Monday, 5 October 2009

Despite 'Tory Apocalypse' narratives, conference demonstrates the Union is at the heart of the Conservative agenda

Following Vince Cable’s contribution to the genre, Comment is Free carries a further instalment of ‘Tory Apocalypse’ fiction, timed to coincide with the party conference. Because Scots’ nationalists don’t like Conservatives, the tale is told, and because a Conservative government would be obliged to seek cuts, the UK is bound to break up, should the party win a general election.

You are, no doubt, familiar with the fantasy; the party of Union presiding over the Union’s untimely demise. It rests upon the premise that a Cameron administration would not prioritise the integrity of the United Kingdom, as it formulates policy, and it assumes that a Tory government would pursue cuts as zealously as its opponents claim.

It is my suspicion that, in practice, a centrist Conservative treasury will economise less fiercely than the party itself cares to admit. There will be cuts, as there are already under Labour, and there will certainly be a radical change in emphasis for public services, but don’t be surprised if George Osborne’s fiscal scythe, in actuality, resembles more closely a pair of pruning shears, despite the current government’s ominous warnings.

As to the notion that, regardless of Cameron’s professed unionism, he will not prioritise defending the Union, it represents another flimsy premise. The Tories' leader continues to emphasise the necessity of improving relationships with the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. He is intent upon increasing the regularity and quality of communication between London and all the devolved institutions.

Whether he can achieve his professed end, against the backdrop of Scottish and Northern Irish executives intent on attritional relationships with Westminster, we will, in time, discover. But a government which thinks carefully about the Union, and allows unionist inclinations to colour its policy decisions, is less likely to inflict unintentional damage upon the United Kingdom than the current incumbents.

The Conservative leader has already taken risks in order to emphasise the Kingdom wide nature of his party. A low key, soft pro-Union stance would be more than sufficient to reassure voters animated by constitutional issues. His party could coast into government without seriously attempting to increase its presence in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Yet this week’s conference prominently features Sir Reg Empey, with whom Cameron has built an explicitly unionist alliance. He will address the main hall on Thursday, just hours before the leader’s speech. Modern British governments, whilst nominally reiterating their commitment to Northern Ireland, have been reluctant to include the province in the mainstream of UK politics.

It is rather an appropriate metaphor that this year the UUP leader has not been consigned to fringe events and will, instead, speak at conference proper. It corresponds precisely with the aims of the UCUNF project – bringing Northern Ireland, long at the margins, to the centre of UK politics. It also, of course, demonstrates Cameron’s commitment to the entirety of the Union.

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