“No, but he’s got a point” was probably the most succinct answer to the question “Is Murdo Fraser Right?” posed at last night’s Young Unionists’ event in QUB Students Union.
With Mike Nesbitt in the chair, four centre-right panellists took ten minutes to outline their response to the question as well as the implications for unionism in Northern Ireland. There were 21 in the audience, nearly all young male students.
Organiser Richard Price sympathised with Fraser’s polling-based, history-repeating (the 1950’s Unionist Party in Scotland) and future-proofed approach. Scottish conservatives had a lack of momentum, and their lack of traction (and power) was at the detriment to business entrepreneurs, victims of crime and graduates seeking jobs. Price wanted a strong centre-right party in NI and reckoned that it was the UUP rather than the NI Conservatives who should be working for businesses, victims and students.
While most of the panellists had some experience of losing more than one election, Iain McGill had a record of ten defeats (sometimes with three on the one day)! He pointed to the confusing structure of the his party in Scotland, with many different chiefs. Murdo Fraser was deputy leader during the last two unsuccessful Holyrood elections. While Fraser describes the party as a ‘toxic brand’, McGill is less swift to dismiss the 400,000 voters who still support them. With McGill supporting Ruth Davidson for leadership, he wonders whether the debate is “smoke and mirrors” and more about Fraser wanting to be seen as the radical candidate. McGill also argued for the continued presence of big characters like Boris Johnston who can criticise the central party and yet be seen by everyone as being part of the Tory brand. (Iain’s behind the recently launched
Tory Hoose blog.) Scottish Conservative Home
In the midst of a lot of negative comments from the panel about the UCUNF project, Bill Manwaring reminded the room that Jim Nicholson had been re-elected to Europe during that period. Manwaring said that Northern Ireland parties were failing to engage with grass roots and singled out the UUP as being particularly guilty. He called for better delivery on the ground. Manwaring also mentioned many Catholic “natural unionists” who are not willing to vote for the current unionist parties due to their perceived religious intolerance. Observing that there are more conservatives in the UUP than the NI Conservative Party, he argued that historically the UUP has been a right wing party, taking the Tory whip in Westminster, and ideally placed to be NI’s conservative party of delivery.
Ian Parsley started by observing that political parties are often bad at communication and welcomed the openness within the Young Unionists to debate issues. His basic position was one of wanting the people of NI to have the maximum say over decision making. Returning to the central question of the debate– Is Murdo Fraser right? – Parsley said “no, but he’s got a point”. What was the point of reorganising the Conservative parties before figure out how they would seek to organise the United Kingdom. ‘Devo max’ wasn’t viable since it would break the symmetry of the union. Parsley highlighted that the Lib Dems have a federal executive sitting over their Scottish, Welsh and English parties, which works well for devolution (though currently works differently in NI). Coming back to Northern Ireland, Parsley questioned the clarity of the unionist vision and suggested that vagueness wasn’t a vote winner. While other panellists mentioned the German CDU/CSU model, Parsley threw another approach into the discussion. He pointed to Canada and explained about the different parties that operate at provincial and federal level, making it possible for unusual alignments.
Speaking during the long Q&A after the main speeches, Manwaring said there was no need to change the name of the UUP, but there was a need to start to deliver. Parsley remarked that the Alliance Party had discussed potential name changes back in 2003 before concluding that it was not necessary. He went on to highlight the risk that in the absence of anyone promoting the positive benefits of the union, people across the UK might default to a position that the easiest thing to do would be to split up.
Asked about the current UUP position on Tory links, Mike Nesbitt explained about the paper he had written in the run up to a meeting between Tom Elliott and the Conservatives, noted the difficulty in having three groups involved in the discussions (UUP, NI Conservatives as well as Conservative Central Office), and states that discussions continued and the UUP were still seeking a political pact, though with the proviso that they could disagree on NI issues.