GROWING tensions between the UK parties and the SNP could be detrimental to Anglo-Scottish relationships, writes Bill Jamieson.
Politics is always a gamble. But around the table this time there’s an unusually big crowd. The stakes are high. Jostling and jeering have broken out – always a sign of trouble about to kick off.
SNP supporters hungry for the spoils of victory will insist that every advantage is pressed
Across Scotland an epochal surge of SNP support continues to build. A landmark change in Scottish politics looks under way. The cry is “more powers”. But it could result in many Scots being the losers.
Down south, the mood is increasingly wary. The betting odds still favour a Miliband premiership dependent, on a confidence and supply basis, on SNP support.
Even before the wrangling has begun on the terms and conditions of such an arrangement, the mood is turning. If, as seems possible, more people in England vote Conservative but it’s Miliband, backed by Alex Salmond, who stands triumphantly on the steps of 10 Downing Street, this will not go down well. Not well at all.
And this is not the end, or the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning. There’s the leverage that a powerful SNP contingent would then start to exercise – pressing home the “more powers” agenda in full, curtailment of spending cuts, higher taxes for the better off, more borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament, a deal over Trident – the more that Labour is made to concede, the more emboldened the SNP will feel in securing “the best possible deal”.
In Scotland, SNP supporters hungry for the spoils of victory will insist that every advantage is pressed and no opportunity lost to take maximum advantage to secure a historic constitutional revolution.
Meanwhile, opposition Conservatives, thwarted over their ambitions for an EU referendum, will rage and howl from the back benches. Unless and until they can persuade other minority parties to join in a motion of no confidence that could trigger another election, they are powerless.
A febrile atmosphere? If the mood is not already sufficiently charged, consider what it may well be like when the horns of government are locked and the battle for power engaged. The anger, bullying and bile that characterised much of the referendum campaign could be set for a return if Labour attempts resistance. We would then be locked in the political equivalent of Eugene O’Neill’s despairing Long Day’s Journey into Night: a build-up of sulphurous emotion, ending in explosive denouement.
Across England, how is all this likely to play? Many will feel entrapped by a “Scottish question” that just will not go away, despite all the concessions, present and prospective, on devolution. Nothing seems enough. Now the issue is front stage and centre in a UK parliament gridlocked and incapable of any major legislative decision without Scottish support.
These are the combustible elements of what some are calling “a rampant Jockophobia” down south: a growing English antipathy curdling into hatred of Scotland.
Actually, as the commentator Matthew Parris pointed out last week, this is incorrect. “What we’re seeing here”, he wrote, “isn’t passion. It’s worse than that, it’s irritation: a cold disregard, a curl of the lip, a far more corrosive force. It is a turning away, a hardening of the heart. When English voters say, ‘Why don’t they just sod off then, if that’s what they want?’, they really mean it. The love has gone… the iron has entered England’s soul.”
Surely this is a lurid exaggeration? But when I put this view to a young Scot working in England and hoping to hear a robust denial, the retort was as forceful as it was bleak: “That ship has already sailed.”
Now all this need not matter much – and certainly won’t in Scotland on election day. The English said in the referendum that they loved us, and now, when we put our case in Westminster and the Union, they hate us. Who much cares what an ill-informed England thinks? But it’s an attitude that could condemn many Scots to being the losers in the power struggle ahead. How we pursue “the Vow”, as much as the agenda itself, is critically important.
The intense Labour-hating and outright dismissal of the party that could secure the most UK votes in May doesn’t bode well for the necessary give-and-take in negotiations that is at the heart of all parliamentary politics.
And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the many Scots and their families accustomed to easy cross-Border mobility and assimilation across the UK.
Let’s hope First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is right when she speaks of the SNP entering a friendly and constructive dialogue at Westminster. Unfortunately, “friendly and constructive dialogue” are not the first words that English voters immediately associate with Alex Salmond, the putative SNP Commons leader.
I have always thought that in politics there is more to be gained than we appreciate by a recognition that opponents may have a point and work at ways to secure compromise and agreement. It is even more effective when accompanied by that fast disappearing quality in political life: a modicum of charm. The retention of goodwill is paramount for any subsequent political settlement to work – and work to everyone’s advantage. Aftermath matters – and it will crucially do so here.
This hardening of attitudes could be particularly problematic in the event of a southern backlash against the former first minister’s goading and taunting.
In particular, it doesn’t look good for those “Sudetenland Scots” who for generations have moved without barrier or hindrance from one part of the UK to another, whose work and family commitments straddle the Border and those who value the freedom to do likewise and might in future follow in their footsteps. Many of these Sudetenlanders would soon sense the tawdry legacy of anti-Scottish feeling: the barriers going up, the invisible discrimination.
Meanwhile, and as important, are those many more in Scotland whose daily business requires co-operation and trust with customers and suppliers across the UK. They, too, could be losers, for these intangibles matter greatly.
For “more powers” campaigners the greater prize at stake is a future federal constitution for the UK. That can only work in a spirit of co-operation and a respect for opinions with which we might not agree. Failure here could condemn Scots to being the losers, not the gainers, from “more powers”.
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