New politics of Scotland dominated by the constitution will force these old foes to work together, says Euan McColm.
IF you enjoy a flutter, it’s not an unattractive bet. Bookies will currently give you odds of 6-1 on Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson becoming the next First Minister.
The Tories - once believed extinct in Scotland - have briskly revived to the point where it’s far from unthinkable that they could form a Government at Holyrood after the 2021 election.
If, as polls suggest, our political divide is no longer a matter of left versus right but one of unionism versus nationalism, it is entirely possible the next Scottish Parliamentary election will result in a majority of pro-UK MSPs. The SNP might easily be the largest party but if even Green support could not create a Holyrood majority, it is not at all certain that the nationalists would take control.
This scenario has been considered in Tory circles and the current position is that, in 2021, the party will respect the right of the largest party to try to form a government.
This stance falls some way short of offering assistance for that largest party - most likely the SNP - to achieve this objective.
Should the SNP’s candidate for First Minister fail to get a majority of votes in the chamber, the prospect of the Tories attempting to agree a coalition of pro-UK parties would become a reality.
The Conservatives are expected to come second in terms of vote share behind the SNP in May’s elections to Scotland’s 32 councils. This humiliation of Labour, until recently the dominant force in Scottish local government, will do no harm to the idea that the Scottish Tories have real momentum under the leadership of Miss Davidson.
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In 2016, the Scottish Tory campaign urged voters to give the party the chance to lead the opposition in Holyrood. Voters did precisely that.
In 2021, the Conservatives will ask the electorate to make Ruth Davidson First Minister.
This will be, by any standards, a big ask. Nonetheless, the Tories will argue that they are ready to govern, something they have not said in Scotland for dozens of SNP generations.
There are - the historic and abiding lack of popularity of the Tories among a sizeable tranche of the Scottish public, aside - obvious stumbling blocks to Miss Davidson ever achieving her lofty ambition. The result of a second independence referendum - proposed by the SNP for late next year or early in 2019 - will, after all, result in defeat for either First Minister Nicola Sturgeon or Miss Davidson. One or other of these politicians will be damaged by indyref2.
That’s in the second referendum goes ahead as proposed, of course.
Tory MSPs are currently fairly bullish in their belief that the SNP will not hold another referendum before the 2021 Holyrood election.
The theory runs that the full implications of Brexit will not be known for some time to come and that, therefore, the SNP will be unable to offer voters the opportunity to make an informed decision on the constitution that it has pledged.
There are some in the SNP who share this view. Miss Sturgeon may be a model of confidence while making speeches about independence, but behind the scenes there is real uncertainty about the wisdom of forcing a second vote while polls stubbornly continue to show majority support for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Some SNP MSPs would prefer to see indyref2 postponed.
Throughout the 2014 independence referendum campaign, the SNP made much of the fact the Labour Party and the Conservatives had joined forces in the Better Together campaign. The “standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories” barb did considerable damage to the Labour Party, many of whose supporters voted Yes and have subsequently transferred their political allegiance to the SNP.
Those who have stuck with Labour since 2014 are, I think, impervious to that particular line of attack; what damage it was ever going to wreak has been wreaked.
But could Labour and the Tories ever work together in government?
Tory sources say that, if there is a pro-UK majority at Holyrood in 2021, MSPs should look at “examples” from across Europe where seemingly unlikely coalitions are commonplace.
Labour sources say that the issue of an independence referendum will impact on how the party views voting alongside the Tories. If the constitutional question remains a live one in 2021, Labour would work with the Tories to prevent a second referendum. If the constitutional question has been settled or kicked into the long grass, Labour hostility towards the Tories can be expected to resume as it was in the foreign country of pre-2014 Scotland.
Next month’s council elections will give us a good idea of whether Scotland’s constitutional tribes are now cemented in place. If they are, then it will require formal co-operation between Labour and the Tories to end SNP rule at Holyrood.
In many ways, the SNP is a coalition of left and right; there are nationalist politicians who see themselves as socialists while others are closer to the Tories, especially when it comes to the matter of the economy. Why, then, shouldn’t unionists from across the spectrum come together to get the SNP out of office?
For decades, Labour and the Conservatives have been the fiercest of enemies but the new politics of Scotland will force these foes to work hand-in-hand if either is to have the slightest chance of ministerial power at any point in the foreseeable future.
Ruth Davidson as First Minister may be the price Labour has to pay to get back in the game.