Alex Kane: The union isn’t over yet – it will outlast Keir Starmer

A united Ireland may come at some point, but the establishment in Ireland and the UK is in no rush

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Stormont to hold meeting with party leaders during the final day of his three day visit to Dublin and Belfast. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Stormont

Oddly, I’m not dismayed by the rout of the Conservatives. I welcome it. I don’t even recognise the party.

From 2015 most of its key people were Manchurian Candidates, owned, controlled and run by a variety of below-the-radar cabals financed by outside-the-UK influencers. They had no interest in the survival of the Conservatives. They wanted to destroy the party and turn the UK into a Trumpian ally off the coast of the EU.

By the time this column is published we’ll have a clearer idea of the scale of the defeat inflicted upon Sunak, as well as the precise number of Conservatives who have actually made it onto the opposition benches.

We’ll also know if Reform has secured the votes necessary to scare the remaining elements of the Conservative Party into the lurch to the right you mentioned; or whether the remnants will ‘stiffen the sinews’ and take the 10 years or so of the Starmer era to return the party to the centre of politics. Irrespective of how well Reform does, I’m still not persuaded that there is sufficient appetite across the UK for the sort of populism we’re seeing in both the States and parts of the EU.

I do agree that the sense of and definition of ‘Britishness’ has changed over the past 20 years. But I would also argue that Britishness underwent massive changes in the decade between 1939 and the creation of the welfare state in the late 1940s; and again, in the decade or so after the UK joined the then EEC. I would further argue that it was those changes which kickstarted the long-term drift to what would now be recognised as the cultural/nativist right in a Conservative Party, which had begun to fear the changing definition of Britishness.

What we saw in the 2016 referendum was, I think, something akin to a revolution within ‘English-only’ nationalism; a nationalism which was discomfited by the rise of nationalism in the Celtic fringes of the UK and the accompanying rise of a new EU nationalism as the EEC shifted to the EC, the EU and now to what is, in essence, a new electoral/economic/geo-political superpower in which the UK (or the English part of it) was being reduced to the status of bit player – or so they thought.

What Brexit brought to the fore was the hard evidence of the competing nationalisms within the United Kingdom: English, Irish, Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish, not to mention the slew of other, smaller nationalisms which grew as a consequence of hundreds of years of immigration. When we talk of the United Kingdom we are talking about all of those competing nationalisms.

I think it’s likely that a decade or so of Starmer and the reinvention – although maybe rebirth is a better description – of the Conservative Party will settle things down a bit. Reform is not like its populist cousins in France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe: it has no base in the Euro Parliament, or in the House of Commons. Which means that it’s left with not much more than social media, podcasts, cable channels and what remains of GB News to promote its agenda. It has no big hitter other than Farage – and he’s likely to end up in Washington with President Trump.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage is also embroiled in a dispute with the BBC
Reform UK has no big hitters other than its leader Nigel Farage (Paul Marriott/PA)

A super-majority for Labour and the likelihood of a decade of Starmer will change the political dynamics utterly. Farage will get bored. Many of those who rallied to Reform will get bored. The party will split – as the National Front, Ukip and the Brexit Party split. Those of us who have observed party-political unionism in NI for decades will know the pattern. And after the turmoil of Brexit, I’m fairly sure the traditional centre will pull itself together in the search for the sort of political/parliamentary stability we took for granted.

All of which brings me back to Starmer. This is a man who didn’t expect to find himself as the prime minister with potentially the largest majority in British history. He is not a revolutionary. He craves stability. And deep down he strikes me as a rather old-fashioned sort of one-nation UK unionist; the sort of unionist and sort of prime minister who doesn’t want to subject himself or the UK to another round of debilitating, destabilising constitutional factionalism.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has repeatedly refused to commit to scrapping the two-child cap
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

That doesn’t mean he will stand in the way of a united Ireland. But nor will he be leading the charge for it. It doesn’t mean he will close his eyes to electoral realities in Northern Ireland. But nor will he be pushing a border poll to the top of his agenda.

It doesn’t mean he won’t chat to his Irish counterparts; but he will do so against a background in which key players there, including Leo Varadkar, have acknowledged the need to play the long game rather that the headlong rush game.

A united Ireland may come at some point, but the political/electoral/governing establishment in Ireland and the UK is in no rush. Both lived through the chaos of Brexit and both know they are a long, long way from creating a form of Irish unity which could guarantee stability in the short term, let alone the long term.