When I was a student in Manchester, I once went up for a no-hope seat (which they all were, in fairness) for the city council. In line with my own staunch unionism, I wanted to appear on the ballot under our party’s full name: the Conservative and Unionist Party.
This did not go down well – to the point where the agent changed my paperwork. I might merely be trying to fall fewer than 200 votes behind the Greens, but I would do so as “The Conservative Party Candidate” whether I liked it or not.
So it was heartening indeed to hear Theresa May reminding the world of our party’s full name during her first speech as Prime Minister. To quote:
“Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.”
Nor has the Prime Minister been slow to put her money where her mouth is: she has already visited Scotland, is in Wales today, and will soon travel to Northern Ireland too.
The short-term mission is to make sure that separatists aren’t able to exploit our departure from the European Union to break up the United Kingdom. The consensus seems to be that May has made a pretty good start at this, very obviously making a good faith effort to include Nicola Sturgeon in the British negotiating position but without conceding her a veto.
That she has put James Brokenshire, an ally from the Home Office and one-time Immigration Minister, into Northern Ireland also shows that she is taking the challenges posed by the border seriously.
Perhaps most importantly, the Prime Minister’s vision of a more inclusive Conservatism that works for the less advantaged – exemplified by this morning’s commitment to help the Port Talbot steelworks – may prove vital to countering the grave peril to the Union posed by Labour’s descent into farce.
There can be fewer things the SNP pray for more ardently, after all, than the prospect of decades of uninterrupted, right-wing, ‘English’ Tory rule.
Yet in the long term it will be just as important that the Prime Minister puts her stamp on Unionism as on Conservatism. To break the belief in Britain out of its two-decade cycle of scrambling retreat, it needs a leader who is prepared to rediscover the “fight” part of “fight-or-flight”.
The years since 1998 have taught unionists all the lessons they need, should they be willing to learn them: Britishness is essential to keeping Britain together; British institutions and a national political life are essential to Britishness; you don’t defeat nationalists by conceding 80 per cent of their premise with ‘Devo Max’, et al.
If Britain is to survive, then it needs someone to shake off the intellectual inertia of the “more powers” mantra – to stand up for Britishness and champion its virtues.
This means making a positive case for making decisions together, in Parliament, and recognising that past a certain point the smaller a role ‘Britain’ plays in our lives, the less British we will become – and that without Britishness the Union will always be precarious and highly transactional.
It means being firm that “federalism” does not mean that the UK stops being sovereign or that Scotland can have a separate foreign policy inside the UK (just ask Texas) – the sort of backbone shown when May reminded the SNP that their “once in a generation” vote on dissolving our country already happened.
We are the Conservative and Unionist Party*, and both of those words clearly matter to the Prime Minister. She must be sure to apply herself with equal vigour to taking making her mark on the latter as the former.
Perhaps we might also start contesting elections under our proper title whilst she’s at it.
*Although according to the Electoral Commission we had a brief spell as simply the “Conservative Party” under David Cameron from March 2014 until earlier this year.