Fractured Kingdom

English Tories are no longer a unionist party

Gavin Esler

Duddingston Kirk dates from the 12th century, an ancient church by a loch on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In the graveyard lie the remains of one of many Scottish defenders of the British Empire. The headstone says that Major Squire Duff-Taylor, MC, served in the Royal Scots Fusiliers during the Boer War, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Great War, and died working for British military intelligence in World War Two.

The inscription is a testament to pride in service of a country we now call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s also a reminder that being British once meant membership of a seamless union of the Scots, Irish, Welsh, English and those blessed by the embrace of the largest empire in the world.

The historian Linda Colley describes Britishness as resting on three pillars: Protestantism, Empire and War. Seeing Duff-Taylor’s gravestone in Edinburgh last month as Boris Johnson visited Scotland was a reminder of how far those pillars have crumbled.

The Irish, most of them, ceased being British a century ago. The Empire is gone. War involving the UK directly (and despite Vladimir Putin’s latest efforts) seems, thankfully, a remote prospect. And Protestantism – except for Ulster’s marching season – casts only a dim shadow of its former power to unite Britain against Catholic enemies in Europe. Our traditional sense of Britishness, the glue that kept us together for centuries, is fraying. Whatever being British means now, it’s not what it was for Duff-Taylor.

So what does it mean?

The writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy described England as the “elephant in the bed” of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It comprises 84% of the UK population, and in economic terms, Greater London alone outweighs Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. In 2015 each of the constituent parts of the UK voted for a different political party. In Scotland, the SNP dominates. In Wales, Labour.

More striking than Tory disdain for nationalists is their contemptuous lack of respect for fellow unionists

In Northern Ireland it’s the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), although opinion polls say Sinn Fein could be the largest party in May’s elections. Only in England are the Conservatives dominant, and the English Conservative elephant is dismissive of nationalists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: mere bed bugs the Tory pachyderm can crush.

The SNP leader at Westminster Ian Blackford (with 45 SNP MPs) is routinely barracked, insulted or ignored by Conservative MPs, rarely treated with the courtesy reserved for the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey (11 MPs) or Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP.

But more striking than Tory disdain for nationalists is their contemptuous lack of respect for fellow unionists. Back here in Scotland, prominent Conservatives seethe (mostly privately) about the “English nationalist party” with which they are conjoined.

The former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was strongly against Brexit and demolished Johnson’s pro-Brexit arguments in a 2016 referendum debate. The current leader, Douglas Ross, backed up by many Conservative Members of the Scottish Parliament, told Johnson in January he should resign. The response from Jacob Rees-Mogg was to describe Ross as a “lightweight figure”.

Scots Tories told me that every visit to Scotland by Johnson is a gift to the SNP. The damaging uselessness of Johnson to the union is one of the few points on which many unionists and all nationalists seem to agree. There are rumblings within the Scottish Tories that they should split from those in England. I asked two well-known Scottish Conservatives, separately, what would keep Scotland in the union. Both said, “a Labour government.” They weren’t joking. 

By the 1990s, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, Ian Paisley compromised

But it is not just Scotland. The damage Johnson’s brand of Conservativism has caused to the union is glaringly obvious on a tour to any part of our disunited kingdom. In Northern Ireland there is no more famous name than that of the Reverend Ian Paisley.

The “Big Man” was known for uncompromising Calvinist beliefs and stentorian street preaching. From the 1950s Paisley built a mass religious movement, the Free Presbyterians, a church, the Martyrs Memorial, and a political party, the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP became the principal voice of Ulster unionism.

By the 1990s, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, Ian Paisley compromised. He led a government which shared power with his deadliest enemies in the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, giving peace a chance in Northern Ireland. When the Big Man died, his son, Ian Paisley Jr – now in his 50s – inherited the Westminster seat in North Antrim, but the DUP increasingly lost its way.

They backed the idea of Brexit in 2016 without any idea what Brexit meant, and then voted against every possible Brexit on offer, including a no-deal Brexit. They haemorrhaged support, weakened unionism, and now complain of “betrayal” by Westminster. The DUP’s perpetual inner turmoil mirrors that of the Conservatives. Both parties have had three leaders in six years. Both parties have seen their leaders undermined by Johnson. 

No one of any significance in the Conservative party was listening to Ulster’s unionists

Last month Paisley told Parliament: “There is a fear that the Conservative and Unionist Party, which governs this nation, is actually a nationalist party. An English nationalist party that it is not concerned about a border in the Irish Sea but is concerned about a Red Wall on this island, the mainland island, and that’s what keeps them up every single day. If that is their only concern, then that government is betraying the union and the unionist people.”

Paisley spoke to an almost empty Commons. No one of any significance in the Conservative party was listening to Ulster’s unionists, confirming Paisley’s suspicions that if Boris Johnson is a “One Nation Conservative” then that one nation is England, not the UK. 

Then in Cardiff, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is also blunt about the threat to the union posed by Westminster’s unthinking English nationalism. Drakeford, as Labour leader, is by definition a unionist, but he told the parliamentary Welsh Affairs Committee (3.3.21) “What we have to do….  is we have to recognise that the union as it is, is over. We have to create a new union. We have to demonstrate to people how we can re-craft the UK in a way that recognises it as a voluntary association of four nations, in which we choose to pool our sovereignty for common purposes and for common benefits.” Drakeford added that the “relatively random basis” on which the London-based government engages with the devolved Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland administrations “is not a satisfactory basis to sustain the future of the United Kingdom”.

As for England, the biggest question is whether there is any frontline English Conservative politician who credibly speaks for the whole United Kingdom and a reinvigorated union for the 21st century. Liz Truss? Grant Shapps? Priti Patel? Dominic Raab? I’m kidding.

One Tory voice does sound a warning. Former Conservative chancellor George Osborne noticed that the tectonic plates of the UK have shifted and argued that Johnson could be the worst British prime minister in history, even worse than Lord North who “lost” the American colonies in the 1770s.

Osborne wrote that by “unleashing English nationalism”, Johnson’s ill-conceived Brexit mess means that “Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door” of the UK. Scotland, he noted, is split roughly 50-50, but if the nationalists win more supporters for independence the result would be profound damage – to England: “The rest of the world would instantly see that we were no longer a front-rank power, or even in the second row.

To treat unionists contemptuously is astonishingly inept

We would instead be one of the great majority of countries who are on the receiving end of the decisions made by a few, subject to the values of others. We would become another historically interesting case study in how successful nations can perform unexpected acts of national suicide.”

What’s striking is that leading figures in today’s Conservative and formerly “Unionist” party constantly wallow in nostalgia for the wartime heroism of those like Major Duff-Taylor, while simultaneously undermining the union he fought for. It’s no surprise that Johnson’s Conservatives treat Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists with contempt. But to treat unionists contemptuously is, even by the Prime Minister’s standards of carelessness and incompetence, astonishingly inept. At least Theresa May rewarded the DUP for their support of her shaky administration with a massive cash injection for Northern Ireland. But once Johnson secured his Commons majority, the DUP discovered that those who can be bought can also be sold. They were dumped along with the Northern Ireland border and a century of Ulster unionism into the Irish Sea.

It is telling that rather than copy the geriatric modes of conduct and processes of the “Mother of Parliaments” in London, the other British parliaments, in Belfast, Holyrood and Cardiff, have already asserted a degree of independence. All three devolved legislatures deal with the issues which mean the most to most of their citizens – health and education among them – and all three have taken different decisions from Westminster and at different times on coronavirus and other matters.

Moreover, all three are elected by proportional representation. That leaves the House of Commons as one of only two European national legislatures elected by the creakingly unfair First Past The Post system. The only other FPTP European national parliament is that of Belarus, the nasty dictatorship, led by Putin’s pal, Alexander Lukashenko. Moreover, a majority of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland voters did not vote for Boris Johnson’s government in 2019. Indeed, a majority of Scots have not voted for a Conservative government since 1955.

English Conservatives think only of the next day’s headlines and the next scandal

Walk out from Major Duff-Taylor’s last resting place at Duddingston Kirk and climb the hill and you will eventually reach one of the best city views in the world, stretching across Edinburgh to the sea. Below is the royal residence at Holyrood Palace; across the road is the new Scottish parliament, the successor to the old parliament that signed itself out of existence to join Westminster 300 years ago. Presiding over the establishment of that new devolved parliament in May 1999, the veteran nationalist politician Winnie Ewing pointedly began as if there had merely been a short break for tea: “the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened”.

Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists think in centuries. English Conservatives think only of the next day’s headlines and the next scandal. Nationalists believe their persistence will outlast the union of the United Kingdom. Conservatives appear not to think of the union at all. Unleashing English nationalism might, as George Osborne suggests, be Johnson’s most significant political achievement, resulting in the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.

Gavin Esler is the author of “Brexit Without the Bullshit” (2019) and most recently “How Britain Ends”

Current Affairs

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