SNP prospects: a nightmare scenario?

20 Mar 15

The SNP is wary of coalition with Labour, but what better way to cement the Union than to have nationalists participate in Westminster government?

There has been mounting alarm in the press about the ‘nightmare’ of a Scottish National Party-Labour coalition after the May general election. Opinion polls suggest that the nationalists might win up to 50 seats. Meanwhile, neither Labour nor the Conservatives look likely to win outright. Westminster is now a parliament of minorities.

The Conservatives’ latest election poster depicts a smug-looking Alex Salmond with Ed Miliband in his pocket. Forget that Alex Salmond is no longer leader of the Scottish National Party – it’s now Nicola Sturgeon – the idea that the SNP would be ‘ruling’ England, as has been suggested, is very wide of the mark. Junior partners do not get to rule the roost, as Nick Clegg has discovered in coalition with the Tories.

It is, anyway, most unlikely that a formal SNP-Labour coalition would happen. The SNP do not want one, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to end up like the Liberal Democrats. They have built their success in Scotland on outflanking Labour on the left and in coalition they would have to swallow policies – such as spending cuts and renewal of Trident – that would damage their radical image back home.

All that Sturgeon is likely to sign up for is some kind of electoral deal, like the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s. The SNP would support Labour in any confidence motions and on its budget, and that might well be enough. We are in a different era not only because of the decline of the big UK parties, but also because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011.

The Act makes it very difficult to call a general election without the support of two-thirds of MPs in the House of Commons. Prime ministers in trouble can therefore no longer use the threat of a snap election to pull unwilling or uncooperative partners into line. This has interesting consequences.

It means a much looser coalition is possible than the Conservatives and LibDems agreed five years ago. The SNP can refuse to support Labour on a range of issues without the risk of forcing an election they might lose. As a minority prime minister, Ed Miliband would not need a formal agreement with the SNP. Minority government is not as chaotic as it might sound. In fact, the 2007-11 Holyrood administration was rather successful in Scotland.

But any way you look at it, the SNP in Westminster will not be in a position to ‘hold the UK to ransom’ over Trident or home rule or public spending. It would, however, be able to support Labour’s left-wing in easing austerity and on issues including extending childcare and increasing the National Minimum Wage.

The SNP would not be able to force a second independence referendum. The nationalists are now focused on winning the 2016 Holyrood elections, and the best way to do that is to show they can make a difference at Westminster by negotiation, rather than disruption.

Even if it were possible for the SNP to provoke another election, they would think very carefully. They remember only too well the last time they overplayed their hand. That was in 1979 when they withdrew support from the Labour administration of James Callaghan, hastening the election that brought in Margaret Thatcher. Labour has never let them forget.

Anyway, having the SNP participate in Westminster government is actually what Unionists should be seeking. What better way to cement the Union than to give nationalists a stake in running it? The hysterical newspaper commentary about Scots dictating to England and grabbing English taxpayers’ money only benefits the SNP. Westminster is a unitary parliament and all MPs are supposed to be equal, no matter their nationality.

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