Brian Monteith: Tory terms far better for Scotland

Natural Labour voters cannot be sure that their votes will put Ed Miliband into Downing Street. Picture: Getty
Natural Labour voters cannot be sure that their votes will put Ed Miliband into Downing Street. Picture: Getty
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The SNP has to face the fact that it is turning down a better offer to help put Ed Miliband in No 10, writes Brian Monteith

For all the adulation of the SNP membership for its leadership, as it sheds its skin but stays the same, there remains a central weakness at the heart of its strategy for next year’s general election. The SNP offer is: “vote for us and we shall get the best deal for Scotland” – and this will be achieved by bargaining with Labour for the most powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament before it gives consent for Labour to govern the UK.

Now, this may sound like a practical plan, but it is undermined by some key problems that, not for the first time, the SNP has not thought through.

What if voting SNP denies Labour so many seats in Scotland that the Conservatives win an outright victory? This is known as the “go to bed with Nicola Sturgeon and wake up with David Cameron” outcome. For traditional Labour voters the real and present danger of the morning-after scenario will present a substantial disincentive.

How can natural Labour voters know that their votes will result in Ed Miliband attaining power through trusting the SNP in negotiations? Was this not the same nationalist party that ushered in the Thatcher era when it failed to back Labour in 1979? Expect the Labour Party to be reminding everyone in Scotland of the SNP’s past political war crime that it cares never to mention.

Can we just rewind the history tapes a little to 2007, the modern era within most voters’ recent memories, to when the SNP bargained for the support of Annabel Goldie’s Scottish Conservatives? Should the SNP – and especially Alex Salmond, who loves to berate Labour for joining with the Tories in Better Together’s No campaign – not be reminded that, when it came down to it, the deal it accepted to achieve power was with the Conservatives, not a grand coalition with Labour or one involving the Liberal Democrats?

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And when it comes to gaining the best deal for Scotland, how can the SNP say with any certainty that this will be offered by the Labour Party even if it were in a position to do so?

What if the Labour and Conservative parties are more or less tied and the best deal offering greater powers to Holyrood comes not from Ed Miliband but from David Cameron? This might be known as the Faustian scenario, but as we can see in both 1979 and 2007 the SNP is not as virtuous as it likes to present itself. Scotland might gain additional powers from having more SNP MPs at Westminster – but the price could be a Tory government.

Of course SNP politicians will rush to deny this. “No deals with Tories” will be the war cry, but just as governments are often required to do the unthinkable and cut deals with terrorists who suddenly become freedom fighters (think Britain-Ireland, think Britain-Israel) so too the SNP may find it hard to resist the Devo More offered by a David Cameron happy to let Scotland have Home Rule in return for continuing his party’s reign in England.

This is not fanciful for, as can be seen from the respective party submissions to the Smith Commission, between the Labour and Conservative parties it is the latter that has made the most radical and extensive offer. Full devolution of income tax – and a willingness to consider greater devolution of welfare – is coming not from Labour but from the Tories. Ruth Davidson’s party has finally got it: for devolution to work properly, the Holyrood politicians need to be accountable for the responsibilities they hold; devolving about 60 per cent of spending will achieve this. And again, from reading the Smith Commission submissions, it is the Tories who appear to be the most willing to concede ground by devolving further taxes – such as Airport Passenger Duty – that might help the SNP get out of the very large hole it has dug itself in following its purchase of Prestwick Airport. When it comes to the bargaining for the best deal for Scotland – much of which will be conducted through loud-hailer diplomacy by each participant, hoping to push the other this way and that – how will the SNP handle the out-in-the-open reality that it is turning down the best offer to put Ed Miliband in power?

What comes first: the SNP’s alleged visceral hatred of Tories that it uses to convince Labour voters it is on their side – or the best deal of making Scotland’s Parliament more democratically accountable, which the public consistently supports?

Alternatively, there is a third scenario as likely as the first two – that voting SNP in the general election strengthens not the nationalists’ hand but that of the UK Independence Party.

Denying Labour a large number of Scottish constituencies might well see the Conservatives become the largest party in the UK but without an overall majority. If this is the outcome then the Tories might avoid negotiating with the SNP but instead choose to govern as a minority administration on a bill-by-bill basis, or form a coalition, seeking authority from Unionists in Northern Ireland, Ukip, or what is left of the Liberal Democrats.

The price of Ukip support is likely to be David Cameron’s premiership, although even he might find a way to retain power depending on what he offers by way of an in/out referendum on EU membership.

If there is a weakness that characterises the SNP’s strategic and tactical planning over the last couple of years it is its blind spot in understanding Ukip. Time and again it has dismissed Ukip as a minority party of little import, especially in Scotland, and yet Ukip won the European elections in the UK, regularly polls well ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and has representation across the country. Ukip is not the SNP’s straw man goose-stepping around the south of England, but polls well in Labour areas and has representation in the north. To highlight the SNP’s weakness, Ukip won a Scottish MEP in the June elections despite Salmond’s appeals to keep them out by voting SNP. Had he advocated sharing votes with the Greens the outcome could have been different.

Whatever way we look at it, voting SNP in May offers a majority or minority Tory government, or refuses the best devolution deal for Scotland. If that’s not a gamble for Scottish voters then I don’t know what is.

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