Hastening the end of the Union?

Andy Mycock
19 October 2009

As delegates decanted from Manchester recently, many will have reflected on what they view as a successful conference. The gathering, the biggest seen for a long time, contributed to the on-going rebranding and definition of ‘modern Conservatism'. The conference also proved instructive for those who seek to understand how the Conservatives will approach issues of citizenship, identity and constitutional reform. And what the last five days has highlighted is that Conservatives, progressive or traditionalists alike, have little time for or comprehension of the complexities, dilemmas and subtleties of post-devolution politics in the UK. The conference instead revealed a party which remains Anglo-centric in its political outlook and language.

In his keynote address David Cameron again stated his commitment to the defence of the Union, claiming he would never do anything to put it at risk. However the view that emerged from the conference is one which is confused, often contradictory and likely to further undermine the cohesion of the UK. The Conservatives gave scant attention to issues linked to constitutional matters either in the main debating hall or at fringe events. The only session scheduled in the main conference hall which explicitly dealt with the Union had representatives from Scotland and Wales, plus Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Empey's party is now again formally linked to the Conservatives, even though the memory of the previous connection, from the 1920s until the 1970s, is a bitter one for many Catholic nationalists.

The promotion of ‘Britishness' in Northern Ireland is set against a Good Friday Agreement which explicitly acknowledges the equal legitimacy of its two traditions. Owen Paterson, Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, claimed that the Conservatives were the only political party who campaigned in all four nations, yet it was instructive that the session was mis-titled ‘Great Britain' rather the ‘United Kingdom'. Although the Conservatives claimed to seek to build ‘a stronger union' and ‘a greater Britain', it was not felt necessary to provide representation for England, thus suggesting that the quasi-colonialist Thatcherite view of Anglo-Britishness still shapes the Conservative thinking.

During the conference, the Party avoided discussion of the central plank of their constitutional reform platform, namely English votes for English Laws. This is presented as solution to the vacuum created by New Labour radical constitutional programme, the West Lothian or English Question, whereby power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not England. David Mundell, the Conservatives' only Scottish MP, described such reforms as ‘sensible proposals' to give English MPs equitable powers of decision-making as those afforded to the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved assemblies.

Convincing arguments have been made against such moves, highlighting that it will simply intensify the current constitutional dilemmas without solving key issues of devolution of power in England. Indeed the constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, recently described Conservative plans as ‘profoundly dangerous to the future of the United Kingdom'. Such moves will also Anglicise Westminster, further cementing the view of many outside England that it is an institution which primarily deals with English issues. This would be further underlined by proposals to reduce the number of MPs in Westminster and to redraw constituency boundaries. These reforms will disproportionately benefit the Conservatives, increasing the return of English Conservative MPs whilst also diluting the number of MPs from Scotland and Wales.

Furthermore, whilst the strong Eurosceptic language adopted by the Conservatives this week may play well in England, it does not chime with a greater sense of Europhilia in the other nations of the UK. The continued attack on the function and contribution of the European Union merely highlights the extent to which many outside England feel they differ in their national political values. Moreover, continued calls for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty provides convenient ammunition for a SNP which questions why the Conservatives seek a referendum on Europe, but oppose one on Scottish independence.

This apparent blindness to distinctions in debates about citizenship and identity were further highlighted in the session on education by Michael Gove where he asserted that a Conservative government would ensure schools teach a proper narrative of British history. Gove failed to understand that devolution has meant that such promises are empty. The SNP-led government in Scotland has sought to utilise the history curriculum to promote Scottish patriotism at the expense of its British counterpart.

Nationalists of all hues across the UK view the likely succession of the Conservative to power with a mixture of glee and anticipation. They believe that citizens across the UK, including England, will become increasingly susceptible to the proclaimed political, economic and social benefits of the independence. The SNP in particular have already begun to lay the grounds for conflict with the ‘English' Conservative party which will draw heavily on a narrative of reductive nationalism founded on the conflation of the political and cultural values of ‘Toryness' and Englishness.

On recent evidence, the Conservatives appear keen to make the case for those seeking to break-up the Union. They increasingly seem intent on reducing themselves to an English core and appear prepared to endanger the Union they profess to defend in their pursuit of power. Indeed a survey of 144 Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates published in July this year, 46% declared they are comfortable about Scottish independence. They may need to soon engage in a further rebranding and finally declare the Unionist dimension defunct.

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