Monday, 30 January 2012

Unionist Unity: What is the point?

I imagine it won’t be long before David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP Assembly Group is followed by David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP itself and his subsequent joining of the DUP.  It’s not exactly a bold prediction though, given that McNarry has long argued the case for Unionist Unity and closer working relationships with the DUP. His recent disclosure of the details of meetings on the issue have led to him being disciplined by his party leader, Tom Elliot, which in turn prompted McNarry’s resignation.

Some commentators have argued that it was wrong for Elliot to discipline McNarry for being honest and transparent about things but they completely miss the point – some things are, quite rightly, discussed behind closed doors else media perceptions cloud decisions. These are most likely the same commentators that have criticised Elliot and the UUP for being unwilling to discipline in the past.

Anyway, I could care little about either McNarry or the UUP’s internal disciplinary process. What does concern me is that no one seems to be asking what on earth the point of unity is? I’m not just talking about Unionist Unity but unity on the whole, in political terms. In politics, you exist as a party to offer an alternative, to offer choice to the electorate. If you’re prepared to declare yourself close enough to another party so that voters need not worry about which party represents them, as long as it’s you or your partners, then there’s no point to your existence. At this juncture you should forget about pacts and deals and just combine wholesale.

Ultimately, this is what the talk of Unionist Unity is about. For the most part, the DUP and the UUP are not all that different. If you listen to those within the UUP who object to any proposed pacts the complaints are nearly always to do with personalities, or the bad blood between the parties, or the performance of the parties. Often those opposed point to polling to show that the electorate won’t endorse a big Unionist party whilst their opponents produce their own polling to show that the electorate actually want closer cooperation. At no point do you hear the representatives on either side argue for or against based on policy.

Ask the average voter to outline the major differences between UUP & DUP policy on Education, Health, DETI etc and they’ll struggle. Not sometimes – every time. What they will happily tell you is that the DUP is the more hard-line of the two main unionist parties while the UUP is more of a broad church (I think they can safely trademark that term by now) and takes an ever so slightly softer, considered approach to most issues. It’s nonsense of course, because there are no shortage of hard-liners in the UUP and mostly the two parties vote along strikingly similar lines in the Assembly. If you’re not even getting any purchase on the perceived differences then why bother voting one way or the other at all?

So surely this argues the case for unity? Well, yes, provided by unity we mean the UUP being absorbed completely into the DUP. Anything else is just a plain electoral carve up with one objective – keeping the other side out of office. I’m personally against that because I think the Unionist community needs two parties right now – 1 to provide governance and one to provide opposition. Of course, I’d like to see a move to a time when voters see themselves not as Unionists (or Nationalists) first but we have to deal with the realities of the day. 

We live in a divided society and whilst there is plenty of hard work going into changing that, it’s not going to happen in the very near future so until that time, the UUP has a duty to provide an alternative to the DUP. They need to forget talk of where they can cooperate with the DUP and focus on how they can highlight the differences between the parties. The UUP need to focus on beating the DUP and not on making life easier for them because making life easier for the DUP is ultimately what Unionist Unity is all about.

We need to talk about The Falkland Islands.

Actually, we don’t need to talk about The Falkland Islands at all, but seeing as other commentators insist on it and 1980’s politics is on trend, I may as well throw my (admittedly amateur) hat in the ring too.

General Sir Michael Jackson, the retired Chief of the General Staff, in an interview for The Sunday Telegraph has warned us all that should the Falklands suffer a successful invasion by Argentina it would be near impossible for us to reclaim them by force. He lays the blame for this squarely (and correctly) at the door of those who allowed the Harrier Fleet & our Aircraft Carriers to be sold/scrapped without replacements.

Ignoring the fact that General Sir Michael Jackson was the Chief of the General Staff for some time and thus had considerable influence over the decisions he now derides, is he factually correct? Yes, undoubtedly. The man in charge of the task force that won the Falklands War in 1982, Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, was typically blunt in his assessment of how that particular adventure was successful – air superiority. It would have been impossible to land enough men and equipment on the islands without controlling the skies above them. Little has changed since then in terms of geography – the islands haven’t floated any closer to us or further away from Argentina – so it still stands that without any friendly, local airfields we would need carriers form which to base air operations from.

So is it time to worry about this apparent inability to reclaim the islands should the worst happen? I’d argue no. Worrying about this is like worrying about your apparent inability to reclaim the moon from invading aliens – it’s so unlikely to be an issue that there’s little point in spending much time on it.

General Jackson has learned plenty form the politicians he spent years criticising and looking down upon. He has an agenda and knows the best way to achieve it is through good old scaremongering and dismissal of any rationale with a sound bite. In this case, he outlines the factors that make invasion unlikely – massively increased defence force, ability to resupply quickly- and then follows with “But I suppose I have learned in life, never say never." Oh well, clearly the invasion is a certainty then. In addition he also talks about the ‘small’ amount of intelligence coming from Buenos Aires whilst failing to note that ever since 1982, intelligence operations in Argentina have somewhat improved and despatches are treated a little more seriously.

The Argentine force in 1982 was already largely outdated (though still effective to a degree) and there has been no significant investment in their military capability since then. Their aged aircraft against the Typhoons stationed in the Falklands? I wouldn’t fancy their chances. Their landing craft sneaking ashore after evading the highly sophisticated sonar of the nuclear submarine patrolling those waters? Good luck to them.

It’s interesting that, whilst clearly learning some tricks from politics, Gen Jackson seemed to ignore the politics at play on the issue. There is oil in The Falklands. There is potentially more oil there than in the fields we have in the North Sea. The US, naturally, is lined up to invest and if that happens, any chance of Argentina invading is gone. They simply wouldn’t risk it.

The decision that led to the Harriers and the Aircraft Carriers being taken out of service before their replacements entered service wasn’t taken by the Secretary of State for Defence on a whim. It was the result of years of consultations and review with all of the UK’s senior defence staff and intelligence staff. Included in that review was an analysis of the ability to defend the UK’s interests worldwide and it concluded that the likelihood of an invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina was remote enough that the ability to reclaim them did not warrant the spend.

Generals, Admirals & Air Marshalls will always advocate increased spending on defence and it’s understandable – their role is to defend the UK and the more we spend on it the easier it is. However, Gen. Jackson knew, when in service, that the spending wasn’t right in this instance and advocated – quite correctly – more troops on the ground and the armour to support them. It’s a shame that he know feels he needs to bring up what is effectively a non issue when he has so much more to offer. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Left Wing opposition to Benefit Cap is flawed. This is why.

The coalition government have played a very good game on the proposed benefit cap. Labour activists have been throwing their arms up in complete indignation at the latest ‘attack on the poor’ from the nasty Tories.  They bang the drum for the working-class, the underclass and the downright poverty stricken in society who will most likely suffer from these proposals.  They are right, of course, to highlight the problems with the proposals, but my goodness, they’re naïve. They’re preaching only to the converted. No one else will listen to them.

This is why things have gone well for the Tories. Forget about the result of any votes on this issue, the only thing that concerns those running the party is the votes at the next election and, in the public’s mind, the Tories are absolutely on the money when it comes to this.  Now, I know all too well just how badly flawed this plan is but that’s because I’m involved in politics and take an active interest in legislation and I couple that with my ideological position. The public, as a whole, do not. It’s not that the public are ignorant, or stupid, but they’re just occupied with other issues far more pressing to them to investigate the detail.

So, when the people on the centre ground are looking at the arguments for and against this is what they’re presented with by the media: Tories want to cap benefits at £26K a year but Labour thinks that’s too low.  That’s not the conservative media pushing that line, it is all media. Look in the Guardian and you’ll see there’s no shortage of Labour/Left wing commentators highlighting the examples of generally agreeable people likely to be hit by the cuts.  That entirely misses the point – the public are all too aware of many on benefits who play the game and they want something done about it.

This is an issue that time and again, the Left fail to address. Let’s stop pretending, stop making excuses and stop ignoring the genuine complaints about benefit culture. The statistics, unfortunately, are rather irrelevant. There is a public perception of a benefit culture and so it exists and must be addressed, whether evidence backs it up or not. Failure to acknowledge this will lead to a whole generation spent in opposition for Labour and the Lib Dems (note that the Tories aren’t at all bothered that the Lib Dems aren’t with them on this).

The opposition to the proposals is correct technically but utterly flawed, politically. The proposals are a sop to a problem that exists in the public mind and any opposition needs to be formed around a different way to solve the problem.  Instead of saying ‘these proposals won’t work and could make things worse’ Labour should be saying ‘Our proposal to fix the problem is this and these are the reasons it’s better than their proposals’.