, David Trimble, is now a Conservative peer, while its last MP, Sylvia Hermon, was an ally of Gordon Brown and his government. In recent years the Ulster Unionist conference greeted Conservatives from Great Britain as brothers in arms, then cheered to the rafters a minister whose speeches were peppered with allusions to the past ‘glories’ of the Labour party.
The UUP had several chances to place itself firmly within the centre-right camp, but unfortunately for Richard, and other conservatives within the organisation, it repeatedly stepped back from that opportunity. The truth is that the Ulster Unionists as a party are now further from embracing a clear, centre-right path than they have been for a number of years.
The nationalist parties, meanwhile, shy away from any centre-right affiliation and, in modern times, have presented themselves as social democrats. The SDLP could more accurately be described as a coalition of social democrat and traditional nationalist wings. The more traditional wing does contain a core of small business people who are assumed to be on the right of the spectrum on socio-economic matters.
In contrast, Sinn Féin’s take on economics defies definition and its place on the political compass is equally confused. In the republican movement, extreme, violent ethno-nationalists rubbed shoulders with extreme, violent revolutionary Marxists. The party today is united, in Northern Ireland, by its determination to drain as much tax money as possible from the British treasury. North and South of the border it prefers to duck the difficult conceptual issues around finance and fall back on leftist populism.
So it’s fair to say that, although centre-right sentiment in Northern Ireland is strong, the current menu of parties at Stormont doesn’t reflect that position. At the same time, in a society where the constitutional question has been paramount, the Conservative Party has struggled to gain a foothold.
The result is that professed ‘unionist’ parties have edged Northern Ireland steadily away from the mainstream of UK politics. And, in a post peace-process province, keeping the border question at the core of the party system is increasingly self-defeating for those who believe in the Union.
For the core values of Conservatism to flourish in Northern Ireland there needs to be a successful political party which is explicitly Conservative and explicitly part of the UK Conservative Party.
It should certainly draw its support from all centre-right minded people here, and it may even encompass the Ulster Unionist tradition, but it must be much more than broadly sympathetic to Conservatism and it can’t contain influential elements who are vehemently opposed to Conservative thinking. Sadly, the UUP is still a party with many centre-right members, rather than a centre-right party as such.
The problem with UCUNF was that it was viewed by too many participants as a short-term fix to achieve quick electoral success, at a time when David Cameron was riding high in the polls, or as a destination in itself.
It was therefore executed without conviction and without genuine commitment to the principles of modern Conservatism.
More properly, UCUNF should have been viewed as a long-term project to build a viable centre-right force in Northern Ireland and to move pro-Union politics firmly into the UK mainstream. Then, rather than recoil from the pact after a disjointed campaign achieved less than stellar results, the participating parties may have concentrated on building a more robust vehicle for the next set of elections.
That didn’t happen and no amount of wishful thinking can make it otherwise.
The future of Conservatism in Northern Ireland now lies firmly in the hands of the new, centre-right, pro-Union party which is being formed here, as part of the UK-wide Conservative Party. Its success depends on an ability to articulate how the values of Conservatism reflect the values of the people in Northern Ireland and to explain what a distinctive, Northern Irish Conservatism means in practice.
Today, it is too often forgotten that Conservatism is more than an economic doctrine and it is certainly more than an untrammelled devotion to free-market principles.
Necessarily, because the values which made Northern Ireland an industrial powerhouse have been so steadily eroded by a bloated public sector, which has grown out of all proportion since the Good Friday Agreement, rebalancing the economy will be an immediate priority of any centre-right party. However it will not be motivated by ideology, but rather by a practical desire to give people the tools to succeed, to reward hard work and to encourage a robust society, which is distinct from the government and from the state.
The time to start that work is right now and those who wish to get on with it should join the new NI Conservative party, rather than continue the endless wait for other parties to change direction.