Kenny Farquharson: Will SNP really be kingmaker?

It's an unlikely scenario, David Cameron or Ed Miliband courting Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty
It's an unlikely scenario, David Cameron or Ed Miliband courting Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty
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Despite their claims, the Nationalists are unlikely to play a part in creating the next Westminster government, argues Kenny Farquharson

LET me pose a hypothetical scenario and ask how it makes you feel. Because how you feel will illustrate a political truth about the tricky times we live in.

Let’s pretend it is May 2016, and the Holyrood election has again produced a humdinger of a finish.

Let’s say Jim Murphy has run Nicola Sturgeon close – far closer than anyone would have imagined a year or so previously. And yet Sturgeon has emerged triumphant, with the SNP beating Scottish Labour by just two seats.

But hud those horses and cool those beans. Murphy isn’t beat yet.

By putting together a rainbow alliance of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (who are in the huff with the SNP after Patrick Harvie has an eve-of-poll falling out with Fergus Ewing over fracking), Murphy manages to put together a slim majority of MSPs at Holyrood.

His party lost to the SNP. He lost to Sturgeon. And yet it is Jim Murphy who is standing on the steps of Bute House, getting ready for four years in power as Scotland’s first minister.

How does that make you feel? Put aside for one moment your own political allegiance. Does this outcome feel right? Does it feel legitimate? Does it feel fair? Is it OK that the second-placed party wins the ultimate prize? And that the party that did best in the election, and was backed by more voters than any of the others, is left with nothing?

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You may feel this is an affront to natural justice. You may feel Sturgeon has been cheated. You may feel this is just plain wrong.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and guess that most Scots would conclude the outcome of this hypothetical scenario doesn’t feel right at all. After all, in the most simple terms, Murphy lost and Sturgeon won. Nicola has the moral right to form a government, not Jim.

In this scenario, cold arithmetic isn’t enough to determine who gets to be first minister. It’s the public’s innate sense of what feels right, and what is fair, in the light of the final tally of votes and seats.

The bottom line here seems to be that the party with the largest number of seats gets to govern, even if that number falls short of a majority.

People are straightforward. They are suspicious of Machiavellians who contort and manipulate. They like clean rules. They want a clear winner whose legitimacy is beyond question.

Scotland’s system of proportional representation at Holyrood has been operating for 16 years now, so you’d think we were worldly-wise about how it works. But we still don’t see politics in the same way as many European countries, where it’s not unusual for the biggest party to lose to a cobbled-together collection of the parties that didn’t do as well.

In Scotland, that day is still some way off, if it arrives at all.

And if we in Scotland don’t have a continental view of these matters, I think we can assume that the good folk of England, with much less practical experience of multi-party politics, are going to have even less of a feel for it.

So, what does all this mean for the forthcoming UK General Election that will be held on 7 May this year?

If we apply the lessons of our hypothetical scenario, I think we can start to cut through some of the wishful thinking and wrong-headed assumptions.

In particular, I think we have to be sceptical about the view that says: “It doesn’t matter how many seats Labour gets, what matters is the Labour plus SNP total.”

Our Murphy/Sturgeon scenario suggests that this isn’t the case. My gut instinct is that in ten weeks’ time, whichever of the two biggest parties, Labour or the Tories, gets the biggest number of seats will be held, in the eyes of the British public, to have won the election. An alliance of the losers against the winner will lack the necessary legitimacy.

There will be those who argue this attitude is old hat. They will insist this extraordinary election is a watershed that rewrites the rules, with anything possible.

I’d argue the opposite is the case – that the confusion and multiplicity of options in this election make it all the more crucial that the outcome is decided in the most simple way possible.

Any fancy franchise could fatally undermine Westminster’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The fabled British sense of fair play simply wouldn’t allow the government to be decided by a dodgy deal that froze out the election winner.

No-one knows this better than the Lib Dems. They now have a curious role in the unwritten British constitution. Their role after a general election is to bolster the legitimacy of whichever of the two main parties, Labour or the Tories, wins the most seats.

You’ll notice I talk about the Lib Dems as kingmakers rather than the SNP. This, it seems to me, is basic logic. Both Labour and the Tories will see the Lib Dems as their first-choice political partner.

Why? Because it makes much more sense for a UK government to owe its legitimacy to parties that draw support from the whole of mainland Britain, rather than parties limited to Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. And in the aftermath of this General Election, legitimacy will be at a premium as never before.

The Nationalists and the Northern Irish parties will only come into play if the leading party, with Lib Dem support, is still short of the finishing line. Then the most likely partners will be those whose loyalty can be bought at the lowest political cost.

Does the SNP currently fit that bill? With Nicola Sturgeon’s red lines currently including the scrapping of Trident and “the end of austerity”, I’m not sure it does.

If a majority can be more easily secured with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party, or the SDLP, then why wouldn’t Ed Miliband do a deal with either of them instead?

The SNP is currently painting itself as kingmaker. But the chances of the party having any role in the creation of the next UK government are slim.