Just as Tolstoy observed that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so it is with dysfunctional governments. Each is dysfunctional in its own way, though there are certain family resemblances between them — a certain shared form allowing you to characterise the ideal type. That Belfast was the latest stop on the Conservative Party’s leadership roadshow therefore has its own pleasing symmetry: Northern Ireland has been devoid of a functioning government since February, a status the rest of the country has since come to share. Of course, it’s always sad to see an entity of such promise torn apart by impenetrable feuds and bitter sectarian loyalties. But then that’s the Conservative Party for you.
As for Northern Ireland, the province suffers all the state failures of the mainland, only more so. The longest hospital waiting times in the UK, the highest rate of economically inactive people, the lowest productivity, and the least disposable income in the entire country. The region displays all the dysfunctions of Britain’s political economy boiled down to its purest essence, with its own extra dysfunctions thrown in for good measure. Rather than Northern Ireland surging forward to join the rest of the country in prosperity and good governance, as was once hoped, in its downward trajectory the rest of the country is now coming to resemble Ulster: the state’s centre is now barely distinguishable from the neglected periphery.
It cannot be claimed that the people of Belfast awaited with bated breath the arrival of Truss and Sunak, the two squabbling representatives of what is now less a political party than a trade union for affluent pensioners in southeast England. But beneath yesterday’s gloomy Ulster sky, six women waving Union flag placards stood outside the venue’s gates, in what they insisted I didn’t describe as a protest, but rather as “a welcome to the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom”. I asked why they were there: “We’re hoping that either of them come out and recognise the very important part that Northern Ireland plays in the United Kingdom, and honour our votes over Brexit,” Anne told me. Was she a Conservative member or voter? “Oh no!” she laughed, shaking her head.
The entire Northern Ireland membership of the Conservative Party, around 600 people, could have comfortably seated itself in the function room of the grand Gothic-revival Culloden hotel where the hustings were held. In the event, only 250 tickets were released. The party has no elected representatives in the province: at the last Assembly election, in May, its chairman Matthew Robinson received 254 votes. What the point of all this was, other than a vague gesture of metropolitan support for the Union, was unclear. But for the audience, perhaps that was enough.
When Liz Truss came on stage, she declared herself a child of the Union, by virtue of having lived in Paisley as a child. When Rishi Sunak followed her, bounding on stage with headboy-ish enthusiasm, his opening words of “Good afternoon, my fellow Britons!”, delivered with assumed Johnsonian bonhomie, drew applause from the crowd and scorn from the assembled lobby hacks.
The speeches were largely boilerplate, delivered with the enthusiastic sincerity of a fading rock band telling the people of a Midwest small-town how much they love the place. Both talked up their love of what Truss called “our fantastic Union”, their desire to “fix” the economy, the NHS, the country as a whole. In a part of the UK where 27.7% of the population are public sector employees, both shied away from the talk of shrinking the state that does so well in their true-blue comfort zones. Much like the personal immigration story with which Sunak opened, Truss’s repeated pledges to cut the taxes on which the province’s economy depends was met with polite silence. Instead, both promised a Freeport for Northern Ireland, each claiming it as their own personal passion project; each also claimed ownership of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which may or may not end the province’s political deadlock if and when it passes through the Lords. Both made a point of emphasising that a woman is in fact a woman, to audience applause.
The questions, as always, were more interesting, not least because journalists weren’t permitted to ask any. Truss was twice asked about the prospects of repealing, or at least amending Northern Ireland’s new law permitting abortion, passed by Westminster in 2019 during the province’s last period of suspended devolution. Would Liz Truss be the “Wilberforce” who would “see infanticide abolished in our province?” She would not: “We need all of our laws to apply across all of the United Kingdom — that’s what being in a union means,” she replied, gaining her the loudest applause of the entire event.
Given that she’d choose Northern Ireland’s next Secretary of State, how would she ensure the role wasn’t given to just another “fly-in, fly-out, absentee political landlord?” She’d select the best person for the job, she replied as if that were the answer. Would she “kowtow to those running us as a colonial outpost, now bossed about by international bodies in Europe and America?” Summoning up her deepest Thatcherian dignity, she promised that she would “be very clear with people like Nancy Pelosi about what we need to do”.
When it was Sunak’s turn to hold the floor, his Thatcherite credentials came filtered through apostolic succession via Blair and Cameron. Responding to a nurse who complained that the only two emergency psychiatric beds in the province were mattresses on the floor, he replied in the manner of a senior prefect sternly but sadly informing the NHS that it had let the house down. “We have to be bold about the NHS,” he promised, before proposing a vague crackdown on patients missing their appointments.
A more polished performer than Truss — perhaps a little too polished for the audience, judging by the relative levels of applause — he promised he’d be “much tougher” on welfare claimants, to get people off benefits and into work. He doesn’t believe in “Lefty woke culture that seeks to cancel our culture, our values, our women”, he insisted, holding out for the applause that came, after a time. Wielding a smile like a scalpel, he pointed out that Truss’s proposed tax cuts would only save people on average wages £1 a week — and only save someone on her own wages £1,000 a year.
And then it was all over. What had been achieved? It was hard to say. Northern Ireland’s 600 Conservatives were hardly likely to win the battle for either candidate, and nor did either candidate have much beyond vague platitudes to offer Northern Ireland. When one audience member accused Johnson of lying to the Queen and the country, Truss responded with rare passion that he’d been “an excellent Prime Minister”, who’d delivered on Brexit, the vaccine and “standing up to Vladimir Putin” — all three of which will sound like victories from a fabled ancient past if and when the lights go out and the gas runs out this winter. Only Sunak, warning the audience that “the most important question facing our country in the short term is how we’re going to get through this winter”, briefly addressed the looming state capacity crisis that will define the next stage of British politics. If either of them have a concrete set of proposals to manage it, they were not unveiled on stage in Belfast.
Northern Ireland is a country performing far below its full potential, home to a vanished industrial heritage, landscapes of breath-taking beauty and a creative people perennially let down by dysfunctional politics and a political class unworthy of the people it is pledged to serve. In this, Northern Ireland entirely reflects the rest of the country: its most pressing problems, of weak state capacity and crumbling infrastructure, are those of Britain as a whole. Even if the province’s minuscule Conservative party membership was flattered by the hour-long attention of the Westminster class, fresh from a hustings the day before in another semi-detached province of our crumbling state, the candidates’ gaze is already focussed on the next leg of their needlessly drawn-out gladiatorial contest, even as the country falls apart around them. But the circus moves on. Whatever this is about, it isn’t about providing good governance.
Flying into Belfast, I reread Carl Schmitt’s seminal 1923 essay The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, in which the influential, if controversial, thinker observed that the parliamentary system was intended as “a means for selecting political leaders, a certain way to overcome political dilettantism and to admit the best and most able to political leadership”. But, he noted sadly, “whether parliament actually possesses the capacity to build a political elite has since become very questionable. Today one would certainly not think so optimistically about this selection instrument”. All in all, Schmitt observed, “parliamentarism has already produced a situation in which all public business has become an object of spoils and compromise for the parties and their followers, and politics, far from being the concern of an elite, has become the despised business of a rather dubious class of persons.” It is doubtful that the performance at the Culloden would have changed his mind, or that the rather dubious class of person on stage would have won him over.
To claim that the two duelling candidates represent the “best and most able” of a nation of 70 million people is absurd, but here we are. Like Northern Ireland, the country as a whole lacks a functioning government just when it needs it most. At a moment of historic crisis, the governing party fritters its attention away on a pointless contest to win over 0.03% of the population of a charming but economically and politically marginal province; or rather, to use it as a stage to speak to the lobby through which all power in Britain flows. There must be better ways of choosing a prime minister, or of running a country, than this strange performance. Northern Ireland surely deserves better than this, but so do we all.