Last September, Scotland voted by a comfortable majority to reject independence and remain part of the United Kingdom. Consequently we also voted to accept the constitutional convention whereby a party that can command the support of a majority in the House of Commons is entitled to form the government of the UK. If no single party can do this, then a coalition with a Commons majority is equally legitimate.
Implicitly at the least, the SNP accepts this. SNP candidates are standing for election in every constituency in Scotland, and the expectation is that the party will win the vast majority of Scottish seats. They will do so because the Scottish Unionist majority is divided while the Nationalists aren’t. But this is really beside the point.
The SNP has accepted the result of the referendum – for the time being anyway – and intends to play a full part in Westminster politics. Depending on the outcome of the election, it may even play a constructive role. If it has the opportunity to do so, this will mean that it is in effect behaving like a Unionist party. It could have chosen not to do so. When Sinn Fein won every seat in Ireland except in Ulster in the 1919 general election, its elected members refused to take their seats in Westminster, and this precipitated armed conflict and then the Treaty that created the Irish Free State. But the SNP is not behaving like Sinn Fein. There will be no boycott. Instead it will actively promote what it sees to be Scottish interests, and I assume that most of those who will vote SNP approve of its participation.
However, Nicola Sturgeon has now come up with a new interpretation of the constitution. “Surely,” she says, “the test of legitimacy that must be applied to whatever Westminster government is formed after this election cannot simply be that it is the largest party in England. The test that must be applied is whether a government can build a majority and command support that reflects the whole of the UK. English MPs will always be the largest part of any Westminster majority, but to ignore Scottish voices would be wrong…”
In short she is saying that any government which does not command support in Scotland will be illegitimate – even though by voting for the Union in September we voted to abide by the existing parliamentary convention.
Ms Sturgeon has hitherto had a very good election and her performance has been admired by many in England as well as here in Scotland, but this proposition smacks of arrogance. By declaring that she intends to “lock David Cameron out of Downing Street” and refusing to contemplate doing a deal with the Tories if they are the largest party in the Commons but not large enough to have a majority, she is in effect saying first that, even if the English want a Tory government, she will try to prevent them from having one, and second, absurdly, that even if Labour has been defeated in England and Scotland – and, for all I know, in Wales too – the SNP will vote to install a Labour government.
Ms Sturgeon’s rejection of any possible deal with the Conservatives is of course primarily tactical. She knows that any hint of willingness on her part to lend support to a Tory government would have many who now intend to vote SNP flocking back to Labour. So her position is understandable, even though she might actually find it easier to obtain further powers for the Scottish Parliament from the Conservatives than from Labour. It is also hypocritical. When the SNP ran a minority Scottish government from 2007-2011, they were quite happy to do deals with the Tories in Holyrood.
She would have us believe that a Westminster government without the support of Scottish MPs would be “illegitimate”. Such a government would not, however, be without support in Scotland. The first-past-the-post electoral system may well mean that the SNP wins the vast majority of Scottish seats on Thursday. Yet, even if it does so, even if it wins 50 or more of the 59 constituencies, it is likely that the aggregate vote for the three Unionist parties will exceed the SNP tally. The SNP is not Scotland, even though it speaks and behaves as if it is. It is merely the largest and at present by far the most popular single party in Scotland, but it is also the party whose principal demand was roundly rejected by the Scottish electorate in September.
Actually, association of the SNP in the government of the UK is not something which should alarm Scottish Unionists. Bringing the SNP into the body of the kirk, involving it deeply in British politics, might lead it to change its tone, even sing to a different tune. Last year much of the Nationalist campaign was focussed on opposition to Westminster. The SNP presented themselves as the outsiders, critical and resentful of the Westminster Establishment and of what they condemned as the dysfunctional Westminster way of doing things. They enjoyed the freedom of irresponsibility. That freedom will be denied them if they play any sort of constructive role in the new Parliament. If, on the other hand, they choose to be a destructive force there, they may delight the wilder fringe of their support, while losing the respect of moderate soft-nationalist opinion.
Of course things may turn out very differently. The SNP may not do as well as they expect. Other parties may do better. If there is a last-minute Conservative or Labour surge, it is still possible that either party may be able to form a majority government, albeit one elected on little more than a third of the vote. It’s certainly the most puzzling election since 1974 and predictions may be a mug’s game. Nevertheless, the probability remains that the SNP will be an influential force in the next Parliament. If so, we shall see what they make of the opportunity. We shall also see how Ms Sturgeon’s somewhat arrogant interpretation of constitutional propriety plays in the real world. And this of course will depend on how England and the English respond.