Tory Conference: the first flickers of the Unionist fightback.
This party conference demonstrated that the party leadership have finally begun to take seriously the separatist threat north of the border.
Even if you spent all four days at conference, you could have missed it.
As you wended your way through the drink-filled receptions, corporate-sponsored stands and the occasional fringe event, you might not have noticed any change on the previous year. But if you attended the right events and listened to the right people, something was clear. For the first time since the devolution referendums in 1998, the Conservative Party is starting to consider seriously its role in the defence of the Union.
This wasn’t in Cameron’s conference speech – the current Scottish leadership elections meant that the risk of Cameron inadvertently appearing to support a particular candidate was too great. But it is clear that the looming prospect of a referendum on the continued existence of the UK has sharpened the minds of the leadership.
Cameron’s unionist credentials shone through on several occasions. For example, it is telling that one of the first billed items in the main hall was called “A United Kingdom”, where Annabel Goldie distinguished herself with a passionate defence of Scotland’s place within the UK.
At the Northern Ireland Conservatives reception, Owen Paterson reaffirmed the party’s commitment to developing a viable political presence in the province.
The Scottish leadership hustings was, by the standards of modern party conferences, positively electrifying. For the first time in a while, the word ‘unionist’ has begun to reclaim its place at the conference of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
For all this, there’s still a long way to go. Since losing the devolution referendums in 1998 the Tories have been rather adrift on the core constitutional issue of the Union. Cameron, an ardent unionist himself, has three different types of Conservative attitude to overcome if he’s to restore the party’s formidable unionist credentials.
First, he has to deal with the radical devolutionaries, the federalists, and the other assorted pseudo-unionist fifth columnists within the ranks of the party.
These are the people who, while describing themselves as ‘unionists’, advocate the continual weakening of the British state. They have had most of the running in what debate there has been around the union for a while, and it is about time serious effort was put into countering them.
The threat of these people is three-fold.
First, they are often more than willing to engage in attacks on other, more integrationist unionists, which can make the party appear divided and put people off. Second, their message is fundamentally pessimistic about the UK, and does much to sap the fighting spirit of others. Third and perhaps most seriously, there’s a chance that a radical devolutionary like Murdo Fraser could actually try to split the Conservative Party up.
The second group Cameron has to deal with are the Little Englanders. These are the people who make the arguments that the union should break up either because England has to pay for it, Scotland votes Labour, or both.
There is something fundamentally distasteful about advocating the partition of the country for electoral gain, but this group of (usually hard-right) anti-unionist Conservatives pose a serious threat. They can whip up English grievances over the union’s finances and could well prevent the party from uniting around the ‘Yes to the UK’ referendum campaign in 2014.
The Tory Right harbours enough ill-will towards Cameron that the risk of their trying to knife him at the expense of the country can’t be entirely ruled out.
The third group is a collection of sufferers of two similar conditions – apathy and defeatism. The great bulk of Conservatives are instinctively pro-UK, even in England where unionism is not a day-to-day concern. But since devolution there has been this inevitable sense that the tide of history is somehow against them.
They’ve seen nationalists claim ever increasing powers for the devolved administrations; they have been glutted with pessimistic editorials about the fate of the nation. Many of the younger generation cannot really remember a time before we were reduced to one MP in Scotland, or when we regularly used our party’s full name: Conservative and Unionist.
It is this constituency that Cameron will really have to win over if he is to have any chance of winning over the country. He needs to drive home to the Conservative rank and file that, for the first time since the 1920s, the existence of the United Kingdom is under threat. He then needs to give them reasons to care.
Cameron is at his best when he is delivering positive, visionary messages. If the union is to survive the 2014 referendum, he’ll need one.
It is vital that he starts to craft it now, and directs it at his own rank and file. The task of enthusing Conservative activists about the defence of the UK can’t be left to the start of the campaign – we need our foot soldiers ready.
This party conference demonstrated that the party leadership have finally begun to take seriously the separatist threat north of the border. Moving forward, it is vital that they begin to transform the Conservative Party into a campaigning machine fit for the fight.
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