The UK Elections: Religion, Politics, and the Future of Northern Ireland
June 13, 2017
The result of last week’s general election in the United Kingdom has been astonishing. On 19 April, Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, called an election on the back of very high polling numbers, in an effort to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU, expecting to “crush” the Brexit “saboteurs” by increasing her small majority.
Seven weeks are a very long time in politics. In some ways, the Conservative campaign did extremely well, attracting 13.6 million votes—a stronger result than any achieved by Tony Blair, even in his extraordinary landslide in 1997, when Labour won its largest ever number of seats in the House of Commons—while turning around two generations of decline to win 13 seats in Scotland. But this result was no triumph. The success of the Conservative campaign could not counteract a surge in support for the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. His campaign was based upon policy positions that pushed Blair’s party much further to the left and attracted 12.8m votes, including a substantial share of younger voters.
This outcome was hardly to be expected. Far from increasing their lead, the Conservative Party is now 8 MPs short of an overall majority, and Theresa May is hanging on by her fingernails, with Brexit negotiations due to begin next week.
It’s hard to identify a winner in this general election. The Conservatives gambled on high polling and lost their slender majority. Labour gained a large number of seats, but lost its third general election in a row. The Scottish National Party saw its number of seats decline from 56 to 35, and lost several of its most recognized figures. Its decline of 13.1% of Scottish votes almost exactly matched the increase of support for the Scottish Conservatives. Across the UK, the Liberal Democrats picked up 4 seats in a result that only serves to confirm their marginal status in national politics. But two parties did well in Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein attracted 29.4% of the NI vote and won 7 seats, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) attracted 36% of the NI vote, in its largest ever return, and moved up to 10 seats. The success of these parties eliminated the middle ground of support for the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)—with Sinn Fein’s policy of abstention meaning that Irish nationalists will now have no representation in Westminster.
Over the weekend, as the dust settled, and the sharks circled, Theresa May confirmed that she would attempt to lead the Conservatives into a minority government with the support of the DUP, whose 10 MPs would provide her with the tiny working majority required to pass a Queen’s Speech and budget—and, possibly, to govern. The discussions have not gone smoothly. But the solution she has proposed—and the response it has generated—illustrates how precarious is the unity of the United Kingdom.
It is certainly the case that the Conservative-DUP deal offers a prospect of a genuinely national government. Theresa May’s minority Conservative Party will need to rely upon its 13 Scottish seats as well as the support of 10 Northern Irish MPs, and will need to balance the sometimes competing interests of these different parts of the UK. This challenge should echo within the culture of the party that is still known by its title, “Conservative and Unionist,” and will balance against the narrowly English interests that have been to the fore in previous parliaments.
But Theresa May’s suggestion of a deal with the DUP has caused alarm within her own party—and outrage elsewhere. During the election, the campaigns of the major parties had largely ignored Northern Irish issues, despite the significance of this area having the UK’s only land border with the EU, and the exit poll, released shortly after voting closed, did not include data from Northern Irish voters. The predilection for crisis among the province’s major parties has long been toxic within British politics—a fact that many unionist politicians and their supporters have been slow to grasp. This situation explains why, during the election campaign, the Liberal Democrats were included in the BBC’s national televised debates while the DUP members were not—despite the fact that both parties were defending the same number of seats in the same Parliament. It also explains why the BBC’s long list of national results as ranked by party includes reference to the 771 votes given to the Workers Revolutionary Party and the 469 votes given to the Social Democratic Party but fails to refer to parties in Northern Ireland, like Traditional Unionist Voice, that attract much stronger support. For many British journalists, Northern Ireland politics just doesn’t matter.
Northern Ireland politics matters now – as the media responses to the Conservative-DUP deal illustrate. Journalists from across the English political spectrum, as if suddenly waking up to an exotic political culture, are describing the DUP as far-right, with disgraceful if not actually dangerous positions on “social issues” such as abortion and same-sex marriage. According to Owen Jones, a widely read columnist, they are “gay-hating terrorist sympathisers.”
Many of these criticisms are wide of the mark. The DUP is not “far-right.” An analysis of members’ voting record in Parliament indicates that on matters of financial policy they tend to vote with Labour. The party’s position on abortion is shared by the SDLP, a “sister party” of the British Labour Party, with Sinn Fein proposing a modification of this view as recently as 2015. Setting aside the constitutional issue, it is perhaps only on the matter of same-sex marriage that the DUP—and, likely, many of the 292,316 people who voted for them—is distinguishable on “social issues” from the other larger parties in the province. But this defense of “traditional marriage” is not a protestant peculiarity. Ahead of the election, Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops encouraged the faithful to use their votes to protect the sanctity of life—that is, to resist abortion—while encouraging candidates for office to “reflect on the importance of the family based on marriage between one man and one woman, as the foundation and cornerstone of society and therefore deserving of special recognition and protection in policy and law.”
Within the broader context of Northern Ireland, the DUP’s position on “social issues” is not peculiar, therefore, and neither is their position on finance best described as “conservative.” Their strategy has been to seek the extension rather than the limitation of the state, and the success of this policy, widely shared among Northern Ireland parties, has contributed to the fact that the area has the UK’s highest public spend per person, with tax revenues of £8,580 per person in 2016 falling far short of the public spend per person of £14,020. Northern Ireland’s taxpayers contribute little more than half of what it costs to run the province.
This context will feed into Theresa May’s difficulty of balancing the expectations of the DUP with the more socially progressive and fiscally conservative views of her own party’s MPs. For Ruth Davidson, the energetic and now also hugely successful leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, is a strong supporter of LGBT rights, and over the weekend used her Twitter feed to greet the prospect of a DUP pact with a link to a lecture on same-sex marriage she last year gave in Belfast. As Theresa May heralded the prospect of working with “our friends in the DUP”—itself an infrequent expression in British politics—Ruth Davidson insisted that her loyalty to her party came after her commitment to LGBT rights. At the same time, in an article in the Belfast Telegraph, the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, confirmed that she “valued the Union above everything else.” Foster’s comment—if taken at face value—indicates as precisely as Davidson’s the scale of values on which the Conservative-DUP pact will turn. If Davidson puts the promotion of LGBT rights above the interests of party, and Foster puts the defense of the union above her resistance to LGBT rights, the Conservative-DUP pact may challenge the political culture of both of its constituent partners, and the DUP leader may, effectively, have announced the end of her party’s culture war.
Theresa May faces a number of challenges in preserving the Conservative-DUP pact – though such a pact is unlikely to last. May will need to gain the support of the 10 DUP MPs without alienating the supporters of same-sex marriage within her own party, and especially the 13 Scottish MPs who may or may not be plotting an independent future. She will need to form a government that takes full account of the fact that the social values of the several political cultures of the United Kingdom are increasingly incompatible. Toeing this fine line is likely to be an impossible task. The pact set up in part to preserve the union may actually advertise how incompatible are the cultures of its most necessary supporters—and thus contribute to its demise.
In calling this election, Theresa May gambled and lost. Her attempt to shore up the disastrous results of this gamble by making a deal with one of the most controversial parties in Parliament will almost certainly spell the end of her government. And, in exposing the stark differences between the political cultures and social values of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it could further undermine the cause of unionism in Northern Ireland while offering nothing to support nationalist aspirations. The “saboteurs” have not been crushed—and the union may have further been imperiled.