Monday, 31 October 2011

Madness Built on Fantasy: Dilettante on The Student Journals

In my latest article for TSJ, I take a look at why the Conservative backbench rebellion over 'renegotiation' was such a pointless folly.

Note to Times readers - I wrote and submitted this before Phil Collins' excellent comment piece in that paper.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Murdo Fraser Answers Some Questions

 During work I fired some questions off to the Murdo campaign about how exactly his new party would work in relation to the national Conservative Party. To his credit - and my surprise - I received responses fast and (it appears, at least) from the man himself. For those interested I've put the questions and answers below.

Q: Would a Scottish MP be able to lead the whole group, including the sister party, and become Prime Minister?

A: I can confirm that under the new arrangements I will seek to put in place a Scottish MP from our new centre right party which will be a sister party of the UK Conservative Party and take the Conservative whip at Westminster will be able to lead that whole group and become Prime Minister. I often use the example of Alex Douglas-Home: he was elected as the Unionist MP for Kinross & West Perthshire but then became UK Conservative leader and Prime Minister. I would envisage us having similar arrangements to those that applied pre-1965 and comparative to those that exist between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU where CSU members serve for example as Cabinet Ministers in the federal government.

Q: Would I be able to be a member of both the new party and the Conservative Party? I would love to remain involved with the Scottish Conservatives if they took on your new shape, but I am resident in England at present. The Conservatives allow membership of any party that does not compete against them in an election, would your new party do the same?

A: If I win the leadership contest and the special constitutional conference of the Scottish Conservatives decides to move towards setting up a new centre right party then I would be delighted if you wished to join it. The UK Conservative Party under these circumstances would cease to operate in Scotland and so the new party would not be competing against them in any elections here.

Q: Would you have the two parties cooperate in setting policy for reserved areas? How would that work? Obviously the party would set its own devolved policy, but reserved policy must surely be worked out by some body representing the national alliance of Conservative parties?

A: I would expect the new centre right party to co-operate closely with the UK on policy towards reserved matters in a similar way to how the Scottish party does now, via strengthened policy forums and through our elected representatives. I want to help David Cameron win a majority at Westminster in 2015 and this means Scotland needs to do more than return a single MP to support that government; I genuinely believe that the creation of new centre-right party, building on the current Scottish Conservative Party, gives us the best opportunity to increase our number of MPs at that election and therefore increase our ability to influence UK policy in Scotland’s interests.

Q: By what mechanism would a Scottish party MP become leader of the alliance? Would there be an allied conference of some kind where they were elected? Or would there be a separate position of 'allied leader' with the leaders of the UK and Scottish parties being put to a cross-party ballot of members?

A: Under the current arrangements for the election of a UK leader candidates must be nominated by any two MPs taking the Conservative whip and this would apply to any Scottish MP elected from our new centre right party. If more than two candidates stand, then MPs first hold a series of ballots to reduce the number to two.  At this point an all-member ballot takes place and party members of the new centre right party would have a vote in this leadership ballot.

I hope these answers are helpful and thank you for your interest in the current leadership contest.

Kind regards,

Murdo Fraser

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Dilettante on Tory Hoose: Scottish AND British Conservatives

Scottish ConHome equivalent Tory Hoose have kindly published an article of mine that I wrote in response to a pro-Murdo article I read there. Please take a look.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Dilettante on The Commentator: First Flickers of a Unionist Fightback

In my first article for The Commentator, I look at how this Conservative Conference showed the first inklings that the Conservative leadership is preparing for face Salmond, and look at the problems Cameron will need to overcome to turn his party into a well-oiled anti-separatist campaigning machine by 2014.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Unionism Without 'Britishness' is Nothing: A rebuttal to Ian James Parsley

  I've decided to structure this piece as a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis (and where necessary refutation) of Ian's argument, in a manner that appears similar to a fisk. This is often used as a format for quite hostile articles - you need only read my own fisks to see that - so I'd like to stress that no hostility towards Ian is intended.

A sudden inflow of links led me to this article by Ian James Parsley over on his blog. Saddened as I always am not to see the UCUNF logo at the top of it, I went to take a look.

 He has taken two articles on the issue of federalism - one by me, another by an English nationalist on Open Unionism - and used them as a basis for concluding that federalism is the only hope for unionism. Ian raised some interesting points which I would like to take this opportunity to counter if I can for I believe that his reading of what unionism actually consists of is wrong on quite a fundamental level.

Let's begin.
I have been increasingly of the view that Federalism and Unionism (both in the very broadest sense) need to be the same thing if the Union is to survive at all (I am not stating a particular preference for it to survive, merely my views on how it can).
 The article of mine that Ian links too makes clear my reasons for thinking that federalism and unionism are, in the British context, fundamentally incompatible. I don't see the need to repeat those arguments here. What I would like to know is that Ian means by 'the very broadest sense' of Federalism and Unionism.
Firstly, my judgement is that Unionists in England (and occasionally elsewhere) too often make the mistake of trying to present the Union as some sort of “Greater England”. This may or may not be intentional – in Dilettante’s case I have no doubt it isn’t – but it is the outworking of most English “Unionist” logic.
 The 'Greater England' line is one that crops up a lot in nationalist critiques of the Union. The rationale behind assuming that unionists in England were 'greater Englanders' is the idea that they shared the nationalist pre-occupation with a sub-British identity - that their primary identification was with England and they were only comfortable with Britain because they had projected England onto it. Even England football fans used to waved Union Flags, which must only have confirmed this suspicion in the minds of many of the more paranoid nationalists.

 Yet this belief is predicated on one fundamental misconception - the idea that most 'English' unionists prior to devolution had any serious conception of 'England' at all. Hard as it might be for a Celtic nationalist to believe, 'Englishness' really isn't - or certainly wasn't - much of a thing. 'England' was too diverse in makeup and origin to sustain a cohesive identity without institutions to frame it, and so the Kingdom of England quite happily blended into the United Kingdom. Lacking the myth of a unified celtic origin that sustained Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism, during the birth of nationalism in the 19th Century the English simply accepted Britain.

 Even today, the business of reimposing 'Englishness' on the English is largely left to external nationalists, especially the SNP. The English are being defined negatively - they are the ones who don't have a parliament, who don't get free prescriptions or tuition fees, or whatever. There is little to nothing by way of a grass-roots nationalist movement in England, and the country is all the better for it. So the word 'unionist' has no place in scare quotations in Ian's paragraph. 
Secondly, following on from this, English Unionists have been distinctly discomforted by devolution. Yet the opposite of devolution, implicitly advocated by Dilettante, is centralisation in England – with 85% of the UK population, that means English rule, intentionally or otherwise, with people in England prepared to justify it on numbers alone if necessary. English rule only gives ammunition to Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists to present their case in national and even anti-colonial terms.
 Just to clarify, I'm not 'implicitely' anti-devolution: I'm explicitly anti-devolution. I believe as I always have that devolving power to the nationalist - rather than the local - level is wrong.

 Now, this paragraph really gets to the nub of my problem with this piece. Before I get to that though, I'd just like to clarify something that came up in the comments: it is not a straight choice between devolution and centralisation. I advocate, as others such as Airey Neave have in the past, that unionism ought to be combined with genuine localism - devolving power to institutions such as county councils. 

 Indeed, at the core of Neave's sadly abandoned integration proposals - probably the greatest missed opportunity in the history of unionism after the failure to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1801 - the permanent abolition of Stormont went hand in hand with the resurrection of the province's county councils. This tandem approach ensures that great power rests in the hands of people to decide local issues while ensuring the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

 Yet Ian's complaint about 'English rule' giving Gaelic nationalists an 'anti-colonial' mandate is telling, because it reveals what I consider the key flaw at the heart of his argument. His whole piece is a comparison of the balance of power between England and the other Home Nations. At no point in time does he consider Britain, and the mandate of Britishness.

 If Britishness exists, then it stands to reason that a decision voted for by a majority of the British people is legitimate across the UK. If not, that raises serious questions - was the South of England living under 'colonial rule' since 2001? Can a government really claim a mandate to govern a constituency that didn't vote for it?

 Assuming that Ian doesn't hold this absurd view (and I don't think he does) then his analysis demonstrates a complete lack of any consideration for Britishness. This is expanded upon in his next paragraph:
The only chink of light for the Conservatives post-devolution was in Wales, where the party – unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland – moved quickly to embrace devolution and the opportunities it brought about, and backed subsequent yes-campaigns for more powers. This is not a coincidence. The social trends are towards greater devolution, a great sense of English, Scottish, Welsh and even (unmistakably in recent years) Northern Irish identity. That doesn’t stop anyone being British any more than being Bavarian stops someone being German, or being Norwegian stops someone being Scandinavian, but it does have implications on where people expect decisions over the laws and policies which affect them to be made.
 I'd like to make it clear, Scandinavia is a terrible, terrible example with which to illustrate a supposedly 'unionist' argument. Since the dissolution of Sweden-Norway in 1905 Scandinavia has consisted of entirely separate countries which share some very broad cultural similarities - which is where Britain and Ireland are now and where the nationalists would like all the Home Nations to end up. 

 At this point, I think Ian's clarification above about not actually being a unionist is very important, because he isn't describing anything I'd really call unionism. His response to the social trend towards the fragmentation of identity across the UK is one of enthusiastic acceptance, not reticence (the sign of a hard-core unionist) or balance (the sign of a moderate unionist). He shows no sign of mourning or wanting to defend the concept of British identity, nor to strike a balance between identities that allows both to function. Instead, he is yet another advocate of the idea that unionists should simply resign themselves to running with the nationalists. I'll deal with this in more detail looking at his final paragraph.

 His invocation of Germany and Scandinavia are as ill-suited to this argument as the CDU/CSU comparison is for the Conservatives, has he himself pointed out earlier in his article. In both of those instances, the devolution or independence was underpinned by a deep sense of blood-and-soil nationalism. In the pan-Scandinavian case it never got anywhere, but the identities that underpin Scandinavian and German identity are of the gut-instinct kind that nationalists work with. The British identity, based as it is around the idea of quite distinct nationalities overcoming their differences for cooperation and mutual enrichment, is both richer and more fragile than that.

Britishness has evolved; indeed, it has devolved! Deepening devolution – thus, in fact, a form of government within spitting distance of federalism – is the only route seriously open, and any party unaware of that aspect of contemporary Britishness has no right to call itself British. Or to call itself Unionist, for that matter.
 Of the whole article, this is the only paragraph I find actually objectionable. I find the suggestion that anybody who rejects the idea that we need to carry the nationalists to the brink of breaking up our country cannot call themselves unionist or British frankly insulting. In fact, the very idea that someone who goes against received opinion should be disowned is fundamentally wrong. I hope that Ian will withdraw this statement.

 It comes back to the question I wanted to raise at Conservative conference - why should unionists only be unionist when the polls permit them to be? That sort of thinking would never have got the nationalists anywhere. The SNP didn't give up after 1979, and both they and Plaid came from very humble beginnings indeed. Plaid and the SNP have achieved what they achieved by fixing a goal in mind and working tirelessly towards it, undermining both the fact and the idea of Britain at every turn. Unionists have shown no such resolution.

 Rather than simply treating the supposed Zeitgeist as part of an inevitable historical tide to which we are powerlessly subject, unionists should wake up to the fact that human beings are things whose minds can be changed, that public moods can be altered. And that includes standing up for the concept of Britishness, the marked absence of which lies at the heart of Ian's article.

 Britain and Britishness are, like most identities born of a union, mutually dependent. Britishness invests legitimacy in British institutions - in turn, these institutions provide a point of identification for 'Britishness'. Without those institutions the cosmopolitan, civic identity of the union withers against the pressure of 'purer', blood-and-soil nationalism. Ian's article thus fails to do several things: 

 First, it fails to describe how 'Britishness' would actually survive the disembowelling of the British state - the rapid implosion of the 'Anglophile' tradition in southern Ireland suggests it wouldn't. Contrast Northern Ireland, where the latest Life and Times survey shows a Catholic majority in favour of the union, with the Republic, where even the suggestion of joining the Commonwealth of Nations is now beyond the pale as the pro-Treaty tradition faded away. This is the same Commonwealth that countries like India are comfortable joining.

 Second, it fails to justify the continued value of any sort of residual union in a scenario where Britishness is so weak that it cannot provide legitimacy to any meaningful central government. If Britishness is not enough to sustain a government, where is the positive case for sustaining the state?

 Third, it fails to explain how unionists running with the ball right to the edge of the abyss would prevent the likes of Alex Salmond pushing us over it - again, the evidence of experience which suggests that the very opposite is true. For example, the Welsh nearly rejected devolution in 1998, but returning to that scenario is certainly difficult in the medium-to-long term. Every concession offered the Scottish nationalists has simply loudened their demands for concessions. The idea that weakening the British state somehow strengthens it is one I hear a lot from defeatist 'unionists', but I've yet to hear of any evidence that it will work.

 Looking over the article as a whole, what strikes me is that it isn't really a 'unionist' argument at all - it barely even bothers to dress up as one. Ian doesn't make a positive case for the union he outlines here. He doesn't even describe which parts of his 'union' would actually remain. The entire tone of the article is one of "Britain is over; unionists best get on the winning side while they can!" That isn't unionism. That's giving up.

 Unionists are unionists because they believe in Britain and what the union represents - multiple peoples coming together to build something stronger and richer (in both the cultural and economic senses) than their individual nations. They believe in being British and being governed as British, and they are loyal to British institutions. They believe that the many tribes of these islands are one people and should remain so, and no argument that doesn't can be described as 'unionist'.

 This isn't antipathetic to being Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even 'English', but it involves balance. Any unionist proposal must maintain a meaningful role for the united state, which this proposal fails to do. Implicit in Ian's argument instead is the complete resignation of the concept of Britishness and any legitimacy it bestows upon British institutions and instead 'deepening' devolution because the course of history is telling us to.

 In short, he isn't describing a way that the union might survive - he's surviving how we unionists might collude with its ending, in exchange for wrapping its corpse in the Union Jack for a while.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Dilettante at Conference 2011

 I decided not to write a day-by-day account this year, not least because I'm in college for most of it. Instead, I thought I'd report back on the significant moments of my wanderings through the two days of Conference in one post. I've promised a more complete 'Conservative Conference from a Unionist Perspective' to The Commentator too.

1) The 'A United Kingdom' Debate: Hosted by Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan, the panel consisted of:

 Andrew R. T. Davies: Leader of the Welsh Assembly Conservatives.
 Owen Paterson: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
 David Mundell: Conservative MP for Scotland
 Annabel Goldie: Leader of the Scottish Parliament Conservatives.

 I noticed an interesting dynamic here. The Welsh and Northern Irish speakers did little more than name-check their achievements. On the other hand the Scots, perhaps needing something other than achievements to talk about, gave strong unionist speeches. Annabel Goldie's especially remains for me a highlight of this years conference - probably the most passionate unionist address I've heard a mainland politician give, and you could tell she meant every word.

 I did put down to ask a question here, but I was not reached. None the less, it caught David Mundell's eye and he recalled it when I spoke to him the next day. For posterity's sake, the question was: 

 "If Nationalists argue their corner at all times, and Unionists only when the polls permit, is it any surprise that the momentum is all in one direction?"

2) Meeting Annabel Goldie: Alright, this one probably has no long-term significance to the future of unionism. But in the middle of an edging-to-aggravated debate with Iain Dale over the future of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel wandered past and stopped to say hi. When she looked at my name tag, she said:

 "Oh, Henry Hill! I know you, you're a blogger."

That blogger almost died of pride right on the spot.

3) Murdo Fraser's Reception: After my encounter with Iain plus a particularly heated exchange of views with a fellow Tory in the bar upstairs, I wasn't up for taking on Murdo's separatism for the third time in one evening, so hid at the back. 

Got quite a long chat with his campaign manager. While a perfectly nice man, he failed to assuage the fears I raised in this piece, and I remain hostile to Murdo's proposed dismemberment of the party.

The main thing I noticed - and I noticed this at the hustings the next day, too - is that Murdo and his team are ferociously trying to mask his fundamental proposal with a strong emphasis on continuity. As very little of substance was said at this meeting, I'll address that point more fully when describing the hustings.

 Speaking in support of Fraser were Iain Dale of Total Politics and Struan Stevenson, Conservative MEP for Scotland.

4) Scottish Conservative and Unionist Leadership Hustings: See here.

5) Scottish Conservative and Unionist Reception: Despite rushing as fast as I could, I couldn't make it across Manchester in time to see Annabel Goldie's speech. I did see the Prime Minister's, including his laudable statement that he will share a platform with anybody who wishes to stand by the union.

 As the Prime Minister was leaving, I managed to resist the less-than-subtle attempts of his security to block me to ask the following question:

 Me: "Prime Minister, should Conservatives across our United Kingdom be able to stand as Conservative and Unionist Party candidates when they face the electorate?"
 Cameron: "In a word - yes!"

 David Mundell also expressed support for my campaign to allow southern Tories to appear as Conservative and Unionist on the ballot paper, as did Jackson Carlaw and Annabel Goldie. A productive evening indeed.

 I took the opportunity to ask some questions of Mr Carlaw, mainly clarifying points in his speech. One thing that did stand out for me was his pledge that, if elected leader, he would try to establish a precedent that the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives was always sitting in Westminster, either as an MP or a Peer, in order to improve coordination between Edinburgh and London.

 6) Northern Irish Conservative and Unionist Reception: If I have a regret about the Northern Ireland reception, it is that I only got to exchange about ten words with Owen Polley, of 3000 Versts fame. As he put it, I went 'haring off after Lord Empey' and lost track of him. 

 However, the meeting itself was fine. The speakers were not a particular highlight, although given the nonsense he's had to put up with I was mightily relieved to see Irwin Armstrong at the podium again this year. I also had a chat with the Chairman of the North Down association about the boundary changes - depressingly, he thinks that the new seat of Glenshane will effectively put unionist-held East Londonderry into SF hands. All the more reason for a unionist party that can reach out to Catholics, I suppose.

 I did get to speak to Lord Empey, which was very useful. Our discussion this year was not so much about Northern Ireland as the developments north of the border in Scotland. Showing foresight that contrasts markedly with the 'England's difficulty is Ulster's opportunity' nonsense one sometimes hears from unionisms apparent leaders in Northern Ireland, Empey identifies Scottish nationalism as "a bigger threat to the union, and Northern Ireland's place within that union, even than Irish nationalism."

 I asked Lord Empey if he feels that Northern Irish unionists should play an active role in any Scottish independence referendum, and he was unequivocal in saying that they should. He added that he would personally take the stand in Edinburgh and Glasgow during any referendum campaign. With luck, this means that representatives of each of the Home Nations will be making the positive case for the union come 2014.

 7) Welsh Conservative and Unionist Reception: Shouldn't really be on this list, because I couldn't go. Nor could many people. I wasn't even aware one existed until I bumped into Iain Dale's assistant Grant Tucker, who mentioned he was going. When I asked where it was and why it wasn't in the fringe guide, I was informed that: "We've kept it out of the fringe guide. It's secret, invite only. The Prime Minister's going."

 Brilliant. I met a fair number of delegates at the Scottish and Northern Irish receptions who had been looking forward to attending the Welsh event, to find out how this Celtic Fringe Conservative Party had managed to rally so well after 1997. A chance to come together and share expertise squandered, then. I hope that Mr R. T. Davies and the rest of the Welsh Conservatives thought it was worth it.

 P.S. Next year, oh Conference overlords, would it kill you to try to schedule the Scottish and Northern Irish (and CF, come to that) receptions at different times? They're the three wings of the party in most need of cultivation, yet they're scheduled so that proper attendance of all three is impossible.

2011 Scottish Conservative and Unionist Leadership Hustings at Manchester

"This party has to stick together or it is nothing!"
Murdo Fraser MSP, being ironic.

 To my delighted surprise, the hustings was a really good event. I ended up writing about it at sufficient length to split it off from my conference diary, and my report is below.

 Candidates had to outline their vision in short speeches, then take questions, then summate at the end. The candidates drew lots on the speaking order, and Murdo Fraser went first. This was something of a mixed blessing.

 Fraser is a good speaker, and of the opening speeches it was he who roused cheers and applause from the audience (although not, I should point out, for his own proposals). But once Carlaw, Mitchell and Davidson took the stand the direction of travel was clear. Each of them, in more or less explicit terms, outright rejected his separation proposal. 

 One thing I really noticed about Murdo was how far he's having to play the 'no change' card in order to try to sell his main idea. It was he who specifically name-checked the national leader when he spoke of 'electing MPs to support David Cameron in Westminster.' In his speech he also made many allusions to the old Unionist Party, indicating that this could well be the new party's name. His campaign manager the previous night had seemed substantially less keen on it, however, and the Scotsman lists several (terrible) alternative proposals that he is apparently considering.

 The denial ran deeper than that, though. Fraser mentioned several times how he wanted 'a new political direction for the party' and that his proposal was 'more than just a name change'. Yet he also consistently argued that the problem didn't lie with the Scottish Conservative leadership, activists or policies. 

 The tension is apparent: if Fraser genuinely thinks there's been nothing holding the party back except its image with Scots, surely his proposal is primarily an image makeover. On the other hand, if he believes his own rhetoric that a fundamentally new direction is required, how can he heap praise upon policies, strategies and strategists that he clearly considers deficient? It appears as if he's either trying to claim his name-change is more fundamental than it is, or trying not to insult the party faithful so they'll vote for him.

 As he had gone first, Fraser had no opportunity to respond as each of the other candidates in turn rallied their supporters and went on the attack. This trend only got worse over the course of the debate. With one or two exceptions, questioners were all pre-occupied with Mr Fraser's proposal and were almost universally hostile. After one particular round of answers from the panel the Chair felt moved to offer Fraser a second response, that he might try to pry out some of the knives the others had planted in him in their responses.

 Yet it was to no avail. Although ToryHoose's exit poll (which I sadly had to miss) found a percentage-point lead for Murdo, the problem is that all of the remaining two-thirds of respondents are hostile to his core proposal. If he wins, but fails to get his split ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Scottish Party, he will be left at the end of what will undoubtedly be a bitter and divisive road without a shred of credibility left, just as Salmond is gearing up for the referendum. Yet despite Fraser's supposed position as the front-runner, chances of this scenario appear to be narrowing - the Telegraph's Alan Cochrane describes his chances of winning as "akin to pushing water uphill."

 To me, the hero of the hour was Jackson Carlaw. I'm personally in the Davidson camp, because I think she represents the sort of change the Scottish Conservatives need, but I hope that if she wins she finds Mr Carlaw a key position in the party. A confident and charismatic public speaker, instantly likeable, with a firm grasp of the issues and the most sophisticated and effective critique of Murdo's proposals to boot, he's a debater I can see going toe-to-toe with Alex Salmond and an asset any northern leader would be a fool to squander.

 Ruth Davidson performed credibly, emphasising her youth and the new perspective she hopes to bring to the party. Her slogan - "Scottish. Conservative. Unionist." - makes her position on the name-changing proposal perfectly clear, and she was probably the least-subtle knife-wielder of the three. One perception I left with was that she is much better at being generally positive - for example talking up the party's future - than being specifically hostile i.e. attacking Fraser. If she wins, the job of going toe-to-toe with Salmond would probably need to be deputised.

 Davidson went into the meeting having recently gained the support of David Mundell, who has declared that he'll have no part of a new party and will stand as a Conservative regardless. Whether or not a growing perception of Davidson as the 'establishment' candidate - ironic, given her recent election - will help or hinder her campaign remains to be seen.

 I felt a little sorry for Margaret Mitchell. I've been in her shoes - nervous and under-prepared, stumbling over lines, repeating points and casting around for things to say. Difference is, I did that when I was asked to speak at the University Debating Union at an hour's notice, not when I was running for leadership of a party at that party's annual conference.

 As the apparent arch-unionist candidate, I had expected to like Mitchell. Her politics might still be brilliant, for all I know. But she is not leadership material. She's a quiet and nervous public speaker who cannot command a room or project an argument. Sending her into battle against Salmond would be like rowing out to sea in a sieve.