How to create the conditions for a centre-right revolution in Northern Ireland
If you’re reading NITORY.COM, the chances are you have at least some level of sympathy with the website’s guiding mission and furthermore perceive the need for Northern Ireland to adopt and enact centre-right pro-market policy solutions in order to more fully address the country’s primary economic and social challenges.
However, many devoted individuals have been working tirelessly at this aim for many decades and without apparent visible success. So the question must be asked – what needs to change in order to get to a position where centre right parties and politicians gain the electoral support and political power required to ensure implementation of centre right policies?
In my perception that if we are ever to see REAL change and improvement in Northern Ireland, and the long required enactment of step change structural reform, 3 things must happen as the pre-requisites to the revolution:
1) Fiscal powers must be devolved to Northern Ireland in order to balance the 1998 settlement and increase the incentive to vote for openly centre-right candidates
2) A voluntary, constructive and consistent opposition to the current Executive must be formed in Stormont to institute a more normal and accountable form of politics fought on issues not identity
3) The politicians and political parties who define themselves as centre right need to unite in one political vehicle to maximise the chance of electoral success
To explain myself a little more then…
Firstly, in relation to the need for fiscal powers for Stormont.
“Conservatism”, for want of a better term, (what I might describe far too briefly as: the belief in a reduced role of the state; the encouragement of individual responsibility; and, reward for hard work) is a political creed that enjoys levels of success all around the globe. Think simply of the Reagan and Bush administrations in the USA, the overwhelmingly centre right make up of the current 27 EU Member States (even in previous Social Democrat strongholds like Sweden), Chile’s current President Sebastian Pinera, Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard, or Steve Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. Conservatism attracts strong democratic political support across countries, continents and cultures. Yet one does not need to read too many leaflets or watch too many election addresses from some of these named individuals and their parties to see that one of the great strengths of their offer to voters is: the promise of lower levels of tax and the opportunity to retain fror individuals to retain more of the money they earn.
Obviously, Conservatism’s belief in other principles, such as the role of faith in producing stronger societies, active support for the family unit, and the defence of cultural tradition, play an important role in attracting support as well, but we would fool ourselves if denying that the offer of lower taxes was not an important part of worldwide success for political parties of the centre right.
Political conservatives should never shy away from the low tax offer either. Governments do not have an unquestionable right to the wealth earned by its citizens and many a Civil War or uprising has taken place over the centuries to establish that fact. Furthermore, belief in low taxes should not be held up as some kind of selfish principle either. The Thatcher and Reagan economies of the 1980s, the Republic of Ireland economy of the late 1990s, the sustained decades of strong growth in Hong Kong, and even the Texas economy of this decade, all suggest the galvanising wider effect lowering of taxes can have on releasing entrepreneurship and enterprise and adding jobs and wealth to the collective economy. Whilst I accept the economic growth released by lower tax rates may not always be even in distribution, I do not subscribe to the Simon Hughes MP view that its better for the poor to be poorer as long as the rich are poorer too. Ultimately, all (or at least the large majority of) ships do rise with the tide.
Yet this key political dynamic – or choice for the voter to exercise – is simply not allowed to operate in Northern Ireland Executive elections at present. Under the then Labour Government’s plans for UK devolution, the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London legislatures and assemblies all exist more or less for the purpose of deciding the division of spoils bestowed upon their jurisdiction by the magnanimity of the Treasury.
As a conservative I find this deeply unsatisfactory. As a voter, I want not only to have the choice of supporting a party that can make material differences to the amount I am allowed to retain in my final monthly pay packet, or the cost of goods and services I use, I also want to be able to vote for a party that can galvanise the economy in the area I live in through supply side methods.
To put it another way – 85 UUP, or UKIP, or Conservative MLAs could be elected to the Assembly tomorrow, and yet technically speaking they still wouldn’t be able to change such important levers to the local economy as Air duty, Corporation Tax, VAT or income tax. Instead they must rely on writing politely worded letters to George Osborne and cross fingers he’ll be well disposed to respond.
In this sense, fiscal devolution in Northern Ireland would not only give voters much greater cause, and rational self-interest, to vote for political conservatives (under whatever party banner) – it would also give greater cause for centre-right politicians to seek election in the first place.
Moving on to the second requirement for a centre-right revolution – the creation of a voluntary, constructive and consistent opposition.
As it stands, we currently have a 5 party governing coalition at Stormont, led by the populist DUP and leftist Sinn Fein, which together shows little signs of any clear and united resolve to take through difficult but necessary structural reforms, or indeed pursue any form of radical change.
More depressingly, the current devolution settlement appears to impose something of a straitjacket in terms of enabling change. All party coalitions of the lowest denominator are almost guaranteed by the rules of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. “Every party is a winner” so long as a low threshold of elected representation is achieved. Party leaders in reality have to opt OUT of Government, rather than opt IN. It doesn’t take a Professor of Political Science to see that such a system is likely to lead to something of a democracy and accountability headache after a period of time.
For any democrat, such a scenario can’t pertain forever, and at some point, be it SDLP, Alliance or UUP, one of the smaller political parties will summon the courage to provide the electorate with coherent opposition and the presentation of alternatives.
My contention is then, given the limiting outlook of the current major parties in the Coalition (DUP, populist and ethnic; Sinn Fein pre-1980s left and ethnic), and the nature of Northern Ireland’s primary economic problem (an overmighty public sector crowding out the private sector, with limited incentive stimulus for business growth and expansion) this required opposition would be most usefully and coherently formed and articulated by a centre right party. Furthermore, given the UUP’s heritage of emerging from the Conservative Party in 1905, a series of linkages over the century then passed, and the Party’s current excluded position in the Executive, it is obvious they would be well positioned to be the Party to provide this.
On formation of such an opposition, overnight the local media could potentially be presented with a new dividing line axis to present Stormont policy discussion to the public: a consensualist Executive either fearful of or divided about major change, contrasted to a vigourous party outside of the Executive with alternative, consistent centre right alternatives.
After 3 to 4 years of such presentation, voters could make their way to the ballot box in the knowledge that the election is less of a border poll referendum, and more of a political ballot as to who has the best policy outlook and options for the region’s future: the dithering coalition parties, or the centre right “alternative”?
Finally – its time for the squabbling and name-calling to end. If we really want centre right politics to prevail in Northern Ireland, we need to get on board the one boat and row together. Centre right parties, politicians and supporters need to unite.
Whether you’re UUP, UKIP or Conservative – you probably share many the same broad thoughts on the problems that exist in Northern Ireland, the UK’s role in the outside world, and the general economic principles that should apply in any cohesive and successful society. Yet we divide and squabble over finer points forgetting that no successful political party has an homogenous base in terms of member outlook. No one believes every member of the DUP was content with the St Andrews Agreement. The Labour Party keeps together despite the fact the majority of its MPs and members did not support the proposed political direction offered by the winning leadership contender in 2010. Thatcher’s Wet and Dry factions came together to win 4 elections together; Labour’s Brown and Blair factions 3.
The point is we need to find ways to respectfully disagree with each other on some issues (be it the merits of the Orange Order, the strength of relations to be enjoyed with the GB Conservative Party, or the level to which the UK should seek return of sovereignty from previous EU treaties) while agreeing to make common cause on the big issues – like the end of mandatory coalition, an enhanced local offer of low tax, and advancement of the UK sovereignty debate with Brussels.
Fighting elections apart strengthens nobody, and achieves even less.
The UUP is by far and away Northern Ireland’s largest centre right party with 15 MLAs and 99 Cllrs. UKIP is second with 1 Councillor, and the Conservative Party of Northern Ireland is currently without elected representation. It makes sense for the most successful party to be supported as the primary standard bearer for pro market politics, and in order to achieve the necessary support from others, restating its desire for return of powers from Brussels, amending its constitution to state itself as unequivocally centre right, and signing a new joint Memorandum of Understanding with the Welsh, Scottish and English Conservative Party leaders.
I would also include in this potential bracket of unity many members of the Alliance, SDLP, TUV and DUP whose economic political outlook may be firmly centre right but who have to date supported or been members of parties with other major fixations – be they constitutional, cultural or social.
18 months to do it.
To conclude, the next 18 months, without an impending election casting a distortive shadow on discourse, provides an unprecedented opportunity for realignment of politics in Northern Ireland, for reassessment of positioning, and considered thinking on the future.
I hope the above thought shower can provide some small and miniscule contribution to that process.
At the very least, I’m sure we can find some agreement amongst NITORY.COM readers, that no change is certainly not what any of us are seeking.
Finally, I extend my congratulations to my former UUP ( now NI Conservative ) colleague Bill Manwaring on establishing this website and I encourage all with strong views either for, against, or tangential to, my article to air their views and lets have a hopefully a constructive and useful discussion conducted in a civilised manner!
Richard Price is a former UUP Council Candidate for Downshire Ward in Lisburn (2011)