I spent a chunk of this Bank Holiday Monday morning at the Waterfront Hall, where former Conservative leader, and current shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, became the latest high profile Tory to speak in support of Jim Nicholson, the Conservatives and Unionists European election candidate. Launching the force’s Northern Ireland manifesto, David Cameron’s ‘deputy in all but name’, gave a polished and persuasive synopsis of the document and branded the current Labour government the ‘worst in recent history‘.
I offered some initial thoughts on the manifesto yesterday evening, and provided a summary of the main Conservative version, which forms its basis, a week ago. O’Neill provides a little more detail and reaction on ‘Unionist Lite’. A PDF version is now available on the ‘Vote for Change’ website.
Although the Conservatives and Unionists arrangement is perfectly calibrated to offer Northern Irish voters something new in European politics, the pact is built for Westminster, and the modalities which are being put in place for June’s poll provide a flavour of what is to come when Gordon Brown is forced to consult the people through a general election. A United Kingdom Conservative manifesto is launched by the mainland party and local versions provide a slant tailored to the various regional organisations.
This is a system which is already in place in Wales and Scotland, but it represents a substantial test as to whether Northern Ireland is ready for ’grown up’, United Kingdom wide politics. The Northern Ireland document draws substantially on the main Conservative manifesto, asking local voters to consider the larger issues of Britain’s involvement in the European Union, as well as local permutations.
Jim Nicholson will of course fight Northern Ireland’s corner at the European Parliament, a task which, amongst the prospective representatives, his experience and influence make him uniquely qualified to perform. But he is also standing on the basis of a substantial prospectus for change in Europe, based on the United Kingdom’s relationship with its institutions. He is relying on local voters being engaged, informed and appreciative of the wider contexts of British and European politics. Above all, the Conservatives and Unionists project puts faith in the electorate’s maturity and its will to tap into broader political currents.
This trust is in stark contrast to the approach which DUP candidate, Diane Dodds, is taking to persuading voters to her cause. On yesterday’s Politics Show she gave an appalling, yapping performance, which attempted to sideline, almost entirely, any consideration of wider issues surrounding the election. With shrill determination she ignored every nuance of the debate to incant repeatedly the discredited DUP refrains, ’smashing Sinn Féin’, ’topping the poll for unionism’. It was reductionist politics at its very worst. And it serves only to nurture support for that which it purports to destroy. At a time when the Conservatives and Unionists are attempting to articulate something bigger, more ambitious, broader, the DUP is repeating a limiting message, from a limited candidate.
There is an element of risk to this strategy, because the Ulster public is accustomed to a much narrower political narrative. It is quite possible that it is not ready to internalise the type of politics which UCUNF is offering. If that is the case, then the force must remain patient, and keep faith, both in the vision it is offering and in Northern Ireland’s voters. Because this type of issue based politics, tethered to commitment to the entire United Kingdom, is the best, most constructive future for unionism.