Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

It's time for nice guys to be more Machiavellian

Two's company: John McCallister and Basil McCrea shake on their new party
Two's company: John McCallister and Basil McCrea shake on their new party

I once asked Basil McCrea if he had read Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance political strategist.

He hadn't, but he had a copy of Machiavelli's most famous work, The Prince, on his bookshelves. He should dig it out between now and the formal launch of his new party in April.

"This is a common failing of mankind, never to anticipate a storm when the sea is calm," Machiavelli wrote, advising Lorenzo de Medici to anticipate change. Or, as the modern management mantra puts it, "failing to plan is planning to fail".

Mr McCrea seemed almost taken by surprise when he found himself suddenly standing outside the UUP organisation alongside John McCallister.

He had clearly been thinking in terms of a slower exit, argued out in disciplinary appeals. That would have been appropriate – if events hadn't intervened to force his hand.

As soon as the unionist parties made Nigel Lutton their joint candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election, Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister had to deliver on their threat to leave the UUP if this happened. They should have been prepared for such a storm. It had been brewing for weeks.

When it hit, they didn't initially know whether to start a new party or join an existing one. And they have yet to pick a name. None of this is fatal, but it is a rickety start.

Now that they are running their own show, rather than sitting in judgment on Mike Nesbitt's problems in the UUP, they need to establish a clear brand and a message that sets them apart from other parties. They also need friends.

This involves Machiavellian calculations. They need, as Machiavelli advised, to show themselves as true friends to those whose support they seek and pin their colours to the mast on every decisive issue.

In the Assembly, they have made a good start at using their elbows. They held the balance of power on many of the amendments on the recent Justice Bill and they used it.

When the Assembly Commission meets to consider its review of flag-flying at Stormont, the two main parties will, once again, hold the balance of power and they will need to use their votes decisively. That will send a powerful message that they can make a difference.

There is undoubtedly a realignment in unionism under way and they are well-placed to grab a chunk of support, as the UUP moves closer to the DUP.

Increasing numbers of people are stopping voting, while most Catholics are telling pollsters that they favour remaining in the UK, but won't vote for a unionist party. Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister are saying that their new party will be pro-Union, but will not call itself unionist. There is a market for civic unionism, if only they can tap it.

A new movement can provide focus and choice to discontented voters. They are both able politicians, but they need to be clear, decisive and quick on their feet to be noticed.

In the UUP, they were internal critics who could benefit from setbacks if the party made wrong choices. Running their own show is a tougher proposition.

They must anticipate more storms in the months ahead.

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