This page, which was written long before the 2010 General Election, will be updated very soon. 25/11/2010
This page, together with the page on Identity and Voting is written as part of an introduction to normal politics. It is designed to help anybody who is from Northern Ireland, whether a political activist or ordinary voter, who may appreciate some assistance and help adjusting to campaigning on policy issues. Notwithstanding the title of the page, not very much is said here about Unionism as an ideology. The assumption is that you are a Northern Ireland voter who is familiar with the term.
At the next General Election, Northern Ireland politics will be fought along two dimensions. These are the “North / South” dimension and the “Left / Right” dimension. Not all voters will see it in that way. In the past, including the 2007 assembly elections, voters have voted overwhelmingly along the North/South dimension. From now on, the Conservatives and the UUP will fight elections along the left-right dimension. This is a crucial pre-requisite of normal politics.
The Conservative Party is a Unionist Party and the UUP is (although you don’t here it very often) a Conservative party. Conservativism and Unionism are both ideologies. However, whereas Unionism is a relatively straightforward concept, conservativism is not. Unionism is a fixed whereas Conservatism changes shape and moves.
The term “Conservatism” has more than one meaning, depending on which country you come from. Here in the UK, it has a unique and specific meaning. Over the centuries since the Tory party was formed, Conservativism has evolved considerably. In fact, if you were to compare Conservativism when the Conservative Party was formed to what it is now, you would see very little similarity.
The easiest way to explain British Conservatism is to set out a list of core principles. I have listed these as I see them but in no particular order. Most conservative readers would agree with most of what I have written here but perhaps not quite 100%. There is no significance intended in the ordering of the items on the list which is as follows:
• Promotion and protection of the nuclear family and marriage
• the greater prosperity of the whole nation
• The promotion human rights, peace, democracy and the health of our planet around the world.
• Spending on further and better public services should be the fruit of wealth creation. The latter should come first.
• An economy based on sound finance
• Individuals should take as much responsibility as possible. The state should intervene as little as possible.
• Recognition that capitalism works best when enterprise is rewarded and people are allowed to retain their wealth.
• The weakest and most disadvantaged should be helped and protected. Where possible help should be given to them enable them to gain independence
• All our children should have the best possible start in life that can be achieved for them
• Maintenance of a strong defence and law and order to protect the national interest at home and abroad.
• That the United Kingdom remains as one and comprises one united nation.
There is one further qualification to Conservativism. It is also about how you balance the competing principles. The weaker the economy, the harder it is to get that balance right. An overriding principle is that a road map must always be set leading to overall national prosperity.
Historically, we have had variations of Conservatism as national problems have changed. In the 1980s, the term “Thatcherism” became regarded (erroneously) as a new political ideology. At the time, they looked radical but that was in no small part because of the weakness of Edward Heath’s administration (1970-1974) which failed to address the destruction caused by the previous Labour Government.
I cannot do justice to all of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements here. This is merely a short summary. When she came to power 1979, the Labour Party had governed the UK for 11 out of the previous 15 years. The economy was stagnated and suffering from high inflation, excessive trade union power, restrictive trade practices, high taxes, a “brain drain” and excessive government borrowing.
Her administration “freed up” economic flow by removing the obstacles to the natural balancing of supply and demand. Crucial policies included breaking trade union power, the dismantling of restrictive practices and shifting ownership from public to private. The burden of taxation fell under her administration as the economy grew during the 1980s. Government finances became sound. Inflation lowered. Thatcher was strong on defence, law and order. Her foreign policy successes included the successful outcome of the Falklands War. She was also influential, with Ronald Reagan, in maintaining the tough foreign policies which ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Mrs. Thatcher also emphasised the good of “Victorian values”. She received much criticism for the use of this expression by those who wanted to draw attention to poverty and compare it with 19th Century poverty but it actually meant having strong families, a strong work ethic, helping your community, bearing responsibility, respectability and decency.
David Cameron has developed a new strain of conservatism which he has called Progressive Conservatism. He has described the “Progressive” part of the definition as a reference to political objectives and “Conservativism” is a reference to the means by which they will be achieved. There are four parts to the “Progressive” ends which David Cameron has elevated to higher importance. These are (1) a society that is fair; (2) a society where opportunity is equal; (3) a society that is greener; (4) a safer society, where people are protected from threat and fear. These principles are somewhat vague without more flesh on them. Perhaps the most contentious word is “fair”. It means different things to different people.
In one way or another, those four have all previously been part of the mix of conservativism. The protection of the planet is a much more recent addition. Its higher level of importance bears David Cameron’s stamp but it was Margaret Thatcher who was the first British political leader to put the Environment to the forefront of national and international politics.
Conservativism normally sits just to the right of the centre of the political spectrum. It is fair to say that David Cameron is slightly to the left of Margaret Thatcher on some issues, such as education but that may have more to do with political pragmatism than philosophy.
Each political leader has to react to the political game in front of him. What has not changed is that the Conservatives will be fighting on the same stomping ground as they have done in previous elections. The Labour Party and the Liberal democrats are and have always been to the left of us (for Lib Dems, read Alliance Party in Northern Ireland). The SDLP and Sinn Fein are also very much to the left of us. Their left wing policies (e.g. on the economy and education in particular) are destructive.
The DUP is the only party which is different. Their policies basically operate on conservative lines (except for a temporary frolic in relation to climate change). This party has to be attacked on their political conduct rather than their policies.