Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s historian and a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution.
A century ago there were no MPs in the House of Commons who called themselves Conservatives. After the second of two elections in 1910, 272 Unionists confronted exactly the same number of Liberals, whose government remained in office thanks to the support of Irish Nationalists. The latter made great progress towards their goal of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin, despite militant Unionist opposition.
The Unionist ranks at Westminster included a small Liberal Unionist Party, led by the magnetic Joe Chamberlain. In 1912 it agreed to give up its separate identity. Representatives from Tory constituency associations in England and Wales were summoned to a meeting in London to discuss what name should be given to the unified party organisation. Lord Balcarres, the Unionist Chief Whip in the Commons, recorded in his diary on 8 May 1912 that it was eventually decided to “retain the word ‘Conservative’, at any rate upon the notepaper”. It was a sentimental gesture. Only the second part of the clumsy new name – Conservative and Unionist Party – was actually used in the years ahead.
Outside England and Wales, the compromise was unnecessary. North of the border, Tories were happy enough to be subsumed in a Scottish Unionist Party. In Ireland, the threat of Home Rule had already turned Tories into Unionists. Their number was to be reduced as a result of the partition of Ireland in 1920, but in Ulster ardent allies remained within a nationwide Party organisation that defined itself by its attachment to the constitution on which the Union rested.
This state of affairs lasted until the mid-1920s. At that point, the leaders of the Party in England and Wales decided to revert to the practice of the mid-19th century and began calling themselves Conservatives again, while their counterparts in Scotland and Ulster retained the Unionist name. It was a catastrophic error on the part of the English. A sense of common constitutional purpose, overriding all other concerns, was lost.
Conservatives in England ceased to attach overwhelming priority to the duty that Disraeli had placed on them in a famous speech in Manchester in April 1872: “the programme of the Conservative Party is to maintain the constitution of the country”. They began to draw away from their colleagues in the rest of the country, scoffing at their “outdated” preoccupation with the Union.
The Ulster Unionists were cut adrift during the long constitutional crisis which first struck Northern Ireland in 1968; all links with them were eventually severed. Instead of supporting and guiding the Ulster Unionists, their long-standing political partners, in their hour of need, many Conservatives joined the ranks of their vociferous critics. In Scotland, browbeating by Ted Heath led to the adoption of the Conservative name in 1965. No good came of it. The pre-eminence which had been gained under the Unionist banner in 1955, with victory in a majority of Scottish seats, became but a distant and fading memory. Sixty years later, it is almost too painful to recall.
None of this implied any weakening of the Conservative commitment to the Union in principle . As she made clear in her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher came to feel bitter regret that she accepted advice from the Foreign Office and her Cabinet Secretary and signed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Irish Republic a permanent role in Ulster’s affairs. John Major spoke with immense feeling about the Union with Scotland at the 1992 election. “I tell you as your Prime Minister”, he said, “there is no issue more crucial at this election than the defence of the unity of our United Kingdom”. He showed no less ardour in 1997.
What disappeared was a clear recognition of the need to sustain a vigorous sense of British identity which would bind together the four parts of the United Kingdom as each developed a greater devotion to its own particular cultures and traditions. English Conservatives ceased to show much interest in looking at public affairs from the Disraelian standpoint of supreme concern for the preservation of a united British national state, except in so far as Europe threatened it.
This became a really serious matter when devolution took centre stage under the Blair government after 1997. As Unionists, Tories ought to have regarded it as their mission to find ways of reconciling devolution to new subordinate legislatures with the overall UK interest. Devolution can only produce stability within a unitary state if there is a clear understanding of the distinction between matters that are fundamental to the country as a whole and those that are capable of different treatment in different parts of it. No such distinction has ever been established. The devolved bodies are obviously not going to seek, or be given, a role in defence and foreign affairs. As for all other matters, anything goes.
The result is, in the fashionable jargon, asymmetrical devolution – which becomes more pronounced every year. The 2010 Conservative manifesto pointed out correctly that “our unbalanced devolution settlement has caused separatism to gather momentum in Scotland”. Since then, the problem has got much worse.
The Scottish Parliament has greater powers than the Welsh Assembly, though in some areas (notably social security) fewer than the Northern Ireland Assembly. Scotland has been promised that in the next Parliament it will be given control of income tax rates and bands. Wales has been offered more limited tax-raising powers, subject to a referendum, but might well in a further stage of devolution get more. Northern Ireland is uninterested in income tax powers, but if its rickety Executive can muster sufficient economic competence it will get control of corporation tax rates. Everything is haphazard. Only a settled and coherent long-term constitutional plan could produce order out of this chaos, and safeguard the future of the Union on the basis of clearly defined principle.
Such a plan must also provide a means of dealing with the West Lothian Question which, unresolved in the last Parliament, has done immense damage to the Union. That is to be seen in the venom with which some backbench Tory MPs (not all of them stupid) have recently started to speak of Scotland in private conversation and the equanimity (indeed in some cases relish) with which they contemplate its departure from the Union.
For the first time in its history, it is no longer obvious that the Conservative Party is utterly determined to ensure that the Union remains the bedrock of our constitutional arrangements. There is no one better at sensing changing moods within the Party than Matthew Parris. The Times columnist wrote recently that “the Union is over, this general election will confirm it”. If that prediction is to be disproved, we must now assert our historic Unionism vigorously and embody it in a clear, well-defined constitutional plan for our country’s future, spelling out its principal features to the electorate. Only that will show that we remain a true and staunch Unionist party.
What does the current leadership of the Party think? It has placed no strong reaffirmation of the Union in the election manifesto, which states that “ we will always do our utmost to keep our family of nations together” (five years ago it said it was “ passionate about the Union and we will never do anything to put it at risk”). The passion, which John Major evoked so magnificently in 1992 and 1997, has been strikingly absent. I have no doubt, however, that David Cameron himself feels passionately about the Union.
Our country now faces its greatest constitutional challenge since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 as a result of the SNP’s extraordinary success. Michael Forsyth – the most eloquent Unionist in the House of Lords – is right to raise concerns about some of the tactics that have been used in responding to the SNP. It is time to take a firm stand for Union. Years ago, George Osborne told me that there are no votes in constitutional issues. There is a word, now seldom heard, for what we require at this hour: statesmanship. There could be plenty of votes for a commanding display of statesmanship in this – so far- rather unedifying election campaign.