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".