The vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility.

The slippery slope argument is a well-known logical fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, it is almost universally wrong. Secondly, it is almost universally believed. This is because human beings are innately loss-averse, preferring the certainty of the here and now (however imperfect) to the unknown possibilities of change.

It is only when the here and now crosses a significant threshold of imperfection that uncertainty begins to look inviting. The mildly discontented compare the known and the unknown and say “don’t rock the boat, it could be worse”. The strongly discontented make the same comparison and say “anything would be better than this”.

This is the fundamental distinction between conservatism and radicalism. It is common in the West to assume that “conservative” is a synonym for “right-wing” but this is not strictly true. Margaret Thatcher fit the description of the classical social conservative but her economic reform programme was profoundly radical, coming from a conviction that the economy was in terminal decline and could only be rescued by extreme measures. During the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the “conservative” faction consisted of the hard-boiled gerontocrats of the unreformed Communist Party, and the radicals were Yeltsin and his free-market advisers.

So conservatism-with-a-small-c is not a left- or right-wing label, but a resistance to movement, in any direction, away from the established local norm. And a little bit of conservatism is usually good for you, as it discourages hasty change and allows space for due reflection before taking action. But too much conservatism, too acute a fear of the mythical slippery slope, leads inevitably to paralysis.

Unionism (in a UK context at least) is a fundamentally small-c conservative position, in that it is primarily concerned with the risks of change. A mild form of conservatism would seek to manage these risks without ruling out change entirely. But the Northern Irish version often tends towards resisting change at any cost, and this resistance to change is not limited to the constitutional question.

Conservatism, like other broad -isms such as fundamentalism or liberalism, is not a logical position so much as it is an emotional one, a conviction born of temperament rather than intellect. Someone who is conservative on constitutional matters will tend to be conservative in other political areas, because they employ the same emotional vocabulary.

And we can see a broad party-political correlation between constitutional, social and economic conservatism. No matter how much one may argue that gay marriage has nothing to do with national identity, it is still remarkable how strongly aligned the conservative-radical axis is in both matters. This correlation is stronger in party politics, where following the agreed line is expected, than it is in the opinion pages, where free-thinking political catholicism (with a small c) is more acceptable.

The DUP can therefore be understood on one level as a small-c conservative party, one which is quite content (unlike Thatcher) to drink the milk of government subvention, while standing firm against both social reform and constitutional uncertainty. They look out across the vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility and see only lions and tigers and bears.

And yet they voted for Brexit.

Because the DUP are also a deeply fundamentalist party. Religiously fundamentalist due to their roots in evangelical Protestantism, with its emphasis on returning to a simpler time when the faithful communed directly with God; but also politically fundamentalist, clinging to a concept of Westphalian sovereignty that dates from a simpler time, when a country could do whatever it liked within its own borders.

This “return to a simpler time” trope is key: while religious and political fundamentalisms may style themselves as “more authentic” forms of conservatism, they are not conservative at all. Because to make the world that they desire, they need to unmake the world that exists now. By trying to retreat into a sketchily-remembered past, they are just as radical as those who want to rush headlong into a sketchily-conceived future.

The nostalgic line drawings of Brexit fundamentalism could no better survive harsh reality than the idealistic line drawings of Communism. And yet simplistic ideas are seductive precisely because of their simplicity. The modern world is complex, baffling, exhausting. Simplicity is bliss.

And so the DUP, like their big-C Conservative allies, find themselves torn between their small-c conservative and radical wings – and in both cases the conservative factions are the pragmatic centrists, while the radical factions are the fundamentalist Brexiteers.

The triumph of the radicals may also help to explain their sudden onset of incompetence. Because when one is defending a strongly conservative position, all one needs to do is obstruct. The DUP’s infamous immovability is highly adapted to slow down processes, drag out negotiations and force the opposition to exhaust themselves into submission.

But this tactic does not work when one’s position is radically fundamentalist. Brexit is about action and change, and it is the EU’s institutional apparatus that is the conservative boulder in the road. Europe is standing still and the UK is the one squabbling itself into submission.

The DUP can’t stonewall Michel Barnier, because he is the conservative now, and the DUP are the radicals. They are the ones who took the leap into the brave unknown. And they’re still struggling to understand what just happened.

(Originally posted on Slugger)


Spectator sport

It’s always enjoyable watching an internal battle in a political party you aren’t a member of. The intra-UUP showdown between liberal standard-bearer Basil McCrea and his traditionalist rival Tom Elliott is starting to turn nasty.

Mr McCrea had accused Mr Elliott of inflicting a “painful insult” on PSNI Gaelic footballer Peadar Heffron, who was severely injured in a dissident car bomb attack.

In an extraordinary counter attack last night, Mr Elliott said he had been deeply hurt by his rival’s remarks.

“To make these lowdown comments that he has, I must say I have to question, for the first time, Basil McCrea as a colleague,” Mr Elliott said.

Amid appeals that the race should not become personal, the Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA said he now feared the party could be split.

“With this type of campaign I fail to understand how we can have any semblance of a united party at the end of this leadership campaign,” he added.

“If this is allowed to continue I believe it will destroy the party.”

This all stems from Elliott’s earlier statement that he has no intention of ever attending a GAA event (or Gay Pride, but that’s for another time). There is a certain strand of Unionist opinion that seems to have a horrified fascination with all things GAA, and can quote every small insult perpetrated by the organisation. The big insult, Rule 21, was repealed nearly a decade ago, so any substantial complaints usually boil down to rural clubs named after hunger strikers, and some romantic language in the GAA charter. Of course, these Unionists see what they want to see – for the vast majority of players, supporters and (in the Republic at least) the general public, the GAA is just sport. Elliott’s statement is, as one Slugger commenter put it, pure dog-whistle politics.
The battle is also interesting for what is missing. Both candidates, for example, have forsworn formal pacts with other parties. McCrea rules them out entirely, while Elliott is slightly warmer on “cooperation” with the DUP on certain (unstated) matters. And as Alex Kane points out, neither candidate has a convincing plan for how to reclaim lost votes:

McCrea wants to ‘reach out’ — but to whom? The sort of voters he’s after haven’t gone to Alliance; they didn’t go to the Conservatives (in the post-1990 period) and they didn’t go to UCUNF. So what would make them want to go to another reinvention of the UUP? He may want to make overtures to the SDLP, but how does he live with their increasingly ‘green’ agenda? How does he win over that mix of non-voting ‘Garden Centre Prods’ and pro-Union Catholics without diluting his brand of unionism even more? And how does he build his pluralist credentials if he closes the door to UCUNF? Meanwhile, Elliott will want to attract back the voters who have left the UUP. But how does he do that unless he swings it to the right of the DUP — and in the process loses the McCrea wing of the party? No one should underestimate the scale of the task facing the UUP’s next leader.

Read more:

The problem here is that the DUP has over the last ten years slowly crept onto the ground that the UUP used to take for granted. The DUP now sits on the centre of gravity of political Unionism and the UUP find themselves scattered and directionless. Sinn Féin have adopted a similar tactic, leaving the SDLP at odds whether to sell themselves on their green or red credentials. There is usually only room for one big-tent, populist party in any given polity. That NI has two is testament to its otherness. The Ulster Unionists seem to want to be a third, not out of any common conviction, but due to having no other reason to continue to exist.
Nicholas Whyte has an excellent analysis of the differences between the candidates, but it is his last paragraph that stands out for me:
My problem with it is that I miss the intellectual argument that a good society – inclusive, positive and pluralist, or nice to families, businessmen, farmers, children and old people – is necessarily one located within the Union. It seems to me that you can prioritise the Union (or a United Ireland, or a confederal Belgium for that matter) as a constitutional concept, or you can promote a state which is generally nice to all of its citizens, but you have to choose one as the priority over the other, and my choice will always be for the second, with deep suspicion of anyone who tells me that the only way to achieve that is by accepting their vision on the first. And my suspicion is that more voters in Northern Ireland are beginning to feel that way; and I am not sure that any party with ‘Unionist’ in its name can ever appeal to them.