Joyce McMillan: Perils of playing Westminster game

Nicola Sturgeon might be immune to the lure of Westminster politics ' but is her party? Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon might be immune to the lure of Westminster politics ' but is her party? Picture: PA

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Nicola Sturgeon must recognise the danger of being sucked into a political system Scots no longer trust, writes Joyce McMillan

ON A grey February day, Scotland’s new First Minister makes a trip to London, and succeeds in ruffling a few Westminster Establishment feathers. In the morning, she appears on the Today programme, denouncing the present government’s failed austerity policies; if they have worked, she cogently asks, why do we still need even more and deeper cuts, half a decade on? In the middle of the day, she delivers a lecture at University College London, expanding on her preferred plan for a modest year-on-year expansion of UK public spending. And in the early evening – letting her hair down a little – she is interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, telling him, somewhat sassily, that the Westminster Establishment needs “the fright of its life”, and that the SNP is just the party to administer it.

All in all, the visit is a success. Nicola Sturgeon performs with her usual impressive competence and flair, in the full knowledge that she is only saying what millions of centre-left English voters already think. And although – on the day when the HSBC banking scandal breaks at Westminster – she fails to make the main BBC television news, by the end of the day even the Spectator blog is telling its readers that David Cameron is lucky to be facing Ed Miliband across the despatch box, rather than a more confident and charismatic centre-left politician in the shape of Ms Sturgeon.

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Pleasing as it is, though, to see a talented politician from one of the UK’s new devolved parliaments giving Westminster some food for thought, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that there are some serious dangers for the SNP in the party’s current push to become a serious Westminster player. The first and most obvious danger lies in the possibility that despite their current impressive opinion poll ratings, the SNP will not do so well in the coming General Election as those polls predict. There certainly has been a sea-change in Scottish opinion during the referendum year, with a far higher percentage of people now at least willing to consider voting SNP for Westminster. Yet there are elections – the 1992 general election is perhaps the most notorious example – where voters will declare one intention to the pollsters, perhaps to administer a well-deserved fright to the ruling party of the day; and then eventually, in the polling booth, revert to the more familiar option, particularly when it comes attached to the name of a well-liked local sitting MP.

Beyond that, though, there is a far deeper danger for the SNP; and it lies in the profound temptation of Westminster politics, the risk of being sucked into a big-table political game of which many Scottish voters – and certainly the majority of those who voted Yes in September – are now heartily sick. The SNP’s current strength, as a political force in Scotland, lies in the rare combination it offers of reasonable and proven competence in government and substantial distance from the Westminster power-structures that voters seem to find increasingly alienating, sleaze-ridden and untrustworthy.

When Nicola Sturgeon told Jon Snow that she had barely met Ed Miliband, and had never discussed the possibility of any post-election alliance with him, she was therefore emphasising this huge asset the SNP now holds, of simply having little or nothing to do with the tangled webs of financial, media and political power exposed in successive Westminster scandals, from this week’s HSBC affair, back through the phone-hacking scandal, to the massive exposure back in 2009 of the astonishing scams surrounding MPs’ expenses. And let’s be clear; the SNP has stood apart from these scandals not because of any intrinsic moral superiority, but because until now, this Scotland-only party has not been deemed part of the Westminster game, and has therefore not been subjected to the same intense and often corrupting pressures that have so deeply affected the Labour Party over the last generation.

In stepping up to the Westminster table, promising to vote for the first time on UK-wide issues, and openly seeking to influence the direction of UK policy, the SNP’s new leader therefore puts herself and her party in the firing-line as never before. If they do win enough seats in May to hold the balance of Westminster power, they will be criticised, bullied and scrutinised in the UK media to an unprecedented extent; and, behind the scenes, they will also be schmoozed, lobbied, and seduced as never before. That Nicola Sturgeon will personally keep her armour bright and her politics uncorrupted by sleaze, is beyond doubt; like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom she resembles in many ways, she seems genuinely indifferent to – almost bored by – the idea of personal self-aggrandisement.

Yet although she is careful always to say that her party’s top priority at Westminster will be to promote Scotland’s interests, it’s difficult not to detect another temptation behind Nicola Sturgeon’s enthusiastic talk of becoming part of a “progressive alliance” there; a very British yearning, before Scotland sets off on its own, to help right the wrongs of the whole post-Thatcher period, which, as Nicola Sturgeon often says, drove her into SNP politics in the first place.

As the Spectator hints – in other words – the Labour Party should certainly be asking itself why, given her political instincts, Nicola Sturgeon is the leader of the SNP today, and not of the Labour Party, either in Scotland or at UK level.

What she should be asking herself, though, is how far she can go down this road of involvement in Westminster politics, and of possible deals with the Labour Party, without at least unsettling, and perhaps finally disgusting and disappointing, the hundreds of thousands who now support the SNP precisely because it is not part of that metropolitan system.

The party’s leadership should always recall that it enjoys its current unique level of support precisely because it offers not more of the same, but something new; because it has turned away from the long British attempt to reform what increasingly appears unreformable, and switched its social-democratic impulse to a smaller, more light-footed national project, with much less imperial and neoliberal baggage, greater room for manoeuvre, massive untapped potential, and therefore – all things being equal – a much greater chance of success.

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