Euan McColm: Sturgeon’s threat might backfire

The First Minister "flexed her political muscle". Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The First Minister "flexed her political muscle". Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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TERRIBLE ideas are not always easy to recognise. Sometimes they come dressed up as good ones. What might seem a smashing wheeze at its birth won’t necessarily grow up to be one.

That’s why it’s a good idea to consider the implications of our bright ideas before we start laying decking in the back garden or attending an office night out.

It’s not hard to see why First Minister Nicola Sturgeon thought it was a good idea to flex her political muscle over the issue of Trident nuclear weapons last week. Newly elected Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is hardly backward about declaring his admiration for former prime minister Tony Blair. And, for the SNP, where there is Tony Blair there is the opportunity to discuss the Iraq War and the downright bloodthirstiness of New Labour.

So, as Murphy kicked off his leadership campaign, Sturgeon made headlines with a fairly substantial demand of a future Westminster government. Under her leadership, the SNP would only prop up a minority administration if the Trident programme was abolished. To pay for nuclear weapons at a time of austerity, said Sturgeon, was “economic lunacy”.

But while it might have seemed a good idea to make Trident a red-line issue, it was in fact a terrible one.

Opposition to nuclear weapons was fundamental to Sturgeon’s politicisation in the 1980s. It is an issue about which she has long spoken and her personal views would appear to have changed little down the decades.

The first of Sturgeon’s mistakes is to believe that a majority of Scots feel as passionately about the matter as she does. Social attitudes surveys show us that there is not a majority of support for abolition of Trident. Yes, 47 per cent of us would like to see the back of nuclear submarines in the Clyde; the rest us either support the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent or simply do not care.

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And even among those Scots who would dearly like Trident to be scrapped, many would prefer that – if it is to remain part of the UK’s defence system – it stays in Scotland. Seen from the air, Scotland does not resemble a huge CND badge.

I’m inclined to agree with some in the Labour party who feel that, on this issue, Sturgeon has little more capital to make: those who are fiercely opposed to Trident, to the point where it has an impact on their voting decisions, are surely already lost to Labour (and the Conservatives). Where is the political gain for Sturgeon playing hardball on an issue where she’s already won the support of those who actually care about getting rid of Trident?

But the assumption that a majority of Scots are hugely exercised about the future of the nuclear deterrent pales into insignificance when we look at a greater misjudgment. Sturgeon has set herself up as a potential wrecker of the next Westminster government when – and let’s not kid ourselves that the Yes campaign was within a whisker of victory – a convincing majority of Scots has just declared that they want to remain within the United Kingdom.

The First Minister is now operating in British, rather than Scottish, politics, and her binary approach fails to recognise the priorities of Scots at UK elections.

The Scottish Labour party may be in trouble right now, but examination of election results down the years shows that Scots’ prime concern when it comes to Westminster is keeping the Tories out.

The SNP was unable to transfer its Scottish Parliament success of 2007 into a Westminster triumph in 2010 because, despite the facts that the nationalists enjoyed good poll ratings and the administration at Holyrood had developed a reputation for competence and efficiency, it could not promise to prevent a Conservative government.

How, then, does it make sense for Sturgeon to put forward a position which might, in fact, enable the Tories to win?

Polls consistently show us that next year’s general election may not produce a decisive result, with no party able to form an overall majority. Just as was the case in the aftermath of the 2010 vote, we may find ourselves waiting to find out which parties are able to strike a coalition agreement. If the SNP, as seems entirely likely, improves on its current tally of six MPs, then Labour may well find that the Nationalists – whether in a formal or informal arrangement – are necessary to carry them to power.

Would Sturgeon really use Trident as a red-line issue with Labour in these circumstances? The consequences of doing so would appear grave: if Sturgeon scuppered a potential Labour administration, then the only party to benefit would be the Conservatives. And they love Trident.

Anyone deluding themselves that Sturgeon might be able to negotiate the removal of Trident next year should consider something else: the other guy will get a say in the matter.

The idea that Miliband would strike such a deal is preposterous. Imagine: a new world leader, carried to power only after agreeing to scrap the nation’s nuclear weapons at the behest of a minority party. What planet is Sturgeon on?

Sturgeon’s mission statement may be that she will put Scotland first but she must recognise that the referendum result shows that, for the majority, Scotland’s interests and those of the rest of the United Kingdom are inextricably linked. She cannot play this issue as a way of destabilising the UK.

During the referendum campaign, Sturgeon spent a great deal of time appealing directly to Labour voters. Some in Labour will tell you that she succeeded.

The smart thing, then, would be to enhance Labour’s election offer rather than describe a scenario where Sturgeon prevents Ed Miliband from becoming prime minister.

Jim Murphy’s message to Scots voters as the general election approaches will be that only Labour can prevent a Tory government.

Nicola Sturgeon needs to counter that with something more positive than the threat she could make government impossible for Labour. «

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