Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ed Miliband on Party Funding Reform

Credit due to The Independent for providing not one, not two but three articles covering Ed Miliband's proposed reforms to party funding and Labour's electoral structure. This is some of the first concrete proposals we the public have heard from the man (along with the confirmation that Labour is committed to the 50% Income Tax threshold), so its interesting to see what form it takes.

In funding terms, Mr Miliband appears to be arguing for a rather severe cap on donations, somewhere between £50,000 and £500. This would prevent - in theory - large donations from single sources being funnelled into a political party, with all that that implies. However, the offer isn't as generous as it might look: for whilst both Labour and the Conservatives would stand to lose their big donations, Labour appear to be pushing for the subscriptions of union members who pay the political levy to be counted as individual donations - thus leaving one significant Labour-specific revenue stream untouched. Naturally, Labour are also fiercely opposed to any modification so the way that the political levy is raised.

Then there's the obvious problem of what this sort of arrangement would necessitate: state funded political parties i.e. a political levy paid from the taxes of every British citizen. I don't consider that to be a fair alternative and it is unlikely to be popular with the public either. One serious problem is that it leaves control over party funding in the hands of the state, which would be administered by the same two and a half parties that constituted the major parties at present. How does a party qualify for support? What thresholds are set, what form does the support take? All this will be up to the government.

When the problem of large donations comes up, the Independent's citation of Barack Obama's success with micro-donations is telling. First, it doesn't give Obama deserved credit as a truly exceptional political campaigner. The fact that he can do it is not evidence that anyone can, by a long shot. Second, it fails to recognise that Obama managed what he did because of the very, very personal emphasis of US presidential campaigns. Not only does Ed Miliband (and indeed, most UK politicians) lack the personal charisma of Obama, but at least in my view an increasingly personal, presidential style is not something I want to see in British politics. So not only are Obama's micro-donation successes not easily applicable to the British political system, but they could also do great harm to that system if pursued.

Personally, I feel that Mr Miliband's second proposed reform exacerbates the problem the first is intended to solve: party funding. The proposal is that the Labour electoral college will be broken into four parts instead of three, with the new quartile being given to people willing to sign up as a 'supporter' of the party without actually joining.

Both the major parties have been having membership crises in recent times. A recent (and unlikely to be acted upon) set of proposals put forward for the Conservative Party consisted of creating more perks for members. Suggestions included things like passing powers back to branches, organising party AGMs and regional events and even allowing motions to be put forward and debated at party conferences. The entire proposal acknowledged the fact that a significant contributing factor to the decline in party membership has been that increased central stage-management has removed an awful lot of the old reasons to join: the opportunities to influence policy and the strong social networks of the old parties are mostly gone.

Labour appear to have been taken much more by the 'general de-politicisation of our age' approach, and have adopted an approach lifted from the US. Registered supporters will be able to vote on the party leader without having to pay a subscription fee or otherwise get involved. Which rather begs the question of what perks will actually be left to entice people to fork over a subscription fee to Labour in the future? People really need to be inveigled into becoming activists, one enjoyable meeting or outing at a time. The more distant they are from the process, the less likely they are to get involved; and instead of cultivating an active support base, Labour appears to be going down the centralist route of a large phantom membership of 'supporters' and a well-oiled central party machine, without much in the middle. Will Labour respond to the subsequent dearth of activists by demanding state-funded canvassers and phone-bank operators?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Does a Liberal Democrat 'Nuclear Option' Exist?

One of the many unfortunate things Vince Cable recently revealed to undercover journalists recently was that he actually boasts of what he called the 'nuclear option'. By this, he meant bringing down the Coalition. Its true that the prospect of the Liberal Democrats being pushed too far and walking out has always been in the minds of the coalition's architects and enemies alike. But now the tuition fees vote has happened, is that at all likely to occur?

For a start, the tuition fees vote has gone. There's unlikely to be another bill that splits the party as dramatically as the fees hike. If the AV referendum goes against them then discontent amongst social-democratic LDs might see a marked increase, but that alone isn't enough for them to safely use the 'nuclear option'. Without a big, dramatic justification for their action, the Liberal Democrats will come across as a party chronically incapable of government. Furthermore, without an emotive issue to act as a trigger I'm not entirely sure that the LD left could take the LD right out of coalition.

The critical factor being that if the Liberal Democrats were to withdraw and bring the government down, there would have to be a General Election. And who exactly would be voting for the Liberal Democrats in that scenario? Their left-of-centre support has largely evaporated and is unlikely to flit back to them the moment they leave office - the legacy of fees and being part of the 'ConDem' government will be too fresh. And their remaining (perhaps right-of-centre) support, consisting of those who approve of the job the LDs are doing in government and like how they're handling coalition, will probably follow the Conservatives. After all, if nice collegiate Mr Cameron is viewed as having treated the Liberal Democrats fairly and they still left, then it will sour the image of the party and coalition government in general in the eyes of a substantial proportion of their main supporters. In short, they'll be seen to have betrayed both halves of their pre-government support base, and their electoral strength could evaporate.

Furthermore, if as discussed above the social democrats try the 'nuclear option' without some compelling justification, there is a chance that some of their leaders might not follow them out. The likes of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws would have precious little incentive to follow their party out of the coalition in such circumstances, where they would be condemned to irrelevance-in-perpetuity within a permanently left-aligned party even if they didn't lose their seats outright. They could well see the logic in continuing in government, in coalition with the Conservatives.

From there, they could either do three things. They could become Conservatives, although this would probably lead to Danny Alexander not joining them and put Clegg's chances of holding Hallam in serious jeopardy. The second option would be to stand as independents with a non-compete deal with the Conservatives at the next election. The third would be to form a National Liberal style party/organisation that would remain distinct from the Conservative Party while continuing to be willing to ally with it whilst providing a home for other Orange Bookers and Liberals who might be uncomfortable in a solidly leftwing Liberal Democrat party.

Finally, one should not forget that Cable's stock has fallen hugely during the Coalition's time in office. Unlike 'Saint Vince' of those distant pre-coalition days, I personally doubt that Cable still has the personal pull to rip the Coalition apart and lead the Liberal Democrat left into the abyss I've outlined above.

If this happened, the Liberal Democrats would enter the subsequent General Election shorn of both credibility as a party and of any members who have earned any by distinguishing themselves in government. It would be a complete disaster. The left of the party is far better holding on for the full five years and trying to take credit for anything 'nice' the Coalition does, casting the Conservatives as the nasty lot. For these reasons, I think that Cable's talk of bringing down the coalition was egotistical bluster and not much more.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Liberal Democrat on Welsh

Just an interesting article seen elsewhere: "The Cost of Bilingualism". I went into the potential costs of bilingualism more extensively in my open letter to Nick Bourne, and his response (whilst evading some of the issues) is informative.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Where Will the Liberal Democrats Go?

Yup, I know that I've done it before, but with the Liberal Democrats embarking on yet another agonising crisis of identity/conscience, I think the topic deserves a fresh look. Talking to most of my Liberal Democrats friends in the last few weeks has been an illuminating experience. Most of the left-leaning ones have chosen to openly condemn their own party and the fees, attending the various rallies the protestariat has held in the last couple of days. Right-of-centre LDs have been rather more muted, agonising over whether or not they should support the fees or maintain party unity. All this raises the question of what will happen to the Liberal Democrats in the coming years, and I've been mulling over some of the options.

Note: All of this analysis will obviously change if the the Yes vote wins the AV referendum. But this blogger doesn't think they will on current evidence, so until that changes the arguments below assume we still have the Simple Plurality voting system come the next election, with no room for second-preference campaigning.

1) Reassertion of Leftwingedness: Richard Grayson over on Comment is Free argues that the Liberal Democrats should begin preparing - right now - for a coalition with the Labour Party and the Greens after the next election. From the Labour perspective, Jackie Ashley argues for what looks like the same thing.
This line of argument was also in evidence before and just after before the election, usually from Labour supporters using the language of the "progressive/anti-Conservative majority" - for example, Polly Toynbee asking why the Liberal Democrats were putting any effort into the north*, as surely they should be maximising the progressive vote in the south. Whilst this might happen, I think that pursuit of this policy would be a bad move on behalf of the LDs. Why?

First, leftwing LDs should be very careful to consider the difference between a genuinely pluralistic Labour Party (which would be an incredible volte-face) and a Labour Party attempting to wreak as much havoc on Coalition morale as possible with conciliatory siren songs. Labour weren't keen on cooperating with anyone else before they lost the election, and in my view are unlikely to be keen on sharing power if they think they can win the next one. So Liberal Democrats like Grayson should be wary of how much of their considered view that cooperation with Labour should be planned for now is based on a genuine understanding of Labour's intention, and how much on wishful thinking.

Furthermore, re-aligning to the Left could spell electoral doom for the party, despite what the impressions of current polling may be. Because all those 'betrayed' voters who the Liberal Democrats have shed since the General Election are their left-wing voters. The remaining Liberal Democrat support (and the support they'll find easier to win back whilst they're in coalition with the Conservatives) is their right-of-centre base, largely in the South. Tacking to the left will cost the party much of that support (which could easily flit back to the Conservatives) with the risk of not making much headway amongst their once bitten, twice shy left-wing support (which will find it much easier to support Labour, especially after that party has had five years under the Halo of Opposition where they don't need to be accountable or make any unpopular decisions.

Not only will shifting left cost them what right-of-centre support they have presently held on to, but it also risks costing them the right-of-centre Liberal Democrats (i.e. a lot of the present LD 'big names' in the government) along with it. Because its one thing to be right-wing in a leftish party which you know might well go into coalition with Labour, but its quite another to remain as a rightwinger in a party that has proven itself incapable of going into coalition with the Conservatives, the only viable right-of-centre option out there. This risks many of the Liberal Democrat's most recognisable figures either schisming into a pro-Conservative 21st Century National Liberal Party, or joining the Conservatives outright, taking a lot of 'Liberal' LDs with them to further encroach upon Liberal Democrat support in the country and weakening further the less electable, extremist branch of Toryism.

And the final and most serious problem with this course? It makes a joke out of the very argument that the Liberal Democrats have based themselves around: that coalitions work and that compromise is good. Undermining the coalition, let alone making a habit of voting against it, will despoil more utterly than any anti-AV propaganda the image of coalition politics in the minds of the British electorate. Because if sections of the membership, let alone the parliamentary party, start openly disowning their party's leadership and calling for a coalition with the other side against both parliamentary arithmetic and considered negotiation, it will do great damage to the ability of the party to be able to claim to be a genuinely independent third force. Instead of being the party that would work with either party (as argued in the now legendary PPB featuring John Cleese), the Liberal Democrats would become an addendum to the Labour Party. And if they do that, what is the point of operating separately at all?

2) The Formal Split/Split by Decay: Personally, I think the former is rather unlikely. Nevertheless, if the opposition of some elements of the party to the coalition continues to intensify despite tuition fees now being out of the way, there's some prospect of a formal division of the party occurring unless the rebels can find a cause convincing enough to bring the government loyalists out of the coalition with them.

The hardest thing to envision about this scenario is what form the parties would take after the split. If the left-wing LDs voted to leave the coalition and the loyalists subsequently defied that to support it, then you'd see the return of a left-wing protest-vote Liberal Democrat party. As for the loyalists, you'd see either the emergence of a truly independent but utterly doomed right-of-centre Liberal party, the emergence of a Conservative-dependent Liberal Party (similar to the situation in Australia), or the absorption of the remaining Liberal loyalists into the Conservatives outright. If the loyalists retained control of the party and the rebels split, then either the rebels cross straight to Labour or attempt to re-found the SDP while the Liberal Democrats try to find their footing as an outright right-of-centre political force.

More likely (if less exciting) is the 'split by decay' - essentially a drip-feed of disgruntled leftwingers resigning the whip or crossing to Labour, without anything so dramatic as a split. This scenario is certainly easier on the government, as they're likely to see less defections than a mass walkout might elicit. Its likely effect on the Liberal Democrats would be a relative strengthening of the Orange Bookers without expunging a more leftist element of the party - essentially changing its nature without properly resolving the underlying issue. Provided that it didn't get too close to costing the government its majority, the Liberal Democrats would probably survive this, albeit in a reduced state. But both of these scenarios entail a de facto return to two-party politics, with either one or two post-Liberal Democrat parties beholden to one side or the other.

3) The Coalition Holds: Given that the coalition is unlikely to face again a topic as divisive for the Liberal Democrats as tuition fees, there's a good chance in my mind that the Coalition will pull through from this particular incident and last the planned five years in office. After all, the Liberal Democrats are getting policy through for the first time... well, ever. Clegg's tax break for low earners will help those who need it most, and the concessions wrung from the conservatives over the fee model demonstrate the advantages of being in government. Furthermore, at least the leadership know that if they screw up this golden opportunity to demonstrate how awesome coalitions are, they're unlikely to have another shot at being a relevant party for decades.

Where this will put the party at the next general election is hardest to judge, dependent as it is on at least four more years of tough decisions and random events, so this section of the article is shortest despite it being in my view the most probable. But whether or not the LD's go into the next election vying for a Labour coalition or a Conservative one, with high poll ratings or low, sticking with the coalition is unlikely to put them in as poor a position of either non-existence or irrelevance as the alternative courses of action.

*Can't find it, but not kidding.

UPDATE: Liberal Vision carries a related Ashcroft study here.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Up for Air - Why Don't We Integrate Overseas Territories?

So, with a small one-evening break built into my work-schedule before Thursday, I've been drawn to venture a blog post by this piece of news. For those disinclined to read the whole thing, it basically describes the governmental woes of the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of Britain's remaining Overseas Territories, and the hands-off approach being taken by the Westminster government (both pre- and post-election) in dealing with the crisis.

The position of overseas territories has long puzzled me. Like Mr Rosindell, the Conservative MP who raised the issue in the house, I believe that "The people of the Turks and Caicos are British too". But is this the position of the British government?

Contrast our approach with that of France. With the honourable exception of the Falklands War (and the less-honourable exception of the flotation of the Governorship of Bermuda during the vote on 48 day detention), Britain tends to hold her Overseas Territories at arms length and try to forget about them. On the other hand, France integrates her Overseas Regions. Places such as Réunion and French Guiana are fully integrated into the French Republic. A more direct parallel with the British Overseas Territories would be French Polynesia, a territory that has a local government with a broad remit yet still returns two deputies to the National Assembly and a Senator.

If the case for full integration is too extreme, what about adopting some measure of it into the reform of the upper house? If the House of Lords is reformed into an elected body, then give the Overseas Territories representation within it. This measure will not only reaffirm our links with the Overseas Territories, but will also allow their quarter-million inhabitants some say in the government that is responsible for significant areas of policies within those territories (such as defence).

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Reasons for Stasis

As you all may have noticed, activity here has stalled somewhat in recent weeks. This is due to a hailstorm of university deadlines, which sadly come first. These are all over on December 9th, so expect my energetic re-engagement with current affairs at sometime around then.

In the meantime, the philanthropically-minded amongst you should swing by the Irish Guards Appeal. I spotted it on Guido, and if there's one thing I take no shame in stealing and passing on it's a charitable appeal. Apropos of nothing, their regimental motto would have made a fine title for this blog:

Quis Separabit - Who Shall Separate Us

Damn straight.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Student Riots: The Ochlocratic Challenge

**Apologies in advance for any spelling or grammar errors in this piece. It's late and I'm using a French-configured computer. I'll try to amend it later.**

The riots and demonstrations organised by the NUS on Wednesday demonstrate what I have discovered is a remarkable bend in student thinking, at least amongst the protest class. In spite of all the high-blown rhetoric about democracy and support for PR you might find on campuses, if the motives of these people are to be taken in good faith (as opposed to imagining them to be self-indulgently enjoying being 'protestors') then many of these people must be ochlocrats.

Ochlocracy = mob rule. Sound like a harsh judgement? Consider the logic behind the 'Stop the Cuts' protests: if we get some tens of thousands of people onto the streets, we should try to use that mass to overturn the policy of a government elected by over seventeen million people. This is the logic behind this sort of protest even when you don't factor in such things as the assault on Millbank Tower on Wednesday.

Nor is this sort of thinking confined to students. When the million marchers against the Iraq war failed to change government policy, its organisers and participants were outraged. How could the government just ignore them like that? The obvious answer - that the government had been elected by many millions of people, that polling going into the war showed the public in favour and that the marchers did not confer upon themselves greater enfranchisement simply by the act of marching - never appeared to occur to them.

Student sit-ins, huge marches and political strikes all operate with this belief in mind - that a certain minority of the citizenry (who have all been able to express themselves at the ballot box with everyone else) should attempt to impose their will upon the government via coercion, intimidation or in some cases outright force. Not only is this deplorable in principle but it is also extremely counter-productive. After all, none of the cuts proposed by the coalition could possibly be worse for the country than for the government to allow the angry mob to seize the reins.

On campus, the phrase used is that students must "take democracy back into their own hands". But democracy is supposed to reside in everybody's hands - that's the point of it.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Off to Brussels!

I'm heading off to Brussels tomorrow morning with the Conservative Future, in order to see the European Parliament, meet some MEPs and hit the Christmas markets. I doubt it will be fun being the only Europhile in the room for most of the trip, but I'll nonetheless try to have fun. Report when I get back.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Make Her Majesty's Prisons their own seat(s)?

Catching up on the current political state of play, I caught sight over at Iain Dale's blog and New Right that prisoner's having the right to vote was presently a running story. I don't know how I feel about this, but if it were to be implemented I'm pretty certain I don't want it geographically based, with prison potentially transforming certain seats against the interests of their law-abiding residents. Prisoners will have rather different interests to the broader population, so why not represent them differently?

Something that has always fascinated me about British politics in ages past was university seats. Could a similar model be adopted for prisoner's representation? The BBC put the prison population of the UK at just below 90,000, which could produce either one larger-than-average seat or two smaller seats. Prisoner's get representation, law-abiding citizens don't have their representative split with felons who have rather different priorities, and we all get to see what sort of candidate each party would choose to run for Her Majesty's Prisons (UK Parliament Constituency).

Mancunion Article: The State of Higher Education

Published in The Mancunion, to accompany and oppose this piece, in the issue of 10/01/11.

Real life is thoroughly blocking decent blogging at the minute. To tide us over, here is a short counter-argument I wrote for the Manchester student paper, defending tuition fees.
------        ------        ------
Ever since the government set the target of fifty per cent of school-leavers attending university in the nineties, the higher education system has been struggling to adapt. The surge in student numbers has hugely overstretched university resources, and also raised the cost of higher education massively. Despite the hopes of the government, the graduate premium produced by a small proportion of young people going through university and into the professions was not simply conferred upon the swollen ranks of the new graduates. Instead, we have seen the devaluation of degrees and chronic graduate over-qualification and unemployment. With fierce competition in the current job market, more jobs now require a degree for a successful application - sucking more school leavers into higher education and fuelling the downward spiral.

The view I share with successive governments is that variable tuition fees are the answer to these problems. Tuition fees allow a student to decide for themselves whether or not a degree is worth the investment of time and money required, and serves to discourage people taking degrees that they don’t envision making a sufficient return – be that material or personal. In addition to covering the costs of higher education, by reducing the number of students they allow universities to concentrate their resources more effectively. By placing a tangible cost on your degree they incentivise hard work to get your money’s worth. And by staunching the flow of graduates flooding the employment market, they will help to stem degree devaluation and the graduate surplus, with its trickle down effects of raising barriers to employment for non-graduates who would otherwise be perfectly capable of doing the job.

My problem with the alternatives is that they encourage a high number of wasteful degrees, serve to penalise those who get good jobs out of their hard work and are innately unfair. Having higher education be free as it was before 1998 would be ruinously expensive and would require further tax rises on the working population, whilst a ‘graduate tax’ makes a poor return degree a risk-free option by having economically productive students pick up the tab for the rest as well as their own education. In either case, the burden of a lot of low-value degrees is placed upon the shoulders of the hard working.

There are as many definitions of fairness as there are human beings, but I do not believe that a degree is an entitlement. Nobody else owes you the right to spend three years as a student. If you value a degree enough to foot the bill for it you will, and if you don’t that is your decision and responsibility. Government grants and student loans mean that anyone who wants to go to university can do so without worrying about the upfront costs. But if you don’t think that your degree will boost your income enough to be worth paying for, you should reconsider it.

As for the commodification of higher education, it is really an inevitable consequence of trying to hugely raise student numbers. University has shifted from simply being a natural stage in the life-cycle of the professional classes to a competitive investment in your employment prospects. There simply isn’t room in the ivory towers for fifty per cent of school leavers, and there never was.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Students for Cuts!

I was at a debate hosted by the Manchester Debating Union this evening, with the motion "This House Supports the Government's Cuts". Speakers from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were speaking for the motion, and representatives of Labour and the Greens were against. After the debate the audience was called to vote:

In Favour: 35
Against: 9
Abstention: 12

So an overall majority for the Coalition of 14! It seems that Debating Union attendees and the activists behind the student union's 'fight the cuts' campaign are two completely non-overlapping groups.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A Couple of Interesting Articles on Southern Unionism

The Reform Group website has a number of articles on it pertaining to Unionism in the Irish south. I've linked to a couple below, but do check out their site. You can also contact Reform - if anyone does, let me know if they respond, I've not got hold of them yet.

Edit: Also found this interesting take on Sinn Féin's development. From the look of the guy's blog it doesn't look like I'd agree with him on too much else, but his analysis is nonetheless interesting and he's a fellow integrationist, so no harm in linking.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Change to Logo

Long before I took up blogging, I was fascinated by the old c. 1945 Conservative & Unionist logo - I even bought an antiquarian book just to secure a copy of the image. When I founded this blog, I lacked any online image of that logo, so I mocked up my own (see below).
The original is rather more complicated, using the circular-belt vexillographical motif I have as yet not been able to identify. The logo is also slightly different (the clover is used instead of the flax, which I borrowed from the Supreme Court logo). Now that I've finally got an online copy of the image via an ebay item, I'm trying it out as the new profile picture.
I'm a fan of design, so any thoughts on the symbolism and merits of this design (except people pointing out that my version is awful - it was done in paint, and all the letters were rotated in Word, one by one) would be welcome.

Introducing: The Welsh 'No' Campaign

As I'd not heard much about them before, I got in touch with True Wales, the anti-Assembly movement. Diane Banner kindly provided me with a synopsis of what they're about. Hopefully I'll be able to carry more news about these guys from time to time - I certainly intend to join up.

Dear [Dilettante]

Thank you for contacting True Wales.

True Wales is a grassroots movement, established, funded and run entirely by ordinary, working people who are not well known and who came together two years ago because of a shared deep concern about the growth of nationalism and the slide towards independence since the inception of the National Assembly for Wales.

Our movement originated in the South Wales Valleys. It sprang from an article written for the Western Mail by Helen Mary Jones AM in which she argued strongly for Welsh Independence, and also coincided with the launch of the All Wales Convention. True Wales now has members/supporters in most areas of the Principality. We have raised awareness of our campaign by meeting people across the length and breadth of Wales, collecting signatures for our petition and distributing our leaflets. We have reached out to people via the website, written articles, lobbied politicians and submitted evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, the Lords Constitutional Committee and the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. We have also had meetings with the Electoral Commission, and our spokespeople regularly appear on BBC and ITV political programmes.

You have asked specifically whether True Wales has a position on Welsh language provision. It was decided at the outset that our prime objective was to secure a 'No' vote in the referendum which will decide whether direct law-making power should be devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and to do that, we would need to reach out to all the Welsh people, whichever language they use. We do have some Welsh-speaking members, and I would say that all of us have great concerns about the manner in which WAG prioritises our precious resources.

We have just taken delivery of our second batch of leaflets and are busy ensuring that they are distributed in all areas of Wales. I have attached a copy of the leaflet which encapsulates what the campaign is about (you will need to scroll down to view the second page). I have also attached a copy of our latest Press Release which was issued to counter criticisms of our campaign in a recent speech made by the First Minister.

We hold regular strategy meetings each month. I have attached a membership form should you wish to help our campaign in any way (membership is free at the moment), and a copy of the petition form. There is also the on-line petition at: http://www.petition.fm/petitions/truewales

If you wish to know more about True Wales I would be happy to give you a call to chat further.

Thank you again for your email.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

Diane Banner

True Wales Secretary


Monday, 11 October 2010

What has the Conservative Party got to lose from making the Scottish Party independent? List below.

1 MP
17 MSPs
143 Councillors
~400,000 Votes*
All Hope

In short, everything we have in Scotland. It isn't an awful lot, currently. But its better than nothing. Before I explain why, I'd like to quickly examine our present position and compare it to that of the Liberal Democrats.

They aren't undergoing any handwringing existential crisis north of the border. But why not? Our votes in the general election were pretty close, we outpolled them in the Scottish elections and they only have 23 more local councillors than we do. If we're doomed, surely they're circling the drain? Of course they're not, and for one reason: their vote is distributed in such a way that despite not winning many more votes than the Conservatives they won eleven times as many parliamentary seats. The Conservative brand is not so much utterly toxic as it appeals to a geographically disadvantageous electorate. FPTP screws us in Scotland. We need to deal with it and overcome it, rather than looking at a map of the 2010 General Election and assuming that nobody in Scotland voted for us.

Additionally, there are prospects for a long term recovery in Scotland, see my post-election examination of possible Conservative seats.

The main point of this post, however, is to explain why I am opposed in principle to those who think that the Conservative Party should make the Scottish party independent as a supposed 'cure' to the utter toxicity of the party north of the border. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1) The Conservative Party should not be above playing a meaningful role as a third party.
We're not used to it, and it probably isn't all that fun. But the Conservative Party should be making the best out of the hand the electorate deals it in Scotland to put our case to the people and play our role in Scottish politics. How many aspirant parties would kill for the assets listed at the top of this post that some would have us abandon?

2) If the diagnosis is accurate, then the cure isn't worth it for the Conservatives.
In short, if the Conservative brand is so poisonous that we can never be a significant force in Scottish politics again, then no party that functions as our proxy can do so either. The only way an independent Scottish Conservative party could shed whatever poison is attached to it would be by ceasing to be the Scottish Conservative party. It would have to work against the Conservative Party (sticking it to those evil English tories, no doubt) in order to define itself as independent. If it were loyal, there'd be no point splitting it off. We're better off with some representation in Scotland than creating a second UUP-equivalent that might win more votes but is not the Conservative & Unionist Party, leaving us unrepresented north of the border.

3) The Conservatives should not be making big donations of credibility to Alex Salmond.
This one is pretty obvious. We went into Northern Ireland because the pro-union principles of our party led us to believe that it was not right that any citizens of the United Kingdom should have no right to vote for a governing party in a general election. Furthermore, we aspired (and continue to aspire) to the normalisation of that province's politics with those of the mainland. Northern Ireland's 'separateness' and the inability of mainland politics to function there has long been a boon to nationalists. Why on earth would we want to give the impression that Scotland was the same? To allow Alex Salmond to boast that the SNP had so transformed Scotland's political landscape that the foremost party of the union could no longer campaign there? It runs completely counter to the interests of our party and our country.

So it leaves the Conservatives unrepresented in Scotland whilst making us look hubristic and weak and undermines the Union to boot.

*I couldn't find the numbers anywhere, but the Conservatives, SNP and Liberal Democrats were all within less than 100,000 votes of each other.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Wales Online Carries Bourne's Response

O'Neill linked me to this story on Wales Online. I was delighted to see my efforts impacting the wider news agenda - and disappointed to see this at the bottom of the page.

The effects and fairness of forcing GCSE students to take Welsh (at the expense of a free choice that they could choose themselves) was the major point of my letter that Mr Bourne failed to address, and apparently it is right there on the Assembly agenda. If Welsh pupils want to be bilingual, they will choose to be.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Cross of Saint Patrick: The Catholic Unionist Tradition in Ireland

New book! The Cross of Saint Patrick: The Catholic Unionist Tradition in Ireland just arrived from ebay. It looks interesting. When I've read it I'll be providing a review, but the blurb is below.

By showing that Catholicism and Unionism in Ireland neither are, nor ever have been, incompatible, this book explodes one of the most damaging myths of Irish history. Some of the most perplexing problems of Irish history are illuminated by this work: How did CatholicUnionism originate and survive? Why did so many Catholics turn against the union? How did the Protestant community come to be identified with unionism, after Protestant domination of the early history of Irish separatism?

Nor do the authors fight shy of the present and the future. The Catholic unionist tradition remains alive and still has a useful role to play. The Cross of Saint Patrick is a most important contribution to the debate about Ireland's past and prospects. Never again will anyone be able to ask, as the authors of this book were repeatedly asked whenn preparing their work, "But were there any Catholic unionists?"

About the Authors:

Sir John Biggs-Davison, M.P., was formerly a Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman and is (circa. 1984) Chairman of the Tory Northern Ireland Committee. His research assistant, George Chowdharay-Best, gave up medicine for his present life of politics and research.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Nick Bourne AM Responds to my Letter

Earlier this month I wrote to Nick Bourne AM, leader of the Conservative & Unionists in the Welsh Assembly. He let me know that he would give me a full reply after the Conference, and true to his word I received it this morning. Below is the response in full.

Dear [Dilettante]

Thank you for your letter. I took an interest in your reasoned points, to which I would like to respond.

Your fundamental question was why the Conservative Party aspires to a bilingual Wales. From this standpoint you wondered how policies to create a bilingual Wales might be compatible with a commitment to the Union. You also argued that funds spent on the Welsh language could be better used elsewhere.

I can say at the outset that the Assembly group is committed to a bilingual Wales. This is more than merely an attempt to shed an old reputation. We value the heritage of Wales. The ability to speak more than one language, especially at an early age, can excite the mind and open one to different cultures and people and to new experiences. English and Welsh are languages of our country and each language gives Wales strength. Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe and makes Wales distinct, and therefore attractive to visitors. English is a world language, and the ability to speak it fluently gives Welsh people a competitive advantage in the world.

There is an issue of fairness also. A great proportion of the people in Wales would like the choice to speak Welsh in every day life. A recent report by Consumer Focus Wales found that 80 per cent of the people it surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that services should be available in Welsh. These services will not generally be as well used as services in English. Simple mathematics guarantees this. But I believe Welsh services should be available. It is a Conservative principle to give greater freedom and choice.

I do not agree that spending on the Welsh language is necessarily ‘nationalist baggage’, as you said. The growth in bilingual and Welsh medium schools in recent history has been driven by parental demand – by individual parents and guardians - and not by remote policymakers. Only recently in Cardiff, we have seen that parental pressure has driven the creation of a new Welsh medium school in Canton.

However, none of this dilutes the commitment of the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group to the Union. We value our British institutions, the British commitment to fair play and democracy, and the languages of Wales and Britain. But the constituent parts of the Union are united, not merged, and there is room for difference. In fact, I believe the strength of Great Britain over the years has been the ability to accommodate tradition with change.

The existence of the Assembly has not altered the Conservative Party’s position on Welsh. The Party has been a great friend of the Welsh language. (Lord) Wyn Roberts, a Minister in the Thatcher Government, described the Welsh Language Act of 1993 as his ‘proudest achievement’. The Party was also responsible for the creation of the Welsh fourth channel, S4C. The Welsh Conservative commitment to bilingualism continues this tradition.

In my article, which you quoted, I discussed in some detail some of the reforms Welsh Conservatives are trying to enact. The group in the Assembly is concerned with fundamental issues: our economy, the education system, our health service and achieving true devolution of power back to the public. These are all Conservative priorities. And I trust this letter has adequately described why Welsh Conservatives count achieving a bilingual Wales as a worthy aim.

Kind regards


Nicholas Bourne AM

Leader of the Opposition

National Assembly for Wales

The only major point from my original letter not addressed was the impact and fairness of making Welsh compulsory in education, but other than that this presents pretty clearly the principle behind our support for Welsh and also explicitly states support for the Union (O'Neill pointed out that the original article that prompted my letter contained not one reference to it). I'd like to publicly thank Mr Bourne for taking the time to respond to my letter.

Unionism: In Fragmentation Lies Victory

Whilst perusing the 'Elsewhere' section of Unionist Lite, I came across this interesting piece. It describes how the pro-Union vote in Northern Ireland is currently suffering a five-way split, and how the Republicans could take advantage of this to claim the First Ministry. Generally, this ties in with those who bemoan the lack of 'unionist unity' as the beginning of the end, or symptomatic of some kind of failure. I draw the opposite conclusion.

Before I begin, I have to take issue with the tone of his conclusion. If Sinn Féin become the largest party in the Assembly due to 300,000+ unionists not voting (and that isn't including the 25-30% of Catholics who are pro-Union) and a five-way split in the pro-Union vote, then that does not equate to Northern Ireland having a 'nationalist majority'. Sinn Féin could hold the First Ministry and still get roundly defeated in a border referendum. I think most people know this.

And this is why I think that the current turmoil on the pro-Union side is not necessarily a bad thing. Back when the Unionist Party completely dominated politics in Northern Ireland, it was a sign of insecurity. General Elections were called to coincide with threats to the border, the Republic maintained an irredentist claim on the province and various armed Republican groups waged a long, urban, guerilla war against the United Kingdom's presence. Unionism had to remain united in the face of constant, daily threats to its position.

Not anymore: the position of the Union is secure; the need for a border referendum is now guaranteed by both the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic; and the Union remains the choice that a substantial majority of Northern Irish citizens would vote for in a border referendum.

With this bedrock of security in place, unionism no longer needs to be a monolithic force fighting, day in, day out, against the possibility of a united Ireland. Instead, the unionist electorate have begun to behave like their compatriots on the mainland - they have become political consumers. Being 'unionist' is no longer enough to bring some 300,000 voters out at all. Yes, they say. You're pro-Union. That's fine. But what about my taxes/public services/neighbourhood/school.

Unionist politics has been slow to adapt to this new environment. Those arguing for unionist unity are looking back at the previous dominance of the OUP and learning the wrong lessons. It wasn't so huge and dominant because it represented some kind of triumph: it was such because unionists did not feel secure enough in the future of the union to campaign on their very real differences of opinion on economic and social issues. Far from being a sign of weakness or defeat, the fragmentation of the pro-union vote represents a very real triumph. It says that unionists can now afford to start being different, to start disagreeing, to start being Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat or suchlike. More than unity ever could, it says we've won.

And every attempted murder by dissident republicans signposts their realisation of that fact.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Dilettante at Conference: Day 2

Note: I left the various cards and notes I took today in my jacket. This post will be edited to credit those people whose names elude me at this late hour.

Despite a poor start, today has been a really enjoyable day at conference. I met quite a few people and got quotations etc., so I'll provide at outline of my day first and then a list of interesting quotations and views from people I met at the bottom.

The poor start? I got up at 6.30 am so I could attend Breakthrough Northern Ireland for O'Neill over at Unionist Lite, only to get lost and miss it. So I didn't get to report back on it or a lie in - rubbish. But from this disheartening start the day picked up. After a free lunch courtesy of The Times at their event and a while spent at the Freedom Zone, business proper started with the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party reception.

Much to my delight, the event was packed. After chatting with Alistair Campbell (!), our candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire North, it was time to step aside as David Cameron came in and said his piece.I got to ask Annabel Goldie about the future of the Scottish Conservatives and talk to Lord Sanderson of Bowden, who is leading the review of the Scottish Conservatives.

I wound up in the middle of the Northern Irish Conservatives (who I had despaired of meeting) and Irwin Armstrong was kind enough to give me an invitation to the invite-only, super-secret Northern Irish Conservative reception (it wasn't in any of the fringe guides, which will need to change if the NI Conservatives are to raise their profile). It was also a pleasure to met Ian Parsley in person.

I was also roped into providing a few minutes of thoughts on Osbourne's child benefit cuts for radio 5 live - they only used one soundbite each from me and my opponent but if you really fancy hearing my voice check iPlayer for Radio 5 'Up All Night', 05/10/10, about an hour in.

At the NI Conservative event, I again got to mingle, chatting at length with [name and details coming] about the history of Irish unionism, before again it was time for the bigwigs to speak - Irwin introduced Owen Paterson. After he had finished I got to ask a few questions of Sir Reg Empey. After this, I spent a few hours propping up the bar with some other Manchester Conservatives and returned to my hotel, where I found that Conference security had wiped my room card.

Quotations etc - these may not be verbatim but are as accurate as I can recall and capture the content and spirit of what was said - hedges included.

"I personally am against the splitting of the Scottish Conservative Party from that of the United Kingdom". - Annabel Goldie

"I believe that the Conservatives will be allowed to run in Northern Ireland - we're having a meeting about it tomorrow." - Irwin Armstrong

"I would not run as an independent, no." - Ian Parsley

"UCUNF was too complicated, and there are those out there who were naïve about what was achievable. I stuck my neck out to make the link up with the Conservatives happen. I believe in the UUP and the Conservatives working together - and so does the new leadership". - Sir Reg Empey (the emphasis was his).

"You see that logo? And you know how UCUNF didn't have a logo? We sent the Tories that - apparently it was too sectarian." - [UUP Councillor - Details Coming]

"Dilettante, you say? I'll have to check that out". - Danny Finkelstein, of The Times

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Dilettante at Conference: Day 1

If I take nothing else home with me from this conference, it will be the lesson not to pack the hour before you need to catch your train. It necessitates much wandering in Birmingham City Centre on the first day of conference, buying duplicates of things you already own and with your smart shoes quietly grinding your feet to pulp. Alas, I missed the Welsh Conservative event this morning for this very reason.

Other than that, Conference has been fun. I attended the Rally for Boris and Eric Pickles session on localism (each of which produced a potential quote of the day, see below). I met lots of nice people, ate some good food and charmed a free umbrella out of the Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan. I even met a councillor who read this blog, much to my pleased amazement.

Tomorrow promises to be a bigger day: kicking off with Breakthrough Northern Ireland at 8am (!), then the Scottish Conservative & Unionist event and Iain Dale's bloggers party in the evening.

Quote(s) of the Day:

"Imagine what a new generation of Joseph Chamberlain's could do for this country." - Eric Pickles

"Like Heracles and Lernaean Hydra, like Holmes and Moriarty, like Harry Potter and Voldemort... It seems that this contest is fated to continue for more than one episode, and with the death eaters of union militancy on the march, prepared to suck the life out of British industry, we need your help, my fellow Con Home Homies... " - Boris Johnson, referring to the return of Red Ken.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

An Open Letter to Nick Bourne AM

Dear Mr. Bourne,

Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm [-], a Conservative & Unionist Party member of several years now. I'm of Irish parentage, and the relationship between the Conservative Party and the Union is a long-term interest of mine. I blog on the subject under the pseudonym Dilettante.

I recently read an article that has finally prompted me to write to you. Although I have might ask several questions of you, in light of the nature of my blog and the hope of eliciting a response I intend to focus on one: the relationship between the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh language. I was wondering if you could explain to me why the Conservative Party aspires to a bilingual Wales.

I am not anti-Welsh, and neither is the wider party. Indeed, in my opinion it is illogical to be a unionist if you are 'anti' any of the constituent nations of the Union. However, I do take issue with the Welsh Conservatives being "committed to making Wales a fully bilingual nation". I fear that in attempting to shed an 'anti-Welsh' image the party may have adopted nationalist baggage.

I have two potential objections to this policy. The first is practical: whilst I can fully understand supporting Welsh as an optional choice in schools for those who wish to learn it, to create a bilingual Wales would surely involve making Welsh mandatory - imposing it upon Welsh students who could use the slot to take a subject that more accurately reflects their own interest, aspirations and personal priorities. Furthermore, forcibly constricting their academic freedom divides them from English students - is this good either for them or the Union? Additionally, making Wales bilingual must surely cost money: money that could be spent actually improving the lives of the Welsh people, either spent by the state or by themselves. How is any of the above in accordance with Conservative principle?

This leads to my second question: why is a bilingual Wales something that the Conservatives aspire to? The pro-active resurrection of the Welsh language is of no material benefit to British citizens in Wales. It is an understandable nationalist aspiration - but one for the Conservative & Unionist Party? One does not need to be an anglo-supremacist to believe in focusing on improving the material condition of the Welsh people rather than expending money on nationalist indulgences such as bilingual road signs when English is near-universally spoken. Resurrecting 'bilingual Wales' is expensive, proscriptive and of no material benefit to the Welsh - what then makes it desirable?

I hope that you find the time to read and answer this email.

Kind Regards,


**Update: Mr Bourne's reply here.**

Friday, 1 October 2010

Is 'Unionist' a counter-productive political label?

When I refer to my party membership, I always consider it important to refer to myself as Conservative & Unionist. Being a unionist is important to me, and I identify with the label. The decline of 'unionism' as a phenomenon and label in mainland politics is something I've long lamented. But the other day it struck me: why is this? Doesn't continuing to identify as a 'unionist' simply help to de-normalise the union?

I support the Conservative Party's attempt to break into Northern Ireland - and Labour's faltering starts in that direction - to bring mainland politics to the province. As Ian Parsley has argued on his blog, the basis of UCUNF was stepping outside the sectarian 'unionist/nationalist' spectrum in order to focus on bread-and-butter issues like the economy. In this context, referring to the party as the Conservative & Unionist Party is surely counter-productive? But beyond the particular issues surrounding Northern Irish politics, surely the problem is the same in Scotland? By emphasising 'unionism' as a belief with which a party needs to identify, does this not emphasise the 'separateness' of England and Scotland?

After struggling with it for a few days, I have arrived at the (tentative) conclusion that in principle at least the answer is 'no'. The inspiration from this came from the most unlikely of sources - nationalism in post-independence southern Ireland. Nationalism did not go away with the attainment of a statehood, and I may be mistaken but surely the continued presence of the Union in the north can't have sustained the deep nationalist undercurrents that have dominated politics in the Republic? Even after independence, nationalism has remained the political and cultural narrative du jour.

The United Kingdom is not a homogeneous nation-state. The state cannot ever hope to impose a uniform national identity upon the citizens of the UK because none exists to impose. British identity is less solid, more easily interwoven with other regional and national identities. I myself am British, Irish, English, Mancunian, Londoner and a Home Counties man. If unionists have anything to celebrate, it is that we have built so successful a state that can easily tolerate a such a multitude of mutually-compatible identities. Where unionism has failed, it is where it has become associated with the interests of one particular group or class - the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland being a key example.

This put me in mind of my own argument about 'neo'-unionism. If unionism were simply an attempt to hold the union together then yes, seeking to phase out the 'unionist' label might be a good idea. To me, however, unionism is more than that - it is the ideology that seeks to build an impartial state to govern free individuals, emphasising what we have in common rather than seeking to fetishise our differences. That is what makes Unionism distinct from British Nationalism - and to me that is a very important distinction indeed. And if this is the case, surely 'unionism' should continue to be a phenomenon in British politics even after the union is secure - defining our politics around a philosophy of cosmopolitan acceptance as the Republic defines its politics around cultural identity-building?

This being the case, the label 'unionist' - outside the context of Northern Ireland, at least - still has something to offer British politics. It evokes a spirit of free people joined in common enterprise, of tolerance and progress. Saying "I am a unionist" does not have to simply mean "I believe in maintaining the territorial and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom", but "I believe that we can achieve more together than alone, and that we should be building bridges between people rather than erecting walls".

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Could the Tories get away with it?

Let's take a hypothetical leadership election in the Conservative party. There are five candidates - four are white males, two are brothers and one asked his wife to stand aside. The winning candidate loses the party membership and its elected representatives, but squeaks through on the back of votes from the CBI, Countryside Alliance, Chambers of Commerce and other affiliiated organisations.

Would the blues get treated with the same (relative) equanimity that Labour enjoyed? Not on your life.

Labour and Swing Voters

A bit of light relief. It was such a joy to come across this line, when trawling through Lord Ashcroft's research on Labour's relationship with the electorate, that I burst out laughing and struggled to stop.

The joke probably won't travel unless you go and read the whole thing, but in the words of one swing voter, asked whether Labour should return to its core values to appeal to the middle classes:

“Aren’t their core values aimed at people climbing chimneys?”