The UUP leadership is finally becoming rather interesting. The establishment choice of Tom Elliott may have been the front runner but now the supposed outsider Basil McCrea is in fact becoming if not the favourite, certainly the media darling.
McCrea is seen to offer the new dynamic choice of the party. The Belfast Telegraph has pointed out that McCrea is trying to enhance the party’s appeal to younger people. McCrea himself made much of reaching out to disaffected unionists and non traditional unionists. He further pledged not to take a ministry until he becomes First Minister (maybe wisely he has said he will later review that pledge).
McCrea is undoubtedly the new exciting kid on the block (despite being older than Elliott). However, when the slick sound and presentation are stripped away the message looks remarkably like the one presented to the electorate by the UCUNF at the last election. At the last Westminster election the prospect of a shiny new non sectarian unionist party which pushed its business credentials and spoke of reaching out to disaffected unionists and non unionists was presented. That new vision was presented and failed utterly.
To fully understand that failure and the similarities that it has to McCrea’s leadership campaign it is worth going back over the failure. In seat after seat the flop was spectacular. As an example in East Londonderry, Lesley Macaulay ran: a decent and friendly person no doubt. However, she was a liberal unionist, chosen, no doubt, to appeal to the nice middle class voters of the Triangle. However, what the CUs forgot was that the middle class unionists of the Triangle had already defected to the DUP. The fact that they live in the nice houses along the Lodge or Mountsandel Roads and do not adorn their houses with union jacks does not make them liberals. Of course in pursuing that vote the CUs forgot that Coleraine contains larger numbers of working class unionists to whom the likes of Macaulay offered very little compared to Gregory Campbell. It also forgot the dour Orangemen from the likes of Garvagh and Kilrea. Some of them are middle class, some working class but most defected to Gregory Campbell from Willie Ross a decade ago and will see very little in the likes of Ms. Macaulay to bring them back to the UUP fold.
That seat is merely one example of the problem. It is replicated in the likes of East Belfast. There the problem was the failure to understand the constituency in a slightly different fashion. Trevor Ringland was too liberal too gain a significant segment of the harder line unionist vote and the liberal vote along with those who simply wanted to give the DUP and Robinson a blood nose has a more plausible candidate in Naomi Long. Naomi Long of course had further advantages: a track record of hard work. Basil McCrea promotes the idea of hard work but looks on less than solid ground as compared to the utterly hard working constituency representative which is Tom Elliott.
McCrea’s great pitches are to gain Catholic Unionists and the Garden Centre Unionists. The problem is that the Catholic Unionist is a largely mythical beast. In reality some Catholics might vote against a united Ireland in a referendum: it is unclear. However, to expect many of them at all to vote UUP / CU or whatever in the foreseeable future is extremely unlikely. I have suggested previously that part of the problem is that much of this argument is based on a purely economic analysis of voting (so beloved of certain Conservatives) and It’s not the economy: stupid in Northern Ireland terms. There is even the danger that the economic argument can actually be seen as an update of O’Neill’s line about treating Catholics better and them then behaving like Protestants. All are very close to the old bigoted insult of “They will not take the Crown but will sure take the Half Crown.” Whilst Basil McCrea and those around him are most unlikely to think like that there is a danger that by refusing to recognise the cultural and emotional aspects of nationalists allegiance to becoming part of the RoI they will fail to gain Catholic votes. Yet, having dumped their own cultural and emotional unionism they will fail to understand why nationalists hold to a cultural commitment.
Of course McCrea has not totally dumped his cultural unionism and that in itself could be an additional problem. Travelling to support Newtonbutler Border Defenders band parade may have been an attempt to gain a few Fermanagh votes in the leadership election but whilst entirely understandable from a cultural unionist position is less likely to improve his credentials in appealing to Catholic unionists.
The other group McCrea has targeted is of course the Garden Centre Unionist. The problem is that this beast also seems almost entirely mythical. A number of people have looked at the voting figures from a number of elections and whilst it is indeed true that many people who might be regarded as cultural unionists (ie Prods) do not vote, the demographics suggests that these people are proportionally more from a working class than a middle class background. It is no doubt true that some middle class unionists do not vote, however, the cold hard fact is that they appear to be a relatively small number. Clearly many of the middle class unionists who proclaim that they do not vote are actually lying: hardly a stunning realisation yet one which many CU types seem completely blind to. In addition it is far from clear that the non voting middle class unionists are actually liberal. They may proclaim their liberalism at dinner parties in Ballyhackamore but it is far from clear that they are not actually fibbing again. The larger non voting block of working class Prods has not been effectively tapped by either unionist party and despite McCrea’s claims in his speech the whole tenor of his message seems much more targeted to the non existent unicorns than the existent goblins of non voting working class and hard line middle class unionists.
A major issue which has not been mentioned much is the relationship Basil McCrea has with the rest of the party leadership: one which appears fairly fractious. He has already attacked a number of senior party figures and has pledged to create a system which will allow no confidence votes in MLAs. This may play well to the public but is actually pretty stupid politics. No successful party is a one man band yet by antagonising many of his senior colleagues McCrea will create a very difficult position from which to lead the party. Indeed his strategy seems taken straight from the Bob McCartney school of unionist leadership. McCartney remember was (and is) an extremely persuasive speaker and campaigner but one who managed the political inverse Midas touch of destroying whatever he laid his hand upon.
The UUP has been here before. When they elected David Trimble he was the outsider and a man known to have at times a fractious relationship with his party colleagues. In going for McCrea the UUP would be in grave danger of doing another Trimble. The new radical change may not be so new and radical after all.
Following on from that is the question of McCrea’s character itself. There is a danger of playing the man here but he has fallen out with many people with whom he has worked over the years. Additionally there is the appearance of ambition for its own sake: best stated by Alex Kane. That Kane has anxieties about a McCrea leadership should itself speak volumes. Alex Kane is a cultivated, moderate, civic unionist unencumbered by religious allegiance or ethnic unionism: he should have been one of McCrea’s cheerleaders in chief yet he has stated:
I have known Basil for about five years – since he cold-called me shortly before he threw his hat into the Lagan Valley ring for the 2005 general election – and in all that time I have never managed to work out what he believes in or stands for. Yes, he is articulate, but when you strip away the platitude and the charm, there really isn’t much in the way of substance or vision. He clearly wants to be leader: my concern is that he wants it simply as an addition to his CV
The reality is that a McCrea leadership, far from being a fresh start, looks like the restart of the fresh start which was the UCUNF experiment or even the Trimble leadership. McCrea might be a somewhat more plausible exponent of that experiment than Reg Empey but not necessarily so. In addition the simple fact is that the UCUNF experiment was only marginally more successful than Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas. When in hole one should stop digging. In electing McCrea there is a grave danger that the UUP will simply replace the JCB excavator with a CAT one.