DESPITE the downsides, involving the SNP in a UK government can only serve to ensure the United Kingdom will not be broken writes Allan Massie.
So, Ed Miliband has ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the SNP – though not co-operation on a “confidence and supply” basis. Perhaps, or perhaps not: never, as the wise old hack had it, believe anything till it’s been officially denied.
On the face of it of course a Labour/SNP alliance in any form is preposterous. Here in Scotland there is no love lost, to put it mildly, between the two parties. They can’t stand each other. Moreover, on the fundamental Scottish political question, they have nothing in common. Labour is a Unionist party; destruction of the Union is the SNP’s reason for existence. Scottish Labour merely dislikes David Cameron; it loathes Alex Salmond, who hopes to be back in the Commons as MP for Gordon. Any alliance seems as improbable, and would appear as cynical, as a pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But of course just such a pact was agreed and signed in the late summer of 1939; few things are impossible in politics.
Look across the Irish Sea. Who would have thought that the late Reverend Ian Paisley, the champion of loyalist Protestant Ulster, would have led his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) into government, sharing power with Sinn Fein? But that’s what he did, and against the expectation of many, the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition has endured. Indeed it looks as permanent as anything can be in the shifting world of politics. Peter Robinson, Dr Paisley’s successor, and Martin McGuinness may not be bosom chums but they have now worked together, in relative harmony, for years.
Let us suppose, therefore, that after the May election. Mr Miliband is prime minister, supported, either in formal coalition, or informally, by the SNP. It looks improbable, but no more improbable, that a possible alternative: a Conservative government supported, formally, or informally, by Ukip. What would be the consequences?
First, this would represent a remarkable shift in the position of the SNP. Theoretically, its commitment to full independence would remain. In practice, drawn into collaboration with Labour at Westminster, and assuming some responsibility for the government of the United Kingdom, the SNP would have accepted the legitimacy of the Union and of the UK government. It would, of course, hope to influence that government in accordance with what it perceived to be Scottish interests, and it would certainly seek to obtain further powers for the Scottish Parliament. But it would no longer be an outsider. Instead it would have become an integral part of the British establishment. Some of Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches since she became First Minister of Scotland have given the impression that she might be quite happy with this, all the more so because the economic prospects for an independent Scotland look even less rosy than they did 12 months ago before the oil price went into free-fall.
Northern Ireland again offers an interesting example or lesson. Sinn Fein remains ideologically committed to the end of partition and the incorporation of the Six Counties in the Republic. Yet it has tacitly accepted that this isn’t on the cards, and that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for the foreseeable future. So it collaborates with the DUP, and with the UK government, in the best interests of the Province and its own community. It is not far-fetched to envisage the SNP playing a comparable role at Westminster.
What, however, would be the political consequences here in Scotland? The SNP would be taking a risk. The junior partner in a coalition is vulnerable. The present state of the Liberal Democrats should serve as an awful warning. Even if there were no formal coalition, the SNP might suffer from its association with Labour, should the Labour government run into trouble.
That might not happen – is indeed unlikely to happen – before next year’s Scottish parliamentary election. Even so, association with Labour might do the SNP some damage. Despite the party’s well-advertised discipline, there are surely Nationalists who would regard collaboration in the British government as betrayal of its fundamental purpose: the breaking of the Union.
Then there are the voters. The SNP has long described itself as a social democratic party – but not a socialist one – and it has drawn much of its support from parts of Scotland, especially the North-east, where Labour has never been strong. It has won parliamentary seats – at Westminster and Holyrood – in regions which roundly rejected independence in September. Would it retain this support if it were perceived to be propping up a Labour government, or would right-of-centre voters who have previously backed the SNP drift away?
No doubt Ruth Davidson, as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, loyally hopes that David Cameron is still Prime Minister after the election. Yet, if there is a calculating Machiavellian streak in her mind, she must surely have moments when she rather hopes to see a Labour/SNP deal at Westminster, and the SNP tarred with a left-wing Labour brush. Wouldn’t this at last make the long looked for, much touted, Tory revival in Scotland just that bit more likely? And I daresay that Scottish Liberal Democrats might also regard the prospect of a Labour/SNP alliance with equanimity, if not outright enthusiasm.
Of course, such an alliance may not happen, whatever the election result. Both parties should be wary of it. Ed Miliband must surely realise that doing a deal with the SNP would arouse resentment in much of England, while Scottish Labour must regard any accommodation with the SNP as an act of treachery on the part of their leader. Conversely, the SNP cannot fail to be alert to the dangers of diluting the pure spirit of nationalism by close association with a Unionist party.
Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, however a Labour/SNP alliance worked out, it might be good for the Union. If it turned out badly, the SNP might suffer electorally here; if well, then drawing the SNP into the body of the kirk as an associate member of the British establishment might weaken the appeal of full independence, and demonstrate that the Union could work – was indeed working – in the interest of Scotland and the Scottish people. Interesting times, very interesting.
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