Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Georgia started the South Ossetia conflict

The European Union's Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia has published its report. One of its main tasks was to establish who started the war. So what was its conclusion?

"The shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8
August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia."

Georgia started it. Of course it did.

Absence of a parliament has not yet created a serious move towards nationalism in England

I read, with a great deal of interest, O’Neill’s post on English nationalism, which examines a speech by David Wildgoose, from the Campaign for an English Parliament, delivered to the Liberal Democrat conference. He begins by quoting Arthur Aughey, who has observed that English nationalism is ‘a mood, not yet a movement’. It is a useful distinction. There exists, fairly commonly in England, an amorphous sense that the country has been disadvantaged by its exclusion from the devolution experiment, but it has not yet been harnessed to a popular or coherent campaign.

In his book ‘The New British Constitution’, Vernon Bogdanor contends that the United Kingdom requires a certain degree of English forbearance, in order to function smoothly. By this reading the identity, ‘English’, has to be suppressed in order that ‘Britishness’ can operate unfettered. Certainly the United Kingdom is dependent on the acquiescence of its largest ‘national’ unit, but I would argue that the English identity need not be given specific political expression, in order to flourish. In the same way that committed unionists can be proud Irishmen, those who advocate a parliament for England are no more the bearers of genuine ‘Englishness’ than countrymen who are perfectly happy for Westminster to deal with their affairs.

Bogdanor also argues that Britain’s constitution has never been, and does not need to be, precisely symmetrical, in order to command the allegiance of a majority. On this territory he is thoroughly convincing.

It is widely acknowledged that England is too populous, by comparison with other regions of the UK, to sustain a parliament without dangerously unbalancing the Union. The nationalists’ retort is simply that they don’t care. The perceived injustice embodied by England’s exclusion from the devolution settlement outweighs any consideration of the Union’s integrity. There are a range of more moderate responses to this problem of scale, whether they comprise Malcolm Rifkind’s call for a grand committee for England, or the unpopular notion of regional assemblies. Bogdanor’s view is that England’s disadvantage is exaggerated, and exists alongside countermanding advantages. He suggests that empowering local government and the resultant strengthening of local identities might soften the focus of campaigns for separate institutions.

It is difficult to disagree with either of Bogdanor's arguments. Westminster remains the national parliament and it is dominated by English members. It retains a grip on the purse strings and, thus, its decisions impact upon every level of government in every region of the United Kingdom. The locus of power remains England, the centre of employment, prosperity and culture remains London and the South East. To be truthful, the theoretical difficulties which preoccupy bloggers and commentators rarely arise in practice. There is a strong argument that the Barnett Formula is a source of some resentment and should be revisited, but it is far from clear that a needs based system would distribute money in radically different fashion.

When Lord Goldsmith delivered his review of citizenship it uncovered resounding support for the notion that Britishness is compatible with its composite national identities. In England in particular, most people recognise Britishness as something they subscribe to, at least in conjunction with another professed identity.

The contention that devolution has exposed the UK to a popular tide of English grievance, which will inevitably pull it apart, is, at worst, an exaggeration. In a recent article examining ‘Englishness and the Union in Contemporary Conservative Thought’ Richard English, Richard Hayton and Michael Kenny also found that vocal nationalist populism, personified by columnists like Simon Heffer, had failed, thus far, to ignite the collective imagination of the English public.

The absence of an English parliament has, for the time being, failed to incubate a serious nationalist movement in England. Those who claim that it has are being disingenuous.

No benefit for UUP in collapsed Assembly, but the party can improve its position by rolling out UCUNF to Stormont.

On the Guardian Politics Blog Henry McDonald raises, and dismisses, the notion that Sinn Féin might bring down the executive in order to provoke an early election. It is a possibility which I put to Fair Deal when he offered his list of communication ‘does and don’ts’ for the DUP on Open Unionism. Had the advice, ‘do hope with all your might that an Assembly election will not precede, or coincide with, the general election’, appeared on that post, it would not have looked out of place. Perhaps it should have been included, right after, ‘don’t commit to end double jobbing and then perform a u turn whenever you get nervous about the Westminster poll’.

The Democratic Unionists famed ardour for campaigning has certainly been diminished by the party’s third place finish in Europe. Peter Robinson’s plan to accumulate record numbers of Harrods’ food hall loyalty card points for a further four years is inspired, at least in part, by electoral nervousness. If the DUP leaks votes, as expected, to the TUV, and the Conservatives and Unionists can attract a sizeable middle class constituency, intent on participating in UK politics, then seats will change hands. If an Assembly election were to take place, in 2009 or early 2010, it is unlikely that Robinson would remain first minister.

Neither would an early Stormont poll suit the DUP’s Ulster Unionist rivals. The UUP’s alliance with the Conservative party is built for Westminster, but a similar deal has not yet been struck with regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Should an election be called before next May, Sir Reg Empey and his colleagues would need to decide quickly whether to extend UCUNF to cover the devolved institutions. Otherwise there could be a preposterous situation, whereby Conservative and Ulster Unionist campaign teams compete in constituencies, months before they field joint parliamentary candidates.

The most logical course of action would be to pursue an extension of the deal now. If the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists can share an agenda for Europe, and nationally, there is no reason why the two groups can not cooperate in the regional assembly and even in local government. The UUP would form the senior partner in Northern Ireland and could exercise, proportionately, a high degree of influence in steering Tory policy here.

Although consolidating UCUNF is the best option in terms of consistency, not to mention finance, for the UUP, some of the most hardened sceptics remain within the Assembly party. There is a degree of self interest there which the leadership is reluctant to challenge. In conjunction with a grassroots hardcore, who might be more comfortable cooperating with Jim Allister’s TUV, they present an obstacle to an early Stormont deal with the Tories. If it were perceived that republicans had cynically collapsed regional government, in order to get their own way, it would be difficult to run a successful moderate, secular campaign.

It is unlikely that UCUNF will be extended to regional government, voluntarily, until the Westminster dispensation begins to yield positive results. Therefore, in common with the DUP, an early Assembly election is the very last thing that Ulster Unionists should wish for. And as Fair Deal has observed, an election would not necessarily follow, should Sinn Féin leave the Executive. Let’s hope that the secretary of state doesn’t want one either.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Five jobs again for super troughing homophobe couple?

We learn that Peter Robinson's commitment that the DUP wouldn't double (triple?) job was simply nonsense. Apparently the voracious First Minister is hungry for more. Who would have thunk it? Robbo will seek to retain his parliamentary seat as well as his Stormont post. What about his wife? I'm sure the same principle applies.

Civil unionism?

At Open Unionism Turgon appeals for ‘unionist civility’ but stops short of advocating ‘unity’, contending that a monolithic unionist party, in Northern Ireland, could not possibly represent the breadth of opinion which the pro-Union electorate encompasses. It is hard to argue with any call for more ‘civility’, whatever the context, and I believe that Turgon is right to argue that unionism would not draw strength from coalescing into a single Northern Irish party.

The essence of unionism is very simple, maintenance of the United Kingdom as a sovereign state. Its Ulster variant favours the retention and strengthening of Northern Ireland’s Union with Great Britain. Necessarily such a broad political mission statement must admit a wide variety of sub categories. Unionist parties, whether they are organised nationally, or stand only in one of the UK’s constituent parts, will subscribe to different interpretations of what Britain should mean, and will offer different strategies to underpin the Union.

It is sufficient for nationalist parties to offer a template for destroying the United Kingdom, but unionist parties are constrained by weightier responsibilities. Of course they must continue to develop policy with an eye to countering centrifugal and separatist forces, but they must engage primarily in the ordinary political discourse of a state. Northern Irish parties should not be the exception.

Naturally, where there is a pervasive threat from nationalism, those who wish to preserve the UK’s integrity should cooperate. And if a party purports to be unionist, it should offer policies which strengthen, rather than undermine, the Union. But membership of the Kingdom, and British politics, cannot always be centred on constitutional issues.

The Union will be safest, when parties’ unionism’ is taken as ‘read’, and real policy differences form their electoral battleground. In Northern Ireland that lies at the end of a significant process of normalisation, but it can be started now if voters here opt to participate in the next government of the United Kingdom.

Monday, 28 September 2009

65 ways to fix broken Britain

Keith Gilmour has emailed a thought provoking list which should stimulate some debate. It consists of 65 means by which, its author contends, 'broken Britain' can be mended. Some are controversial, some are incontrovertible common sense, some are easier said than done. See what you think.

65 Ways to Fix Broken Britain

By Keith Gilmour

Recruit (and reward) whistleblowers to expose waste and inefficiency in public services

Curtail the out-of-control 'I trip, therefore I sue' compensation culture

Ditto the offence industry

Encourage everyone to spring clean their possessions and give to charity
shops anything they don't want or need

Do more government advertising on the cheap via competitions (as when members of the public submitted to the BBC homemade 'London 2012' Olympics logos far superior to the one that cost us £400,000)

Cut the bureaucratic overkill that puts many people off volunteering

Scrap extraneous new database schemes

Scrap quangos that duplicate – or invent – unnecessary work

Scrap mindlessly excessive health and safety bureaucracies

Educate the badly-behaved teen and preteen minority separately (and
more appropriately), thereby making it far easier to improve standards in
our deterrent-free schools

Stop giving aid money to corrupt, despotic regimes and give it, instead, directly to the charities that work in countries currently suffering under
such regimes

Encourage overseas aid agencies and charities to distribute charity pledge
dog tags and wristbands reminding recipients of some very basic facts –
e.g. 'Condoms Prevent AIDS; Raping Virgins Doesn't'

Wherever possible, send troops to oust brutal despots

Ditto parts of the world where species are being poached to the verge of extinction

Start charging obese adults for all healthcare (other than gastric bands)

End the wasteful and counterproductive War on Drugs that forces addicts
into open-ended crime sprees, makes the drugs more dangerous (and easier
for under-eighteens to access) and which funds other organised crime

Reduce teenage pregnancies by not rewarding them with state handouts

Scrap anti-euthanasia laws that keep terminally ill people, who no longer
wish to live, alive and in pain against their wills

Save money on surveillance programs by deporting extremists who insist
they hate us and despise our values

Avoid wasting money on monitoring and supervision programs (whilst reducing their chances of ever re-offending to zero) by never releasing
from prison people who've raped toddlers

Create a gang members register similar to the sex offenders register

Ditto a heroin-users register

Encourage prisoners guilty of particularly sickening crimes to commit
suicide, or else create for them much simpler and cheaper accommodation (that doesn't cost us £30,000 a year per inmate)

Allow homeowners to use 'any means necessary' to defend their families, their property and their possessions

Protect prostitutes from robbery and violence – and others from being trafficked and enslaved – by regulating this aspect of the sex industry

Provide supervised accommodation for the mentally ill and homeless

Tax junk food manufacturers to help cover the costs of obesity

Tax chewing gum manufacturers to cover the costs of removing it from pavements

Either stop importing foreigners to do 'the jobs we don't want to do' or
stop paying benefit addicts to do nothing

Offer experimental drugs to any seriously ill person willing to risk trying them, thereby speeding up the development of new treatments

Make it easier for infertile women (or those who'd simply prefer to skip
nine months of pregnancy) to adopt orphans from overseas

Change the organ donation system from 'opt in' to 'opt out'

Set traps to catch thugs targeting fire crews with projectiles

Ban burkas and niqabs from British streets

Build more nuclear power stations

Reverse the closure of care homes, post offices and pubs

Create more allotments to allow people without gardens to grow their
own food

Encourage micro-generation of electricity by increasing grants to

Compel takeaways to put health information/warnings on their food cartons

Provide more public drinking fountains to discourage the purchase of
bottled water

Make it cheaper and easier for would-be entrepreneurs to start up new businesses

Head off an obesity epidemic by offering young people free, healthy school meals and subsidised gym memberships

Build massive, underground water tanks near areas prone to flooding

Name, shame and penalise 'jobsworth' and 'not my job' types depressingly prevalent in the public sector

Increase street lighting and police patrols in problem neighbourhoods

Stop relying on unpaid volunteers to set up and staff youth clubs and cafes intended to prevent young people in problem areas from drifting into crime

Stop paying incapacity benefit to people who aren't actually incapacitated

Put school pupils found to be well-nigh devoid of empathy on 'watch lists' before they leave

Offer to hide tiny cameras in the homes of women fearing domestic violence

Automatically reject Islamist asylum seekers

Publicly praise philanthropists as examples to follow or better

Extend parenting classes to anyone who can be encouraged to participate

Take back the millions of pounds madly dished out to prisoners who had to empty their own bedpans every morning – and don't give them any more

Recruit teams of 'fixers' to seek out and repair potholes in roads across
Britain (instead of waiting for motorists, belatedly, to report them)

Ditto litter and graffiti – and road signs obscured by bushes or grime

Commission colourful and inspirational murals for big, blank walls

Send teams of advisers door-to-door to help homeowners make their properties more energy efficient

Identify and eradicate unnecessary paperwork currently hampering
teachers, nurses and police officers

Refurbish derelict buildings (or demolish them and return the land to

Save money on art for government offices and embassies by instead requesting donations from secondary school art departments

Increase screening programs for earlier detection of serious diseases

Use non-violent prisoners as unpaid labour on a massive scale

Reduce the number of management consultants in the public sector

Insist the Common Agricultural Policy be scrapped

Sell advertising space on money

Conservatives should keep distance from European partners' domestic agendas.

If I were to claim that the Conservative party’s approach to European Union politics causes me no anxiety, I would be lying. The broad aspiration - a cooperative Europe, based on sovereign states sharing a commitment to democracy, a common market and a common travel space, I can support unequivocally. I am certainly not an advocate of federalism.

Some of the Tories’ allies in the European Conservatives and Reformists, however, make me rather uneasy. And I worry that David Cameron will cause himself difficulties by pledging not to let the Lisbon Treaty rest, even if it has been ratified by every state by the time he becomes prime minister.

One of the more lamentable developments in the former eastern bloc, over the past number of years, has been the ascent of populist nationalism. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Tories have formed a group with some of the worst offenders. I’ve delved into the various Conservative arguments – the homophobes and racists in other European Parliament groups, the mutable alliances formed in exceptional times in order to combat a pervasive communist menace – and I have emerged unconvinced. I still believe, quite strongly, that the Latvian ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’ party is a distinctly unpleasant group. Neither do I feel that a modern, centrist party should find ultra right Polish nationalists, fired by a particularly unyielding interpretation of Catholicism, comfortable bedfellows.

An article in Comment is Free alleges that Eric Pickles defended the Latvian party in a recent Today interview, claiming their SS fetish is inspired by ‘nostalgia’. Ethno nationalists in the Baltic tend to consider compatriots, who fought alongside Germans in the Second World War, brave freedom fighters. It would be exceptionally regrettable should Conservative spokespeople find themselves contextualising populist nationalist revisionism as to the role of Nazi collaborators, in order to sustain their new parliamentary group.

The Conservatives and Reformists group has been forged, and the aim must be to expand its membership, in order that some of the less savoury aspects become less conspicuous. In the interim the British Tories should concentrate on shaping its agenda and emphasising goals shared on a European platform, rather than attempting to explain away some of their partners’ rather disgraceful domestic positions.

Why is Mandelson derided for his role in Northern Ireland? Because he listened to two sides rather than one.

It is hardly every day that one feels compelled to defend Peter Mandelson. However, when he is accused of ignorance and obnoxiousness by a purveyor of sentimental Irish American drivel its hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Labour’s ‘dark lord’.

Niall O’Dowd criticises Mandelson’s conduct as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, endorsing Bertie Ahern’s contention that he hampered the peace process.

If acknowledging the existence of a view which contradicted Republicans’ nationalist orthodoxies and recognising that Sinn Féin / IRA did not comprise a trustworthy group, comprised a road block to progress, then Mandelson erected that obstacle.

Actually the former Secretary of State helped build trust between unionists and the Labour administration. But no doubt the Irish American view is that he was guilty of encouraging ‘false consciousness’ by listening to two sides, rather than one.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Water waste of money! What is the Conservatives and Unionists position on water charges?

Some weeks ago O’Neill asked whether the Conservatives and Unionists have a policy on the Irish language. I suppose that the Ulster Unionists, as the wing of the pact involved in Assembly politics, should do some thinking in this regard.

I want to pose an even more fundamental policy question. What is the Conservative and Unionist policy on water charges?

If we examine the UUP’s latest press release on the issue, Fred Cobain suggests that Northern Ireland is ‘teetering on the brink of a punitive water tax’. It is contended that ’an open and honest debate’ might have avoided the executive’s current budget difficulties. The insinuation is that earlier action on water rates would have ensued.

I dare say that had the DUP Finance Minister admitted the extent of the black hole in Northern Ireland’s finances, some preventative forward planning might have been possible. But let’s be honest. It has been perfectly evident for some time that the money for deferred water charges would cause a shortfall.

However, the UUP’s language, ‘punitive’ and so forth, certainly suggests that it is opposed to introducing charges. Tom Elliot is another representative who has spoken out against its implementation, predictably on behalf of farmers (should the poor mites have to pay for anything?).

Is it particularly consistent to point out the problem which deferral creates yet continue to advocate deferral? Perhaps, if the party can identify other areas where the money could be saved. I doubt that it will be campaigning for a slash in health spending or cutbacks in the department of employment and learning.

I suspect, given that the Conservative Party emphasises the principles of sound money and balanced budgets, nationally, its favoured approach would be a gradual imposition of the charge. Perhaps a local Conservative might offer a view. Do the local Tories have a policy on water charges?

As to the Conservatives' partners, perhaps I’ve missed something and the UUP has articulated a meticulously logical strategy on this issue. Otherwise there’s a distinct hint of inconsistency and a whiff of reactive politics about its position.

Deferring charges was a short-termist policy, designed to give a young executive a populist boost. The UUP, to its credit, identified that the sums were not adding up. It hasn’t yet followed its logic through and developed a consistent response.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Conservatives and Unionists selection issues.

A new post, from yours truly, over at Open Unionism.

The Conservatives and Unionists joint committee, charged with producing a final list of hopefuls, will decide between candidates chosen by a twin track process. Their deliberations, it might be argued, should also fall into two categories.

First, they must identify particular circumstances in every constituency, and deduce how each personality might be expected to perform, given local peculiarities. Second, and I believe that this is particularly crucial for a new force in politics, they should consider the eighteen candidates as a ‘body corporate’. That means developing a harmonious team with a coherent message, and avoiding inconsistencies in delivery across the constituencies. It also means selecting a group which embodies the project and its ethos.

If both parties keep these considerations in mind, from the beginning of the selection process, then the committee will have an easier task, as it submits its decision to the leaders.

It's the DUP vs. Science again. Wells bangs on about Wifi.

Given that my preferred outcome for the DUP is that it should go away, its mindset forever consigned to Northern Ireland’s dark and ignorant past, I’m aware that it is rather presumptuous to add to Fair Deal’s list of communications ‘does and don’ts’. Still, I offer just one amendment, for the good of society, rather than the party political benefit of the Democratic Unionists.

Do gather the best scientific advice available and, as a rule of thumb, use it to develop public policy, unless there are very compelling overriding factors.

Don’t react to the scientific community as if they pedal some manner of dangerous voodoo and treat with innate suspicion every aspect of modernity, whilst backing up your contentions with, at best, the most threadbare evidence.

For the latest instance of a DUP representative, blinking with confusion in the modern world, attempting to crawl back into his cave and drag the rest of us with him, step forward Jim Wells.

This cretin has been campaigning, since at least 2007, against wireless internet!

Not that the MLA has the least proof that Wifi poses any risk to anyone. He is opposed to the ‘wireless smog’ on a ‘precautionary basis’.

Wells appeared on Radio Ulster this morning. A relatively enlightened decision on his part. One wonders that he’s prepared to encourage a ‘smog’ of invidious radio waves penetrating our brains.

His purpose was to spread the idea amongst the parents of primary school age children that wireless internet in the classroom carries (unspecified) health risks.

Although, the World Health Organisation advises that there is ‘no evidence’ that Wifi does any harm whatsoever.

This trifling fact he pooh poohed with the rejoinder ‘people have concerns’. Oh yes. That’ll be you Jim and a small cadre of neurotic parents who will no doubt take succour from your encouragement of ignorance.

Scientists aren’t worried (you know, the people who study such things) and nor are the school principals who view wireless technology as an indispensable part of a modern education.

Scratching away the surface of Wells’ campaign we can uncover the following underlying principle - every new thing is suspect and dangerous unless it is proven to me otherwise.

Thank god, for the progress of humanity, few people follow this precept. Regrettably a high proportion of them seem to live in Northern Ireland. Hence the DUP’s status as our largest political party.

I'll confess an interest here. I love wifi. Don't let the DUP stop society becoming wireless!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Broadway Roundabout is a farce

What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t have a good old fashioned ill informed rant about the frustrations of daily life? Don’t answer that. There are a number. I won’t let them deter me.

Is there anything that makes modern Homo sapiens angrier than driving? Don’t answer that either. There are countless worthier reasons for rage.

Still, I must let off some steam on the subject of one of Belfast’s major intersections, the new Broadway Roundabout.

I live a few minutes walk from this leviathan of tarmacadam, which was only fully opened earlier this year, after many months of traffic chaos.

Am I happy now that it’s operating?

Absolutely not!

The roundabout, purportedly fully functioning, works less efficiently than it did whenever it was festooned with cones and pock-marked with temporary traffic lights.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful piece of road design – at 9am on a Sunday morning. Without any traffic you’ll whiz unto the West Link with barely a delay. However, if you’re impressed, come back at the same time the next day!

The problem is that if its planners had sat down to devise a system in order to actively CAUSE gridlock, their blueprints could not have realised that end better than Broadway on a weekday morning.

The roundabout is split into bite sized chunks, just large enough so that each, when occupied by six cars, cannot be accessed by any more. On a typical morning they all fill up, the lights turn green and no-one can drive ANYWHERE, in ANY of the sections, because they are all full.

You’ll sit for five, six, seven changes of the lights before it’s possible to move.

I live five minutes WALK from the roundabout and it takes me between 25 – 45 minutes to access it, by car, every morning. Then I have to get to the other side.

Of course this is all part of the same masterplan which produced the West Link underpass. Yes. The one that filled up with water the first time a summer shower struck, after it was opened!

What do I want done about it? I don’t know.

Do I feel better after ranting about it? Not really.

Evidence of the potency of CU argument at Open Unionism

Over at Open Unionism Fair Deal has contributed his ‘does and don’ts’ for the DUP, as it attempts to communicate with the electorate in its position as a party of government.

There are a couple of intriguing points. I wonder if there is a tacit admission here, from a leading DUP commentator, that some of the criticisms of the party made by civic minded unionists have some validity?

“Do offer a vision for the Union as a whole and Ulster’s place within it.”

Is Fair Deal’s opening gambit. Which is rather telling, given that a ‘little Ulster mentality’, as well as indifference to national issues, and larger UK constitutional ramifications, is central to the contention that the DUP is barely a unionist party at all, in the wider sense.

In his final point FD urges ‘do recognise the Tory link has some potential’ and ‘don’t think blank repetition of Labour attacks will be effective’.

The sillier sections of the UUP, who wish to throw the Conservative deal overboard, should take note.

Bloody Sunday Inquiry delay

Nice summation from shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson.

“This inquiry has cost nearly £200million and it last took evidence in 2005. It is quite wrong for the families and soldiers involved that it should be delayed again. March 22nd is an absurd date to publish the report as it will either be in the run-up to a General Election or during the campaign period itself."

Not much to add to that. Owen has struck the metal pointy thing rather squarely on the head.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Keep it moderate. Cameron right to distance himself from Thatcherism.

The Guardian carries a story which is especially salient, given the conversation about Tories and Scottish secession, taking place below. David Cameron has distanced himself from the ideological approach to public service cuts, associated with Thatcherism, and Conservative policy in the 1980s.

Following on from yesterday’s Vince Cable piece, I had intended to write today about the perils, for the Tories, of focussing too myopically on budgetary measures. Which is not to imply, by any means, that I underestimate the centrality of economic issues in the forthcoming election, or the necessity to the UK of spending within its means.

As the Guardian article identifies, the Conservatives have won the finance argument with Labour. Gordon Brown has conceded that his government must also instigate cuts and it is not a choice between continued investment, under the present government, and a Tory regime, zealously hacking back services.

The public doesn’t need to be reassured that a Conservative government will rein in spending. It already accepts that it will prioritise balanced books. However it remains wary of the Thatcherite wing of the party using the crisis as a pretext to decimate, rather than reform, public services.

Cameron has done a good job, thus far, showing that Conservative is not shorthand for ultra liberal, free market fundamentalist. In the run-up to the election he must retain a focus on the broad basis of conservatism, and its innate sense of moderation.

Then, after the election he must govern in line with the social policy goals which he has outlined. The rewards for adhering to his centrist message will follow, in Scotland and elsewhere.

It's 'either or' for UUP in North Down. Hermon into UCUNF won't go.

Is the Irish News’ former SDLP functionary Tom Kelly starting to warm to the Conservatives and Unionists project? Doubtful. Although he appears to recognise some of the pact’s strengths, in his latest column.

He also, however, seems rather confused as to the issue of the North Down candidature and the Ulster Unionists’ dissident MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon.

“It’s difficult to see the how the unsurprising defection of Ian Parsley will positively affect the Ulster Unionist/Tory platform, especially if the plan is to run him as a Tory against Lady Hermon as an Ulster Unionist.”

If Hermon were to stand in North Down, my understanding is that it would, necessarily, be as an independent (if the UCUNF arrangement remains in place). There is no prospect of the sitting MP facing Parsley, or any other Conservative candidate, as an Ulster Unionist, under the present dispensation.

Nor is there any possibility that the Conservatives will endorse Hermon, should she perform an almighty u turn.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Cable's dance around imploding Union is just another pre-election tale of Tory apocalypse

Vince Cable may have attracted acclaim for his musings on the economy, but I would suggest that constitutional issues are not his specialist subject. Addressing a fringe event, at his party’s annual conference, the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman delivered doom laden remarks, predicting a ‘constitutional crisis’, should Conservatives win the next election, and speculating that David Cameron could preside over the demise of the Union.

Yes indeed. The Tory apocalypse is imminent. Britain will first become a hermit state at the edge of the European Union, and then dissolve, because one centrist government takes the reins from another.

We’ll return to Dr Cable’s conference remarks, as reported by the Press and Journal, a little later. But it’s worth noting that the source of the former Glasgow councillor’s anxiety was a recent trip to the Scottish Highlands. The ‘gathering storm’ of Scots’ independence is a notion, then, that Vincent conceived in tranquillity, relatively recently, inspired by three separate news stories.

First – the SNP administration is criticised by politicians in London for its mishandling of the Megrahi affair, it transpires that the Labour government by no means has ‘clean hands’ as regards Libya. Second – a referendum on Scottish independence is ‘announced’. Third – civil servants in Edinburgh are reported to be preparing for the break up of the UK. Cable feels ‘emotionally involved’.

It is surprising, given the Lib Dem’s supposed analytical abilities, that he allowed himself to become so excessively alarmed by three speculative stories. The first charts unhappiness with the SNP’s conduct which was reflected throughout the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Certainly the Labour government displayed acute hypocrisy throughout the episode, but Alex Salmond’s party turned an issue of international importance into a grandstanding piece of nationalist propaganda. Far from exemplifying centrifugal forces in action, it demonstrated a regional executive, thrown into a turbulent international ocean, far beyond its depth, with only its well worn rubber ring of ethno-nat rhetoric on which to bob up and down.

The referendum which was ‘announced’ is an SNP aspiration which is unlikely to see the light of day. If it were to be held it is extremely improbable that Scottish voters would voluntarily elect to leave the United Kingdom. Cable’s own party will oppose any legislation brought forward to advance this referendum project.

Finally, Scottish civil servants, under the tutelage of a nationalist executive are supposedly preparing for independence? I don’t think we need consign a job lot of Union Flags to EBay just yet.

But wait. Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss Vince’s apprehensions so swiftly. After all he did live in Scotland and he was involved in Glasgow politics, ‘before the emergence of nationalism as a serious political force’.

I wonder whether Cable’s nickname at school might’ve been ‘Rusty’? Because his memory appears to tend a little in that direction. During his spell as a Glasgow councillor, in the early seventies, nationalism was buoyant. In the October 1974 general election the SNP claimed eleven seats and 30% of the Scottish vote, which remains its best result, by some distance, in a Westminster poll. During his time in Glasgow, the Royal Commission recommended devolution, as a response to nationalism in Scotland. Can he really have forgotten these developments?

Would I be too cynical to suggest that there is nothing wrong with ‘Rusty’ Cable’s memory? Indeed should I go further and allege that his sudden attack of anxiety about the Union is rather contrived?

When it comes to substantiating his apocalyptic predictions, Cable’s arguments are actually pretty thin, both in the Daily Mail article, and the remarks which were reported this morning. The Conservatives MIGHT have few representatives outside England. This MIGHT cause resentment, in Scotland in particular, and perpetual clashes with an SNP administration.

There is a fairly transparent insinuation that the Tories are actually an English nationalist party and the frankly ridiculous revelation that Cable ‘hopes’ (but presumably is not convinced) that David Cameron’s intention is to hold together the United Kingdom. How this all fits together into the broader picture of ‘unfinished consequences’ of the ‘devolutionary settlement’ is a little unclear.

Is this a problem with the Conservatives or with devolution? Will the UK remain safe just so long as one of the two major parties does not achieve power?

Alistair Carmichael MP, the Liberal Democrats’ Scottish affairs spokesman, sought to substantiate his colleague’s thesis with even more outrageous assertions. A Conservative administration would effectively be an ‘English nationalist government’ he claims.

“I hope that the Conservatives, who used to be a Unionist party, will wake up to the risks of some of their rhetoric.”

A fairly bizarre statement given that Conservative rhetoric, under Cameron, has been particularly unionist. Can a unionist position render a party ‘English nationalist’ simply because its message might not be convivial to the SNP?

The Conservatives are seeking a national mandate when they go to the polls at the next general election. They form the only Westminster party which will field candidates in all four regions of the United Kingdom and they have a good chance of returning a majority of MPs from at least two of them. Although they are unlikely to top the poll in either Scotland, or Northern Ireland, these are the types of asymmetries which are unavoidable under the UK’s constitution. Conservative and Unionist representatives from either or both might well form part of the next national government.

On occasion Scottish and Welsh members have sustained a Labour majority in the House of Commons, whilst England has been nominally Conservative. Arguably, with devolved institutions reflecting separate mandates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, English voters would have a right to feel more aggrieved if this situation were to recur in the modern era. A Scottish Parliament and the two Assemblies would reflect the inclinations of their regions, whilst England would be without a body representing its unique political complexion. As supporters of the Union, Conservatives would be bound to accept the decision of the UK electorate, as a whole.

Whichever government presides at Westminster, an SNP administration in Edinburgh will certainly attempt to undermine its authority. However, with strong unionist inclinations (certainly stronger than the Lib Dems), and a wily leader, who understands the importance of oiling the interfaces between central government and devolved institutions, the Conservatives are well placed to strengthen the Union, rather than undermine it.

Opposition parties will ceaselessly attempt to narrate tales of impending Tory apocalypse; whether they involve Britain leaving the European Union, a state stripped of public services or a Union imploding with shared detestation of Eton. The electorate shouldn’t be dissuaded from its decision by baseless doom mongering.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Cooperation with Russia is possible. Terror is a great place to start.

I was introduced to Charles Crawford’s ‘Blogoir’ site through the Bloggers’ Circle initiative. Charles, a retired FCO ambassador, purports to publish the world’s first hybrid diplomatic blog / memoir.

Clearly Crawford has a deep knowledge of Russia and the post Soviet space. Although I don’t agree with all his conclusions, I read, with a great deal of enjoyment, commentary which is well informed and clearly articulated.

Today Blogoir carries a post following up on some points made during a debate about the scrapped missile shield. It is inspired, partly, by an argument I made in the comments’ zone of a previous post, in which I had challenged the perception that Putinism is merely a crude form of nationalism.

A mark of the quality of his analysis is that Charles is prepared to accept that I have a point, as has another commenter, who believes that western decision making has played a considerable part in Russia’s ‘uncooperative’ attitude to Europe and America. Charles admits of Putin,

“the practical problems Russia has faced in dealing with such sprawling new borders and all the other human and policy issues arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union have been daunting, and handled pretty fairly. The Putin period has led to much greater discipline and sense of purpose.”

So we have discovered some common ground. Whatever the merits or demerits of Putin’s regime we can agree that he showed considerable state building skill. He inherited from Boris Yeltsin a federation, falling apart at the seams, and bequeathed to his successor a strong, centralised state and a desirable, relatively uniform common citizenship.

In addition, we can agree that insensitivity to Russia’s concerns, from Nato and other western structures, caused Russian disillusionment which affects ‘cooperation’ to this day. Nato’s support for Albanian separatists in Kosovo is a particularly lamentable example.

Having conceded these common coordinates Charles launches a spirited argument that there is no incentive for Russia to cooperate with western projects, or pursue substantively better relations, on anything other than its own terms. The US can try to ‘press the reset button’, but it is not likely to change Russian attitudes.

Charles identifies pertinent foreign policy issues. The first of which is a rather old chestnut – Russia’s attitude to former Soviet states.

“formally the Russian elite accept Ukraine's and the other CIS states' independence. But because they (rightly) see 'Westernisation' as a threat to their privileged and untransparent status, they do not want Ukraine to modernise according to normal European standards. So Western support for the tendencies which want reform, transparency and modernisation becomes a 'threat to Russia's interests'”

It is a contention which deserves closer scrutiny, as regards the Ukraine in particular.

What are the aspects of ‘westernisation’ to which Russia most strenuously objects? Perhaps the foremost concern is the Ukrainian president’s desire that his country should join Nato. Then there is a large Russian speaking population in the east of the country, whose cultural rights and affinities Russia is keen to safeguard.

President Yushchenko, whose regime comprises the least popular in Europe, does not share this ambition with the majority of his countrymen. The rhetoric from anti-Russian politicians (David Miliband is an example) holds that Ukraine should be free to chart its own course in foreign affairs. If that course is to reflect the will of the majority, then it will not involve membership of Nato.

Indeed, despite their democratic, pluralist rhetoric, the US and certain members of the EU have shown little interest in listening to Russian speaking voices from the Donbass or Crimea. If western values include respect for ethnic diversity, why isn’t more concern shown for minorities which happen to favour better relations with Russia?

No doubt the annual wrangle between Moscow and Kiev over gas prices will once again erupt, this winter. Hysterical columns will accuse the Kremlin of engineering an energy crisis. By expecting payment for its resources, at market rate, Russia will be portrayed as opposed to ‘reform, transparency and modernisation’. Few analysts will ask why Ukraine should receive preferential rates whilst it continues to lambaste its neighbour.

I do not believe that rapprochement with Russia is a doomed project. I do, however, contend that it will take time before a respectful approach to Moscow begins to alleviate suspicion.

Russia’s foreign policy objectives might not coincide, flush, with ‘western’ priorities, but there are definite shared concerns, on the economy, energy and, in particular, terrorism.

In the Caucasus a fresh Islamic insurgency is claiming lives. This region forms an important geopolitical tinderbox adjacent to Central Asia and close to the Middle East. It should concern policy makers throughout ‘the west’, as well as Russia. If we want to find a common area for cooperation, combating terror would be a great place to start.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

My Assembly Week

Another quick plug for Open Unionism. The new home for unionist debate carries its first piece from a representative. DUP South Antrim MLA, Trevor Clarke, recounts his experiences at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Trevor articulates his support for relatives of IRA terror victims who are seeking compensation from Libya. No comment on Ian Paisley Junior's instrumental support for the Libyan authorities. Encouraging to note that Clarke is highlighting 'unionist cultural issues'. Given that unionists are a diverse bunch, supporting a political aim, that's a broad range of cultural issues to concern oneself with.

Friday, 18 September 2009

DUP seek university recruitment based on religion

Alex Easton and Jonathan Craig, DUP MLAs for North Down and Lagan Valley, respectively, have tabled an Assembly motion which might have sprung directly from the 1950s. They call on the Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey) “to bring forward measures to attract and ensure that students from a Protestant background are encouraged to opt for universities in Northern Ireland as their first choice rather than universities in the rest of the United Kingdom”.

Setting aside the feasibility of such ‘measures’ in the light of equality legislation (one imagines the message ‘go ye not out among them English’ thundering down, Amish style, from Free Presbyterian pulpits), what type of message does the DUP wish to send out to youngsters? From the unionist perspective, are we advising eighteen year olds not to consider the rest of the UK their home? Do we not believe that integrating with the rest of the Kingdom is an important part of our membership of it?

And why on earth should we be seeking to encourage students of a particular religion to attend a particular university? It is the Minister’s role to persuade students to attend Northern Irish universities, irrespective of their perceived background. By promoting Northern Ireland as a possible destination for prospective students from the rest of the UK, and elsewhere, Empey has taken the correct approach.

If Easton and Craig consider Queens, or the University of Ulster, bastions of Irish republicanism, they should attempt to foster persuasive, constructive unionism amongst the student body, rather than suggesting recruitment drives based on religious background.

Obama's aim is true on missile defence

Regular readers will scarcely be flabbergasted to learn that I welcome Barack Obama’s decision to scrap a controversial missile shield in central and eastern Europe. A great deal of hysterical nonsense has been written to accompany the decision, which has been presented as capitulation to Vladimir Putin, or abandonment of plucky allies, only recently freed from Russia’s yoke.

All of which rather undermines the contention that the shield, which was to include bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, was designed to prevent aggression from Iran and should not concern the Kremlin.

The original scheme was endorsed by three discredited governments, in Washington, Warsaw and Prague respectively. Despite the ‘abandoned friends’ narrative, the intention to park missile silos and radar installations on Polish and Czech territory was unpopular amongst the wider population. Now the realist approach to foreign policy is more accurately reflected in government.

It is no accident that commentators lambasting Obama for dismantling an inefficient plan, with unfortunate political implications, and replacing it with a better one, are now fulminating about President Reagan and the lessons of the Cold War. The shield had nothing to so with Iran. It was a shot across Russia’s bows and a reminder that that country could ill afford an arms race.

But however much the ranters and ravers liken modern Russia to the Soviet Union, the comparison is not germane. Nation states which are now firmly entrenched within the European Union are no more menaced by the Kremlin this morning, than before the system was scrapped. They would not have been an iota safer, had it been implemented.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Conservatives seek national mandate, as polls continue to show lead in Wales.

It is commonly asserted that, should the Conservative party win the next election, it will have no mandate, or a negligible mandate, outside England. The moral authority of the Westminster government will therefore be undermined, it is argued, and nationalism will draw strength from a Tory victory. Of course, conversely, the Conservatives might well be the only party to return MPs from all four corners of the United Kingdom.

The Guardian’s Martin Kettle reminds us that, following the next election, polls indicate that David Cameron’s party will have become the biggest party in Wales, dislodging Labour, for the first time in a century. Kettle concludes that although it is premature to describe Wales as a ‘Conservative nation’, it is no longer tenable to term it a ‘Labour nation’ either.

In Scotland Tory revival has been less marked, but although the party can claim only one in forty Westminster seats, it gained a sixth of the Scottish vote in 2005. In the Scottish parliament, where a proportional system operates, the Conservatives returned sixteen MSPs. Even under first past the post, the Tories have a number of target seats which should increase their Commons representation in Scotland. Polls are variable, but have shown up to 21% of Scots voters intend to vote Conservative at the next general election (YouGov).

In Northern Ireland, the new Conservatives and Unionists alliance has only been tested in a European poll. If a strong slate of candidates is fielded, though, and if a positive, coherent campaign is fought, Northern Ireland could well return representation to the Conservative benches.

Britain is a state of four constituent parts. Any party which is returned, with a majority nationally, has a mandate to govern the UK. However, with the greater number of MPs in two of the composite countries, and members drawn from each corner of the Kingdom, the mandate would be overwhelming, politically and morally.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Uniquely, in Northern Ireland, it can be argued that devolution settlement strengthened unionism and the 'Fifth Nation'.

The tendency to assume that devolution has begun a process which will inevitably result in the break up of the United Kingdom, Arthur Aughey characterises as ‘endism’. If its tenets have not become all pervading, they have certainly come to form a common thread in the nation’s constitutional discourse. Arthur, like Vernon Bogdanor, in his book ‘The New British Constitution’, identifies a swathe of journalists, academics and even politicians, who have succumbed to endist logic, in print. They range from nationalists, for whom the ‘inevitable’ end of Britain is an aspiration (Tom Nairn), to gloomy unionists, prescribing irreversible wrongs which have been visited on a noble constitution (John Redwood).

To the body of endist literature identified by Aughey and Bogdanor, we might add ‘A Useful Fiction’, Welsh journalist Patrick Hannan’s superficial skate across the surface of modern Britain. I note too, that Ian Jack, the columnist whose elegant prose enlivens Saturday editions of the Guardian, has written a book called ‘The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain’. I have yet to get hold of a copy, and although the title could allude to either a declinist or endist interpretation of the UK’s history, it is, at least, motioning towards the trend which identifies a state whose dysfunction is terminal. Jack is hardly an archetypal nationalist, but he has expressed his scepticism as to whether a future Conservative government could claim a mandate to govern outside England.

Although the weight of literature probably favours this endist interpretation, it is by no means unchallenged, and the rejoinders tend to be higher quality, for bucking the intellectual trend. Bogdanor’s constitutional survey argues that Britishness is a more robust concept than its detractors allow. Highlighting civic deferral to Westminster’s sovereignty, which persists in each of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, he contends that Britishness, defined by adherence to that institution, is both healthier and more organic in nature than common wisdom has understood.

The idea that Parliament embodies the common allegiance which draws together four nations, comprising one nation state, was at the heart of Richard Rose’s monograph, ‘Understanding the United Kingdom’ (1982). Rose uses the metaphor of the ‘Fifth Nation’ to describe the overarching framework of political allegiance to which citizens with diverse cultural identities can subscribe. O’Neill has argued that Rose’s image is redundant, or at least needs updated, with the advent of devolution. In a recent article I maintained that it is more relevant than ever, given the centrifugal political forces, at work in modern Britain.

Whether one favours the endist thesis which has accompanied devolution, or the unionist rejoinder, it is universally accepted that constitutional change has posed a new set of challenges to the integrity of the United Kingdom. It was introduced, largely, in response to nationalist claims, in Scotland and Wales. Although its aim was to neutralise those claims, there can be little doubt that, ten years on, few commentators contend that devolution has strengthened the position of those nations / regions within the Union.

Bogdanor is right to argue that devolution, as established in the late nineties, has yet to ‘bed down’ as a constitutional norm. But whilst unionists in Scotland and Wales might recognise the benefits of regional institutions, and accept the new context in which their unionism must operate, it is rarely asserted that devolution has actively reinforced the UK as an integral unit.

In Northern Ireland, where devolution was negotiated under the auspices of the Belfast Agreement, and instigated by the subsequent Northern Ireland Act, unionist attitudes are rather different. Indeed, for this UK region, where devolution saw, in parallel, the removal of an irredentist claim by a neighbouring sovereign state upon British territory, and acceptance, by Irish nationalists, of Northern Ireland’s right to self-determine, as a unit, there is a plausible argument that unionist confidence has been buoyed, and the Union with Great Britain strengthened, by reintroduction of a measure of self-government at Stormont. With a concerted attempt to normalise politics vis-á- vis the rest of the United Kingdom, such an outcome is at least achievable, if unionists here are prepared to adopt a constructive outlook.

In his biography of David Trimble, whose Ulster Unionists played the lead role in negotiating the Belfast Agreement from a pro-Union perspective, Dean Godson notes that the UUP leader was able to sell devolution to his followers as part of a wider UK settlement. To a degree, after Scotland and Wales had chosen the route of self-government in 1997 referenda, Trimble could claim that he was seeking to ensure that Northern Ireland received the same rights as other, non English regions of the United Kingdom. It was a narrative of standardisation which was not available to other pro-Union devolutionists, campaigning for Assemblies in Edinburgh or Cardiff.

In addition, the idea of devolved institutions was not novel to unionists in Northern Ireland, as it was to those in Scotland and Wales. Not only had a staunchly unionist, sub national parliament operated just a generation previously, but it was remembered with a degree of nostalgia by precisely the section of society whose allegiance to the UK was purportedly the strongest. In seeking to re-establish devolved government in Northern Ireland, Trimble was working with the grain of unionist inclination, rather than, for the most part, against its better judgment.

Whilst, when they weighed the case for devolved government in Scotland and Wales, unionists might have fretted that their countries’ membership of the United Kingdom could weaken, the mere establishment of institutions caused fewer unionists in Northern Ireland anxiety. Power sharing mechanisms, a consultative role for the Republic of Ireland government, symbolic issues such as prisoner release and the dissolution of the RUC were the prime concerns of the Good Friday Agreement’s ‘no’ campaign, rather than structural aspects of the UK constitution. Unionist scepticism about devolution, as a concept, was a hurdle cleared in 1921.

In Northern Ireland, unionists decided whether David Trimble had, as he claimed, achieved a strong constitutional result for unionism, and weighed their findings against the prospect of terrorist releases, republicans in government and a restructured police force.

As regards the constitutional argument, pro Agreement unionists had a strong case. The principle of consent is at the heart of the devolved settlement; accepted by the British and Republic of Ireland governments, as well as each of the signatory parties. The southern constitution no longer lays claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland, which it previously considered national territory. Unionists share power, but are guaranteed to form the majority of any executive. Although the Republic’s government is permitted a consultative role, it is subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly and its remit was successfully restricted to a handful of areas.

Bew et al, and other commentators, have argued, convincingly, that Trimble achieved a functional success for unionism. That the UUP leader chose to prioritise constitutional issues, to the exclusion of more emotive and symbolic areas, has not served to dissipate the original structural soundness of the deal which he struck. Powersharing was subsequently undermined by Sinn Féin recalcitrance and the Labour government’s flexible attitude to republican commitments, but the Belfast Agreement remains the basis by which Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK can be most effectively secured.

Throughout the Kingdom, devolution is now firmly established. Without precipitating a constitutional crisis, it is difficult to envisage Westminster unilaterally withdrawing sovereignty which it has delegated to Stormont, Holyrood or Cardiff Bay. In common with other unionists throughout the UK, proponents of the Union, in Northern Ireland, had better resign themselves to working within the confines of a devolved settlement, for the foreseeable future. Their task is to reconcile the existence of self-government with a strong and flourishing ‘fifth nation’ overarching the UK’s component parts.

Northern Ireland, where the apparatus of devolution has been shaped by, and favours, unionist concerns, should be seen as a unique case. The centrifugal forces of nationalism, it can be contended, have been dissipated, rather than strengthened, by the Agreement which re-established a Stormont Assembly. The health of unionism, it can plausibly be argued, is dependent on embedding institutions and improving them, rather than undermining their basis, or pruning their functions (at least in the short to medium term).

There is no longer, it is true, a single set of rights or entitlements associated with British citizenship. Our quasi federal constitution has put an end to such an aspiration. It is, however, possible to identify core political rights and entitlements associated with common allegiance to the United Kingdom Parliament. For the health of that institution, and the benefit of its citizens, it is desirable to strengthen and extend that core. In so doing, we are underpinning the ‘Fifth Nation’ which Rose propounds.

It is important that in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, representation at Wesminster continues to carry real meaning, despite the devolution of areas of responsibility to regional institutions. The ability to help elect, or dispense with, a government is a case in point. Haltingly, this entitlement is being extended to voters in Northern Ireland. It is a project which graphically illustrates the substance, and the strength, of the ‘Fifth Nation’ concept.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Educated discourse unlikely with the minister in charge

On Open Unionism O’Neill offers an excellent post on education in Northern Ireland. He argues that debate has become fixated upon the selection question to the exclusion of broader issues.

It is hard to disagree with his thesis that an education system’s primary objective must be to help every child reach his or her potential. O’Neill believes we must be more open-minded as to the means by which this can be achieved.

I cannot approach the level of specialist knowledge which O’Neill brings to this topic, although I wonder if the system in Finland (to cite his own example), where there is a small gap between the top achievers and those at the bottom, fosters excellence amongst the most academic children, or exhausts its resources targeting the mean?

Doubtless, as O’Neill contends, there is a balance to be struck. Clearly, striving to raise levels of attainment at the lower end of the ability range is a noble aim. Whether it is worth some sacrifice at a higher echelon, or whether that trade off is avoidable, are questions which deserve prolonged discussion.

O’Neill does not think that the political debate in Northern Ireland around education has been conducted at the level which is required. I would tend to agree. And the appalling performance of the minister suggests that more constructive discourse cannot be expected in the foreseeable future.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Can Mandy save Labour? Early reaction to public spending 'relaunch'.

Common wisdom holds that Lord Mandelson is the most powerful figure in the current government, since he returned from political wilderness in an attempt to save Gordon Brown. He has been charged with re-formulating Labour’s public spending message, and to that effect he appeared on the Today programme this morning and delivered a keynote speech this afternoon.

Andrew Sparrow has done a good job of assessing Mandelson’s success, or lack of it, in tackling both tasks. First the business minister failed to outmanoeuvre the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, who has consistently highlighted the incongruity of the Prime Minister’s ‘Tory cuts vs. Labour investment’ mantra, over a number of months. Point out a clear instance where Brown used this formulation, Mandelson challenged, ten minutes later Robinson did.

Second, the public spending speech was a proficient piece of politicking, notable for the resurgent New Labour language which it employed. Iain Dale believes the government is still not being honest about the ‘c’ word. And Liam Murray suggests that if cuts are going to be necessary, perhaps it’s easier to work with the ideological grain.

Assembly to debate human rights car crash

Although the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s recommendations are effectively dead in the water, the resultant outflow of public monies is far from being stemmed just yet. Indeed the NIO launches a public consultation on the proposals this autumn, despite the absence of any cross party, or cross community consensus by which they might proceed.

Therefore the intervention made by two Ulster Unionist MLAs, Danny Kennedy and Tom Elliott, who have put down a motion (scroll down) which should ensure that the pertinent issues are debated at Stormont, is particularly welcome. The wording they choose is instructive. It reflects the view, supported by the Secretary of State, that the NIHRC’s report falls outside the remit prescribed for it by the Good Friday Agreement.

“This Assembly considers the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State “A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland” as incompatible with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement; notes with concern that the report’s proposals would undermine the democratic role and authority of this Assembly and the Parliament of the United kingdom; and urges the Secretary of State not to implement the report’s recommendations.”

It’s worth reiterating, in addition, David Adams’ point that the Agreement did not, in fact, suggest a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, much less require one.

Open Unionism - exciting weblog launches

I’m delighted to have contributed the first blogpost to an exciting new addition to the political blogosphere.

Open Unionism is a space for the discussion of ‘new perspectives on unionism’ and it will host some of the best writing from unionist bloggers, commentators and representatives. In addition ‘open’ submissions will be welcomed from unionist contributors and others, across the political spectrum. It is a collaborative project and the brainchild of the excellent blogger, bobballs.

The clue is in the website’s title, but Open Unionism intends to offer the widest possible survey of pro-Union debate and opinion. In the first post, with an eye to the new Assembly session, I envisage an Executive based on voluntary coalition, and an Assembly focussed on integration.

Expect some dissenting voices.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

On your bike. Salmond plots to tax cyclists.

Scotland on Sunday reports that the Scottish Executive is considering extending road tax to cyclists. Bizarrely an 'Action Plan' commissioned by the SNP led administration, which aspires to ensure 10% of journeys in Scotland are made by bike, suggests that their owners should make an annual contribution to road maintenance.

The Green Party, which operates a 'confidence and supply' alliance with nationalists in Scotland, and supports Salmond's separatist ambitions, has already expressed its dismay. Road tax is increasingly viewed as a means by which to encourage more environmentally friendly forms of travel.

Scotland might be an exception, but in the rest of the UK agricultural vehicles are exempt from road tax, yet form a regular presence on public roads. I would suggest that they exact more wear and tear and exasperate other road users more frequently than cyclists.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Parsley joins Conservatives - confirmed.

The Conservatives have issued a press release welcoming his arrival:

The Conservatives are delighted to announce that Councillor Ian Parsley has resigned from the Alliance Party and joined our Party.

Tim Lewis, Chairman of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland, said:

“We are delighted to welcome Ian to our Party. Ian is determined to continue his hard work on North Down Council where he will sit as a Conservative. This move once again shows the growing appeal of the Conservatives throughout Northern Ireland.”

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson said:

“The mood for change in Northern Ireland is very strong. I am delighted that Ian Parsley, who is a rising star of the new generation of Northern Ireland politicians, has decided to join David Cameron’s Conservative Party in order to help bring Northern Ireland into mainstream UK politics.”

Commenting on his move, Ian Parsley said:

“Having given significant thought to the future of Northern Ireland I came to the conclusion that, with a General Election pending, the best means of delivering a shared future and a genuinely new type of politics would be through David Cameron’s Conservative Party.”

Parsley to join Conservatives and Unionists

Slugger picks up on a newspaper story that Ian Parsley is set to defect to the Ulster Unionists. The Alliance European election candidate promises a comment later in the day, but observes that the report contains 'substantial inaccuracies', on his blog.

There are inaccuracies and inaccuracies however. If Parsley joins the Conservatives and Unionists, and I believe it will be the Conservative party which he is likely to favour, after taking a job with Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, then he becomes the most significant defection yet. He's young, articulate, moderate and would make a great parliamentary candidate for North Down.

In addition, because he is named after a foodstuff, he is very much my two and a half year old niece's favourite politician.

Update: Parsley has claimed that he has 'no plans to switch' (according to a BBC report). However he also said he would consider over the weekend whether his new job made membership of Alliance 'untenable'. And the BBC's political reporter, Stephen Walker, claims to have seen an email which reveals Parsley has been assessed as a potential Conservative and Unionist candidate.

Further update: Ian has now announced officially his departure from Alliance. He will remain a councillor in North Down, taking the Conservative designation, as I indicated earlier.

Not an especially slick defection, but at least now the deed is done.

Conservatives must not treat defence as untouchable

The Times reports that the Conservative leadership is planning to review its commitments to defence spending, a prospect which ConHome believes will ‘unnerve’ many of its readers. Although suggestions that shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, has differences with the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, are a legitimate source of concern for Tory supporters, it would be neither unreasonable, nor unwise, for a Conservative treasury to consider cuts to the defence budget. Despite Britain’s entanglement in Afghanistan, perhaps even because of it, substantial savings are possible.

The former shadow home secretary, David Davis, has, for some time, maintained that the UK’s nuclear deterrent should be up for discussion. A Conservative government had been expected to remain committed to replacing Trident, the nuclear submarine system, at a cost of £20 billion. It now appears that other options will be investigated, as part of a Strategic Defence Review, should the Tories form the next government.

There is, I think, a feeling amongst Conservatives that their instinct should be to protect and enhance the armed forces. However, if David Cameron insists that other frontline services can be delivered more efficiently, then why should defence be an exception? And if a Conservative government intends to adopt a more cautious approach to foreign affairs that its predecessor, surely that policy is compatible with carrying a less combat ready military?

British forces are in Afghanistan, and whilst they remain, they must be properly resourced, but there is a strong argument to suggest that the army needs to fight smarter, rather than harder in Helmand and elsewhere. In this month’s ‘Prospect’ Stephen Grey writes persuasively that intelligence and politics are being neglected, with the result that an increasingly inefficient campaign is being fought. His analysis directly contravenes Fox’s insistence that the problem lies with government, rather than the army.

Apart from the voices which advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a strong constituency which believes a smaller, more realistic, campaign is necessary, tailored to the country’s unique circumstances. Rather than ‘mowing the lawn’ or fighting expensive battles to hold, briefly, a particular fort, a smaller presence would concentrate on analysing tribal allegiances and a counter insurgency strategy based on local considerations.

If a Conservative government took power without taking cognisance of the range of options on military spending and Afghanistan, it would be abrogating its duty.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Liam Fox won't be beaten by the police for his conservative politics, activists in Georgia are less fortunate

Liam Fox should spare a thought for his fellow conservatives in Georgia.

The shadow defence secretary wrote an article marking the anniversary of war in South Ossetia which sent a strong message of support to President Saakashvili.

However if Fox belonged to the Conservative party in the Caucasian state, he might have a different perspective, because the regime in Tbilisi has a rather heavy handed approach to opposition politics.

During a presidential visit to the town of Telavi police are alleged to have broken into the party offices and beaten up three activists. Thankfully, for Fox, similar incidents are rather rarer at Millbank.

(H/T Carl Thomson)

Rights body a dismal, dishonest failure

Opponents of the NIHRC’s project to implement its recommendations for a Bill of Rights can be assured that its efforts are going nowhere. Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, has already observed that the commission exceeded its remit and that it produced an untenable report. The Conservative party has put on record its scepticism about the need for legislation exclusive to Northern Ireland. If it forms the next government, it favours including any rights which might be specifically relevant in a UK wide Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

On the issue of a Northern Ireland bill, reason is winning. Which is perhaps why Monica McWilliams, whose £70,000 per annum salary is dependent on the tax payer, is growing increasingly shrill. David Cameron might be intent on subjecting members of parliament to a pay cut, but public money is better spent paying representatives, mandated by the electorate and required to work on behalf of their constituents, rather than funding a quango which operates as a quasi-political pressure group.

All of which contributes to the frustration that David Adams, amongst others, feels when the Chief Commissioner continues to peddle blatant falsehoods in order to advance the NIHRC’s agenda. The journalist has written an excellent piece in the Irish Times entitled ‘You expect more from a Human Rights body’ and he displays a palpable sense of exasperation at the incorrigible nature of a commission which is, after all, effectively composed of public servants.

You would indeed expect more from a human rights’ body, but more pertinently you are entitled to expect honest discourse from a commission which is funded by the state. Monica McWilliams is intent on acting like the head of a particularly obstreperous NGO, rather than an employee of the tax payer, tasked by the government with the discharge of a set of designated duties.

Adams is quite correct to point out that the Belfast Agreement neither decreed that there should be a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, nor did it express a preference for one. Many interpretations have been attributed to a document famous for its ‘constructive ambiguity’, but the idea that it prescribed special rights legislation for Northern Ireland is among the most fallacious. It merely established a commission charged with investigating the issue and in so doing, regrettably, provided McWilliams with a job.

Even if the NIHRC had been assigned the task of drafting a mandatory bill the inclusion of social and economic aspirations, which are properly the prerogative of elected politicians, would have fallen outside its remit. All the relevant issues which actually are specific to Northern Ireland, rights surrounding abortion, freedom of Assembly, sectarianism and so forth, the commission blithely ignored. It has been a dismal failure and it has actually strengthened the case that any special rights provision for this region can be appended to a UK wide act.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Robinson attempts to go widescreen, but betrays narrow vision of unionism.

Yesterday Peter Robinson delivered an address at an event organised to ask ‘how can devolved government work for citizens?’. The DUP leader’s speech was called ‘Making Devolution Work’. Jack McConnell also made a contribution, which I have not read, and, therefore, cannot comment upon. The former Scottish First Minister spoke on the benefits of devolution at Holyrood and his remarks have remained largely unreported.

However, from a unionist perspective, there is certainly a significant omission from Robinson’s analysis. Although he takes a relatively wide look at devolution in Northern Ireland, and its workings, he does not attempt to place it in a wider UK context. How have the new devolved institutions effected the integrity of the nation and the internal arrangements by which it is governed?

We have references to the ‘real benefits of devolution and the dangers of Direct Rule’, and ‘unionists’ controlling their ‘own destiny’, but there is no allusion to unionism as a Kingdom wide phenomenon, or the larger conundrums with which it must tussle.

If, as has been speculated, this speech represents the DUP’s attempt to construct a unionism which answers civic arguments and meets challenges posed by the Conservative / UUP pact, then the philosophical scaffolding which might support any new strategy already looks distinctly rickety. Surely any genuinely unionist survey of devolution and its future prospects, would include an assessment of the larger constitutional issues which it raises for the United Kingdom? Far from confronting such matters in his speech, Robinson gives no indication that he recognises they even exist.

Vernon Bogdanor’s ‘The New British Constitution’ is a book which does a fine job of describing what he regards as the contours of a new and evolving constitutional settlement in Britain. Although parliamentary sovereignty still forms the underlying principle of the UK constitution, Bogdanor argues that, in fact, devolution has fundamentally altered the nature of power, which still formally resides in the House of Commons. Britain is already functioning as a quasi-federal state, in the author’s opinion, and the Human Rights Act, which is exempt from the doctrine of implied repeal, has many of the characteristics of codified constitutional law.

Having examined the transformative effect of devolution on UK institutions, and described the constitutional difficulties which are raised, Bogdanor attempts to reconcile devolution with continuing Union. He approaches his task mindful of the many ‘endist’ critiques which have proliferated since Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each acquired some degree of ‘home rule’.

The West Lothian question and the associated matter of special arrangements for England, the author does not consider fatal. Although there is an argument that resentment might accrue, given the rights of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh MPs to vote on devolved matters for which Westminster legislation only applies to England, English MPs still comprise a vast majority in the Commons.

There were asymmetries within the British constitution prior to devolution and there are asymmetries now that devolution has been introduced. Until a more serious brand of nationalism manifests itself in England, we must not insinuate popular disillusionment where none exists. Under direct rule unpopular provisions could often be imposed across the regions, where they enjoyed no popular support. There is a much lesser chance that Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs could help impose upon England, measures which it does not support. Britain was always a ‘union state’ as opposed to a ‘unitary state’ Bogdanor argues.

I happen to agree with the author’s contention that devolution need not be incompatible with a strong and confident Union, although I believe that at times he underestimates the profound nature of the problems which Labour’s approach to constitutional change has created.

The broader point is that unionism, worth the description, should be aware of the difficulties which devolution entails for the Union and at least attempt to acknowledge them. In the DUP’s narrative there is rarely an indication that it considers itself part of a broader pro-Union movement, beyond Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson’s speech, which deals directly with the effects of devolution, is no exception. It is preoccupied with ‘unionism’ as an Ulster phenomenon, opposed to, though prepared to work with, Irish nationalism. Given the broad swathe of subject matter which the DUP leader’s address purported to deal with, it was disappointingly narrow in scope.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Save Election Night Campaign

In Northern Ireland we've always had to wait until the day after a General Election before the results are counted. But fortunately, like the rest of the nation, we've been able to watch results come in from the rest of the UK throughout the course of Thursday night / Friday morning. The first declaration is always an exciting moment, although a safe Labour seat in Sunderland usually seems to take the honours.

Election night is an occasion of high drama and popular engagement with the political process. Watching the coverage is a national ritual, even for those whose interest in politics is only piqued once every four or five years.

The Sunday Times has suggested that almost a quarter of local authorities may, at the next election, end up holding their count on the Friday morning. This would be a retrograde step, out of kilter with the information age in which we live. It would also serve to increase public detachment from politics.

Jonathan Isaby has started a campaign in order to 'Save General Election Night'. It features a Facebook Group. Please join, in order to help to save a cultural and political institution.

If you can't beat em join em?

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has delivered a speech entitled ‘Making Devolution Work’ at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. ‘Hand of History’ has the full transcript.

At first inspection it appears that Robinson has elected to counter his opponents’ arguments on the dysfunctional nature of the current Executive by conceding some of their core points.

Thus we have a section which the DUP clearly intends to be interpreted as its commitment to bring the SDLP and UUP ‘in from the cold’.

The Democratic Unionists’ leader also states his preference for weighted majority voting, whereby a requirement for 65% support in the Assembly would replace the cross community voting mechanism.

This would effectively end the mutual veto exercised by the DUP and Sinn Féin, which was negotiated at St Andrews. It would also supersede requirements for community designation which presently entrench formally the communal basis of power sharing.

Is Robinson floating such ideas merely because he knows they are undeliverable, or will there be further developments as policing and justice comes to fruition?

Certainly the notion that a chat with the First Minister, prior to Executive meetings, would address the issue of UUP and SDLP participation is fanciful. The speech requires thorough examination, but my immediate instinct is that the DUP is engaged in some repositioning, with an eye particularly keenly trained on the Ulster Unionists.

Wine sippers, vodka sluggers, beer quaffers and some comparative culture

The Humble Economist has made my day by posting on the topic of the Polish Beer Lovers’ Party (PPPP). The group was formed in the early nineties, by the satirist Janusz Rewinski, with the declared aim of encouraging Poles to drink beer rather than vodka. It won 16 seats in the 1991 election and although it has since dissolved, its former members can take heart from the buoyant state of the Polish beer industry.

Ironically, given the perception that many of Britain’s health problems are fuelled by a fondness for beer, in much of northern and eastern Europe its consumption is viewed as a healthy life choice. Three Thousand Versts’ medical team confirms that vodka drinking is statistically more likely to result in alcoholism and it is more probable that the spirit will contribute to digestive problems, due to its acidity.

In Russia, Ukraine, and indeed Poland, beer is popular amongst young people and ‘beerhalls’ have become trendy venues. Admittedly, it is also drunk throughout the day, from breakfast time, as if it were a soft drink. The ‘vodka belt’ clearly hasn’t achieved instant success in its attempts to curb alcoholism by edging towards a beer drinking culture.

Still, there’s something to be said for the Humble Economist’s view that beer drinking societies need not necessarily exhibit more problems with alcohol than societies in which wine is the tipple of choice. He advocates lowering the legal drinking age to 16 for licensed premises, an arrangement which seems to work in Holland. The idea would be to encourage teenagers to become acquainted with alcohol in a controlled setting, rather than, presumably, on a park bench.

It is a seductive thought that 16-18 year olds, policed by responsible landlords, might choose to learn the art of sophisticated conversation whilst growing accustomed to the subtle pleasures of half a bitter. However, with a pint in a pub costing upwards of £3, I’m not sure that the plan would prove effective, on its own.