Of all parties, the Liberal Democrats would be the party in Britain I’d feel closest to. Of course, this is not the 1920s, this is not a three-cornered contest, and there is no immediate prospect of any Liberal Democrat becoming prime minister.
So it is between David Cameron and Gordon Brown for prime minister. I would not always naturally support one of Labour or the Tories over the other. At the moment, I do feel that after thirteen years in which they oversaw the onset of recession, a slow recovery and a deterioration of public finances, the Labour Party do not deserve another five years in office, and certainly not under Gordon Brown. But in any case, this election campaign has not been as exciting as perhaps it could have. Despite the dissatisfaction with the government, there has been no strong public wave behind the opposition, as there was in 1979 and 1997, in part because the expenses scandal hit both large parties in near equal measure.
But there are cultural reasons I’d be cautious to support the Conservatives. I think their decision to leave the Group of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament group of most conservatives and Christian Democrats like Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, was misguided. They confined themselves to an alliance that does not blend well with David Cameron’s attempts to portray the Conservatives as a more modern party, with parties with reservations about homosexuality. I don’t doubt that the Conservatives have changed as a party, on this and other issues, but the votes of their MEPs show the dissonance within the party and how Cameron himself has difficulty maintaining the more progressive image.
Having said that and despite his previous adamant opposition to repeal of Section 28, which forbid promotion of homosexuality in schools, I don’t believe gay people have any serious reason to concern from a Conservative government under David Cameron. I would not consider it the most unlikely thing if legislation to allow gay couples to marry was introduced by the Conservatives. On the most recent gay issue in the campaign, I would actually have to agree with the substance of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling’s comments. I think there is less freedom in the country if a private B&B owner is told he must rent his rooms out to a gay couple against his wishes, even if such an owner shouldn’t be let anywhere near a major party ticket.
As The Economist wrote a few weeks ago, the Conservative approach to social issues is misguided and often presumes the most dire and exaggerated situations. Their marriage incentives seem well intentioned, but the wrong approach; it is true that children generally fare better if their parents are married, but funding married couples, including many who are financially secure, seems a strange waste of resources, and it discriminates against those children who have had the misfortune to be born to parents who have since moved apart. It was a small mistake in the course of the campaign, but the fact that the party got the figure of teenage pregnancies wrong by a factor of ten earlier this year shows how out of touch they can be at times.
On the North, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force banner has come to little, with Ladbrokes currently predicting no Tory or Ulster Unionist candidate to be elected (The Times is using their predictions in each constituency on a great gadget on their site). Their strongest chance is in Strangford, the seat left vacant by Iris Robinson, but even there they give the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt a 50% chance of victory. And in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, both Unionist parties stood aside in favour of an independent, Rodney Connor, ending David Cameron’s hope of a Tory-backed candidate in every constituency. Overall as yet, Ladbrokes predict no change in Northern Ireland. Depending on the balance of the major parties in Westminster, the seats here could be of importance.
In his memoirs, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable talks of trying out the various parties when in Cambridge. Of the Conservatives, he writes, “Whilst there was a liberal veneer, I knew, because I had seen it first-hand, that their activist base depended on the energies and prejudices of bigoted people like my father, whom they were only too happy to use.” This is still true of the Conservatives. They appear more nice and friendly, but there is still the lingering tolerance for groups like the Young Britons’ Foundation, as long as they stay in the background.
A tight Conservative majority would give inordinate power to such fringes of the party, as John Major found after 1992, so I think if they are to have a majority, better it be higher than the four seats currently predicted on the Times site. But I would still look forward more to a hung parliament, where the Liberal Democrats could exert influence in their more sensible social policies and approach toward the European Union. Depending on their strength, they might even manage to secure electoral reform, which Gordon Brown talked of this week, presumably in the hope of their support. Which party should lead, will then depend very much on the division of seats.
Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has represented North Down as an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party since 2001, did not really surprise anyone by not seeking to be reselected as the party’s candidate for the upcoming election. She has been vocal in her opposition to the alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party, under the label Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, from the start. Lady Hermon herself has been much more closely aligned with the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and had never considered herself to be a Tory.
Having now confirmed that she does not intend to stand down, it would make sense for her to officially stand as a candidate for the Labour Party. This would give a refreshing choice to the electorate of North Down, between two parties not primarily defined by their position on the national question. Of course, it would do no good for the long-term chances of a united Ireland for them to get used to thinking in terms of British political parties, but it should be welcome nonetheless.
Politics in North Down has long been exceptional, given that the population is so Unionist that it matters less to them than to others in Northern Ireland, such that they elected the only Green Party MLA in 2007, or that political mavericks have been consistently elected at Westminster. From 1970 to 1995, the constituency was represented by James Kilfedder, one-time auditor of the College Historical Society, and leader of the one-man Ulster Popular Unionist Party. He died in 1995, on the day that the Belfast Telegraph featured an article outing him as gay. He was succeeded by Robert McCartney, leader of the one-man United Kingdom Unionist Party, an anti-devolutionist party briefly supported by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mr McCartney proved that he was no gentleman when he stepped in front of Lady Hermon to speak on the day of the count of the 2001 Westminster election, rather than allowing her give her victory speech.
So North Down politics is not really representative of Northern Ireland, but an election between Lady Hermon for Labour and Ian Parsley, who had stood for the Alliance in the 2009 European election, for the Conservatives, would definitely be one to watch.
David Cameron has shown himself aware of Conservative Party history on the Irish question, such as when he declared in 2008 that he had a “selfish and strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.
With apologies for going on about the recent meeting between these parties while more serious negotiations are ongoing, the history of the location came to mind. One might wonder about the symbolism of Hatfield House as the location for the talks between the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists. This is the home of the Robert, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. In no way do I mean to impugn the marquess’s character, a political figure in his own right as a Conservative MP between 1979 and 1987. But it is interesting to remember that his great-great-grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, led the first Unionist government. When William Ewart Gladstone, then leader of the Liberal Party, gave his support to Home Rule in 1886, his party split, with the Liberal Unionists, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, aligning themselves with the Conservatives. Gladstone’s government fell and Salisbury led a Unionist government until 1892. It would not be far fetched to think that discussions between Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea happened in 1886 in Hatfield House, just as they did this year.
Or at least, they say it was about both. First off, they defend Ben Brogan’s piece on the Telegraph site David Cameron is a Unionist, remember?, as if to say that even if that was what it was about, that would be ok. Then they say that it was about the Tories putting pressure on the UUP to support the DUP in the event of a deal on policing.
The piece claims “After all, Irish political parties will sometimes discuss politics from a nationalist view with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and at the same time”. We do have to concede this in part. Members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have maintained informal associational ties with members of the SDLP, and all four parties did meet in 1984 at the New Ireland Forum. There have been secret service talks, from the Hume–Adams talks in the early 1990s to discussions on decommissioning in more recent times, something both governments engaged in. What we have not seen is an opposition party south of the border negotiating with both the SDLP and Sinn Féin to discuss politics from a nationalist point of view.
For equivalent reasons, I would be critical of Fianna Fáil moves to establish itself North of the border.
But even if we suppose that they discussed matters like policing, which presumably was on the agenda given the current deadlock, are Conservatives going to claim that the talks in Lord Salisbury’s residence in Hatfield House were “all about trying to bolster peace and security”?
If either of the Unionist parties do stand aside in marginal nationalist constituencies, such as Fermanagh–South Tyrone or South Belfast, will they maintain that this was not discussed at all during these talks?
That this has nothing to do with securing every possible vote in the Commons after the election to avoid the possibility of a hung parliament? I don’t think anyone really believes that.
In 1990, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke, declared that the Conservative government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. This marked a significant step for his party, still formally titled the Conservative and Unionist Party, and it paved the way for the Downing Street Declaration issued by An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major in December 1993, leading in turn to the IRA ceasefire of the following year.
In his speech to the 2008 Ulster Unionist Party Conference, Conservative Party leader David Cameron chose words to deliberately suggest that was repudiating Brooke’s sentiments, saying that he wanted to include Ulster Unionists in his government, expected to come into office later this year, “It’s in my own selfish and strategic interests, too”.
This week, reports emerged of talks between the Tories, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party on electoral strategy. These will presumably aim to raise the total Unionist representation in the Commons with the parties standing aside in marginal nationalist constituencies. The Ulster Unionists could stand aside in Fermanagh–South Tyrone in favour of Acting First Minister Arlene Foster, targeting Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, and the DUP could stand aside in South Belfast, giving the UUP a better shot against the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell.
There has been a shift in recent elections in the community division of representation in Westminster, with 13 Unionist and five nationalist MPs in 1997, whereas two elections later in 2005 there were 10 Unionist and eight nationalist MPs, a ratio that is somewhat more representative of the division across Northern Ireland.
While nationalists had long assumed a level of understanding between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists (they took the Tory whip in the Commons until 1974), it is a step too far for them to stomach such favourability towards the DUP. That David Cameron is willing to be perceived as taking sides in the divisive politics of Northern Ireland for the sake of a few extra votes in the Commons can most kindly be described as foolish, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right to chastise him. Some of the comments on Conservative Home seem to show how little British Tories really understand the politics of Northern Ireland. Trust is all-important in the delicate political process of Northern Ireland, unless the parties believe that the governments can do what they can to put aside their instinctive sensibilities on tribal loyalties, negotiations will be ever more strained.
The best hope for moderate Unionism will be in the re-election of Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down. She opposed the electoral alliance with the Conservatives, and has yet to agree to stand under the Conservative label. Her votes in parliament show her far closer to the Labour Party than the Conservatives. Alas, this could also have the effect of furthering the identity crisis within Unionism, with a four-way division from the civility of Hermon to the hardline stance of Jim Allister.