Monday, 22 May 2017

A small 'c' conservative manifesto

Previously, I wrote that Theresa May’s political instincts are ‘deeply conservative’, even if they don’t resonate with all of her colleagues in the Conservative Party .  The snap general election provides an early, rather unexpected opportunity for the prime minister to articulate her beliefs in a manifesto for government.

The document confirms that Mrs May thinks of herself as a ‘one nation’ Tory, rather than identifying with the more libertarian strain of thinking that animates many modern Conservatives.  Labour and other critics will dispute how specific policies might work in the real world, but we can tell from the tone of the manifesto how the prime minister wants the public to view her party.

At the last general election, Ed Miliband pinched the ‘one nation’ label for the Labour Party, and rather than stealing it back, Theresa May chooses to talk about “mainstream government” and “mainstream Britain”.  The language is different, but the sentiment is the same.  The PM is expressing her desire to bring people together and govern in the interests of a broad section of society.   

That means talking about the power of government to make a difference, rather than assuming that interference and regulation are always negative.  Mrs May expresses the belief that markets should be controlled and she has pledged, for example, that energy prices will be capped, which is a departure from recent Conservative orthodoxy.

The most controversial part of the manifesto deals with social care and it has already prompted a partial rethink.  The idea that people’s ability to pay should be assessed with reference to their total wealth, including their ownership of property, is something that left-wing parties have called for as a matter of principle.  That is the essence of the Tories’ plans, which suggest that costs could be recouped from anyone who owns a house valued at more than £100,000.

The threshold is rather low and the policy does mean that people who don’t save and invest for their old age are rewarded with free care.  That is the difficulty at the heart of any means test.  The fact that the total cost is now likely to be capped merely means that those with modest savings and property are likely to be hit hardest.  

Still, no other party has yet made a credible attempt to solve the problems presented by an ageing population.  At the moment, the NHS is asked to accommodate older people in hospitals who should be in their own homes or in other facilities, because care packages are not available.        

You can call it ‘red Toryism’, ‘one nation Conservatism’ or ‘mainstream government’, but Theresa May’s scepticism about immigration and willingness to interfere in markets is a deeply conservative (small ‘c’) set of ideas. Her care policy is controversial and may even be wrong, but there are mounting problems in this area for which no political party has yet devised a convincing answer.  

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Why is The Spectator commissioning biased articles about Northern Ireland?

The Spectator is Britain’s most recognisable conservative magazine.  Despite reflecting a range of opinion on the EU during the referendum campaign, it finally articulated the case that the UK should leave.  

It’s all the more puzzling then, that the magazine’s latest articles about Northern Ireland have amounted to little more than nationalist opinion pieces, launching patchily argued attacks on Brexit and the Conservative Party.  

Recent Spectator content on Northern Ireland has been commissioned from a freelance journalist called Siobhan Fenton.  Previously, she apparently spent a spell as a ‘parliamentary assistant based in Belfast’.  In her biography, she doesn’t reveal which party she worked for.  She now contributes prolifically to The Guardian, The Independent and the New Statesmen, where hostility to unionism is not uncommon, but The Spectator is more surprising.

It’s not illegitimate or even undesirable to write with a political slant, but, especially when your articles are presented as features or analysis, they’re expected at least to aspire to explain different points of view and reflect a version of reality that is recognisable.

A brief look at some of her recent work shows that Ms Fenton is not bound by these constraints.  
Her latest piece for The Spectator reports that Theresa May received a hostile reception during a visit to the Balmoral Show, just outside Belfast.  The author bases her assertion, not on eyewitness accounts, still less upon her own attendance at the show, but rather on an aggressive press release from John O’Dowd of Sinn Fein, that accused the prime minister of ‘breathtaking arrogance’ for visiting Northern Ireland.

Think about that for a moment.  The public mood in Northern Ireland was gauged by citing a vicious, anti-British diatribe from a republican politician.  It might pass for journalism in An Phoblacht, or even the Morning Star, but in a reputable conservative journal?

At almost the same time, Ms Fenton floated the idea in the New Statesman that the forthcoming General Election will see a ‘Sinn Fein surge’, with the party returning more MPs than the DUP.  Not a single credible political commentator in Northern Ireland, and few less than credible political commentators, would suggest that such a result result is a realistic possibility.  

The DUP has twice as many representatives at Westminster as Sinn Fein currently.  It’s highly improbable that Ms Fenton really believes herself that this scenario could happen, which renders her piece either wishful thinking or propaganda.

Indeed, to back up her claim, she conjures up a strange netherworld where ‘soft unionists’ vote for John FInucane, a lawyer from a notorious IRA family, in North Belfast.  She also says that the sitting MP in East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, is “likely to lose” to Alliance leader, Naomi Long.  

Even the most cursory working knowledge of Northern Ireland politics exposes the first statement as transparent nonsense and the second as highly contentious.  Long has a chance of winning the seat, but the bravest pundit wouldn’t say it’s likely.  

Freelance journalism is a tough trade, which requires a lot of work for sometimes derisory financial rewards.  I’m very loathe to attack anyone’s efforts to make a living by explaining Northern Ireland to readers in a national media where our issues are infrequently discussed.  

However, the fact that Siobhan Fenton has managed to pass off such ignorant, badly researched, transparently biased material to editors, particularly at a pro-Union magazine like The Spectator, is an indictment of their coverage of Northern Ireland.  

It’s not like there is a dearth of informed, thoughtful comment about Northern Ireland, if The Spectator and other media cared to commission it.  Ruth Dudley Edwards has written frequently for the magazine.  John Bew is a Northern Irish academic who contributes to the New Statesman and other outlets.  Newton Emerson, Eilis O’Hanlon, Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty all write well about Northern Ireland, from different perspectives.  There are many others.

I don’t like to perpetuate the notion that ‘they don’t care about Northern Ireland’ which often seems to colour our attitude toward the rest of the UK.  We’re a ridiculously touchy, self-absorbed little place at times, that consistently ignores its relative size and overestimates its own importance.  Still, I’d expect the editorial team of a national current affairs magazine to pick up on some of the subtleties of our politics, if it’s interested enough to run articles on the topic in the first place.

Unless The Spectator has made a conscious decision to present, unchallenged, a contentious slant, it’s recent commissioning decisions reflect apparent indifference to the quality of its coverage of Northern Ireland. The same is true of other outlets. I think we should expect better, because too many articles lately have presented a highly eccentric interpretation of this place, that few people who live here recognise.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been a dismal failure.

When should we admit that devolution in Northern Ireland has so far been a dismal failure?    Even when the power-sharing Executive operated, it rarely legislated and refused to tackle the most pressing problems afflicting our society and economy.  
Twenty years after the IRA renewed its ceasefire, is it still enough that bombs don’t explode regularly on our streets?   Maybe the latest political crisis should be the point at which we finally insist upon a system of government that gets things done.
The Good Friday Agreement launched a process intended to build a peaceful and successful Northern Ireland.  The institutions it established were supposed to develop into a functioning local government, capable of taking decisions about health, education, the budget and other aspects of policy that comprise ‘normal politics’.
Perhaps even more importantly, power-sharing was supposed to create a ‘shared’ Northern Ireland, where the social and financial costs of segregation were drastically reduced.  The Agreement specified that the Executive was obliged to encourage integrated education and mixed housing, for instance.
None of this has happened remotely convincingly.   
The most difficult policy decisions are either deferred - like reforming the health service, solving the 11-plus impasse and rebalancing the economy, or become part of Stormont’s regular crises - like devolving policing and justice, implementing welfare reform and dealing with the past.  Rather than pursuing integration, the devolved Executive has actually magnified differences between identities and elevated them into a kind of fetish.
After the St Andrews’ accord in 2007, the Hillsborough negotiations on policing and justice, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and the ironically titled ‘Fresh Start’ of 2015 it’s both staggering and drearily predictable that the parties are in another round of talks aimed at getting power-sharing started again.  The RHI green energy scandal that prompted the crisis has been practically forgotten, while Sinn Fein focuses on its ever shifting shopping-list of demands.
That party is particularly addicted to set-pieces, because its political strategy is dependent upon nurturing disenchantment and instability.  It showed formidable cynicism and hypocrisy when it collapsed the Executive.  
Republicans certainly tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of what happened in the Troubles and their notion of ‘equality’ is just an just underhand way of attacking Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.  Yet the DUP showed little cunning in dealing with such slippery, dishonest opponents, allowing them to drag everything from Brexit to gay marriage into a dispute about boilers.      
This is the way business gets done in Northern Ireland and the pattern is reinforced by the involvement of both the British and Irish governments in negotiations.  Meanwhile, because the Executive did not agreed a budget for this financial year, public services face cuts, as civil servants do not have the same freedom to take far-reaching decisions as elected representatives.
That could be devastating for Northern Ireland’s health service, which is already creaking, thanks to successive ministers’ failures to implement badly needed reforms.  Schools here also expect to lose 2.5% of their funding.  Yet the parties who won’t get back to work continue to blame civil servants and the British government.
The self-importance of some politicians at Stormont has been indulged for far too long.  They shouldn’t need to be constantly cajoled and appeased to get them to do their jobs.  If they won’t take responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, then devolved powers will have to return to Westminster.  Perhaps the Assembly could retain some kind of consultative role at the committee stage of legislation, though only if its wages and expenses were pruned drastically.
Alternatively, the government might refuse to facilitate any more talks or elections until the parties agree to discuss serious reform of the Assembly.  At a minimum, the opposition needs seriously beefed up powers.  
The parties could be offered three choices after the Westminster election has taken place and talks resume, either go back to work now without any preconditions, accept important reforms to make Stormont operate better or face direct rule immediately.  
If there isn’t agreement on developing the devolved institutions and if there were a lengthy spell of direct rule, some of the long-standing problems with the health service, education and rebalancing the economy might finally be addressed.  The local parties have proved incapable of taking difficult or potentially unpopular decisions and until there is evidence that they’re prepared to be more responsible, power-sharing is a meaningless sham.