The Conservative shadow foreign secretary William Hague was in Belfast today at the UUP conference. Again this was an example of the new pact which has so excited the UUP and again Hague was showing his and his parties commitment to the union. However, one of the fundamental defining characteristics of the Conservative Party has been its willingness to switch position in order to gain or retain power. This is not a criticism per se as pragmatism is a necessary attribute in politics. The UUP are pinning their hopes in this pact to the suggestion that Cameron and his senior team are passionately in favour of the union: a modern diverse and dynamic union with Northern Ireland an integral part of it. That is in many ways a reasonable gamble to make but it is still a gamble. The Conservatives desperately need to ensure that they are not simply the party of rural and leafy suburban England which they temporarily became after Blair’s crushing electoral triumphs of 1997 and 2001. Whilst they will without doubt advance into much of England at the next election (indeed they already made inroads in 2005); it is practically inconceivable that they will hold a majority of seats in Scotland or Wales and Cameron probably understands that being a Conservative PM of the UK with very few Scottish (or Welsh) MPs does fuel the SNP’s campaign for independence.
The current crop of Tory potential MPs may not be particularly passionate unionists but Cameron and Hague probably appreciate that although a break up of the union is relatively unlikely they should attempt to avoid antagonising Scottish opinion in the manner which at times Thatcher at least appeared to do: such as when imposing the Poll Tax on Scotland first as if as some sort of laboratory experiment. Thatcher stands, however, as the supreme example of the supposedly conviction politician who on some issues (especially Northern Ireland) seemed willing to adopt positions which appeared governed much more by pragmatism than conviction. The UUP should remember that Thatcher represented the ideal PM for unionists who betrayed them and as such defence of the union from Cameron who is not a deeply ideological person, but a practical one needs to be viewed with a little suspicion.
One maybe should go back and remember that prior to Thatcher’s victory in 1979 the Northern Ireland Secretary of State was the (to unionists sainted) Roy Mason: a man who presided over an end to political manoeuvring and instead adopted a firm line on terrorism including sending in the SAS. The man who should have been SoS under Thatcher was of course Airey Neave who strongly supported and Mason and might well have followed many of his policies. Instead after his murder a series of Secretaries of State followed who had less interest in Northern Ireland affairs, were generally quite wet in Thatcherite terms.
Thatcher herself of course presided over the Hunger Strikes where she would make few concessions and then, after 10 people had died and she had effectively become midwife to Sinn Fein’s political campaign, to quote Alex Kane (a Thatcher admirer) “As soon as it was over she gave them everything they wanted anyway. Of course as Rusty Nail has painstakingly documented on slugger it seems as if Sinn Fein was very keen to help Thatcher as accidental midwife to their political ambitions but it still needed Thatcher’s refusal to compromise to help that birth from ten men’s deaths.
In terms of political processing Thatcher also seemed to change from a hard liner to what unionists would call a Lundy. In 1981 she memorably told Garret Fitzgerald that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley,” and in 1984 there was the Out, out, out interview. These comments seem a long way from the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985.Of course many of Thatcher’s changes in position were probably brought about by her wish to find a solution to the ongoing IRA terrorist campaign: a threat which at least currently has less potency. However, although Cameron now tells us of his passionate support for the union it must be remembered that the Conservatives under this and previous leaders have been known to change their position when the deem it in their own political best interests. At the moment Cameron may seem a committed unionist and there are be good practical reasons why he probably is. However, in 1979-84 Thatcher was a committed unionist. The UUP who are today basking in the glow of their alliance with the Conservatives, should maybe remember that in politics loyalty is not always absolute. Reg Empey should remember the Ides of March: “et tu David?”