Tom Elliott's main piece so far is this article in the Newsletter. His points are as follows:
- It is important for grassroots unionists to be allowed to express their opinions (no indication given as to how this might happen, or as to whether he distinguishes between the UUP's membership and "grassroots unionists" as a whole).
- "Some politicians would have us believe that the Union has never been more secure. And yet, the unionist vote has never been smaller throughout the history of Northern Ireland." (These two statements are presented as if the second is intended to disprove the first. Of course, one interpretation - mine, as it happens - is that because the Union is perceived as secure, voters feel less need to vote for parties that bang on about it all the time.)
- Threats to the Union come not only from those "committed to murdering their way to a united Ireland" but also from "Scottish nationalists, and Welsh nationalists and English nationalists and little Northern Ireland nationalists". (How does Elliott plan to combat the threat from Scottish, Welsh and English nationalists? And who are the last-named of these?)
- Three paragraphs advocating what has been called (by others) "civic unionism"; more on this below.
- Three paragraphs on the prospect of Martin McGuinness as First Minister. This is the most deluded section. Having failed to win a mandate to change the current arrangements at the ballot box in May, Elliott now proposes to persuade the Conservatives in Westminster to "vigorously pursue the changing of this legislation to undo these mistakes and ensure that unionism once again has the right to appoint the First Minister as the largest designation in the Assembly". How Elliott will do that with no MPs, and without agreement from Sinn Féin, is left to the imagination. (Probably he will write more articles about it in the Newsletter and send photocopies of them to David Cameron.) Whatever David Trimble's faults, he at least always realised that London was never going to legislate to undo a deal which the main parties in Northern Ireland had agreed. And Elliott raising this issue is positively dangerous for the party, because it reminds those voters who care about it that the best way of preventing McGuinness from becoming First Minister is to vote DUP!
- No single unionist party - Elliott has been tagged as the 'Unionist unity' candidate in some quarters, and it's interesting that here he doesn't state his own preference but instead says that 'it is clear' that it won't happen.
- His vision is "a grassroots settled mindset [which grassroots?] on the future of the Union, which has Northern Ireland firmly embedded as an integral part of it". Ringing prose indeed.
Basil McCrea's opening statement is even shorter on convincing specifics. The entirety of the first half is taken up with bemoaning the party's poor election results. We then move on:
- "Now is the time for a UUP re-invigorated, re-energised and re-positioned under new leadership to take advantage. The party must be bold and radical. It must capture the mood within the electorate for change." (Stirring words, but is there actually a mood within the [Northern Irish] electorate for change? Or rather sullen acceptance of the status quo?)
- "[The UUP] must offer candidates that reflect and relate to the widest possible section of the electorate." This is the most interesting thing said by either candidate (note that it was emphasised also by Ian Parsley, who of course is not himself a UUP member but is hoping for their endorsement in next year's elections), and I will expand on it below.
- "[The UUP] must realise that the electorate has moved on. It must develop a new vision for unionism - inclusive, positive and pluralist. Our role is to build a consensus to make Northern Ireland work, to make politics work" - again, interesting that McCrea like Elliott has internalised the 'civic unionism' paradigm; more on this below.
If I were a voter in this election, I would support McCrea on the basis of these statements, purely because he seems to have started to grasp the problem of internal party organisation. The killer blow to the UCUNF project came several weeks before the election when the few Catholics who had managed to get selected by the Conservatives (none had been selected by the UUP) pulled out of the process. There may well have been particular factors in each of these cases, but the overall picture was that no normal Catholic need consider candidacy with the UUP or with any group allied to it. (Sir John Gorman, whatever his qualities, is not a normal Catholic.)
It's not enough, though, just to run a couple of Catholic candidates, for two reasons. First, for most Catholics, the UUP's big problem is that it was the party of single-party Stormont rule; it was the Unionist regime from 1921 to 1972. When I have taxed senior UUP members about this in the past, their protest has been that the ancien regime was actually a rather good government, which of course closes down the discussion immediately. The UUP needs a better narrative for what happened in the middle decades of the last century. Of course it is still struggling for a narrative for what has happened this century, so perhaps I should not expect too much.
The second problem is that the UUP's failure to run Catholic candidates, though embarrassingly visible, was much the least of its problems in May. What kind of serious political organisation starts a campaign by tossing aside its only elected MP, and fails to select a candidate in its most winnable seat until the day before nominations close? Will we see, in next year's elections, the UUP over-nominating as usual - running too many candidates, partly out of hubris from long past electoral peaks and partly to push local party disuptes to the electorate to resolve? (The electorate have a history of responding by choosing neither option.) The new UUP leader needs to construct a system of very tight central control of campaigning, as well as having a coherent vision; form, as well as content. Neither candidate convinces me on the content, and McCrea has only the slightest inkling of problems with form (Elliott may have more ideas but is so far silent on them).
Finally, the other issue I want to pick up on is the question of civic unionism, which both candidates adopt as a given without using that term: McCrea talks of "a new vision for unionism - inclusive, positive and pluralist", while Elliott wants "a Union in which everyone can have ambitions and opportunities to work to better themselves economically and provide for their families; a Union which is prosperous, and which supports our businesses and farms rather than impeding them; a Union which protects the rights of the most vulnerable in our society, and provides for our children and older people." The originator of the 'civic unionism' concept was Norman Porter, who himself has since moved away from it, but it has clearly become accepted wisdom in UUP circles.
My problem with it is that I miss the intellectual argument that a good society - inclusive, positive and pluralist, or nice to families, businessmen, farmers, children and old people - is necessarily one located within the Union. It seems to me that you can prioritise the Union (or a United Ireland, or a confederal Belgium for that matter) as a constitutional concept, or you can promote a state which is generally nice to all of its citizens, but you have to choose one as the priority over the other, and my choice will always be for the second, with deep suspicion of anyone who tells me that the only way to achieve that is by accepting their vision on the first. And my suspicion is that more voters in Northern Ireland are beginning to feel that way; and I am not sure that any party with 'Unionist' in its name can ever appeal to them.