Brian Wilson: Tories were real winners of debate

STURGEON’S televised offer to Miliband has given Cameron’s party the nearest thing it has to a trump card, writes Brian Wilson.
Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon on the BBC Challengers' Election Debate on Thursday night. Picture: AP/GettyEd Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon on the BBC Challengers' Election Debate on Thursday night. Picture: AP/Getty
Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon on the BBC Challengers' Election Debate on Thursday night. Picture: AP/Getty

Well, the grand ploy is going pretty well, one would have to admit. Without going near the last televised debate, David Cameron got exactly the headlines he was looking for.

“Sturgeon offer to Miliband: I’ll make you PM”. It might sound plausible or even attractive in Scotland, though heaven knows why, but there is no doubt about its effect, intended and actual, in England – which is to drive as many voters as possible into the arms of the Tories.

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Don’t take my word for it. I have just heard the political editor of the Sun (English edition) saying so. “This is the message the Tories want to get across,” he assured the nation. The entire Tory press latched gratefully on to Sturgeon’s “offer” in order to warn of the threat.

“We are witnessing the birth of a grotesque hybrid that would be a calamity for the entire country,” thundered the Daily Telegraph editorial. No interview with a Tory politician is now complete without the “Labour-SNP” warning, repeated several times.

It is very obvious that their polling and focus groups tell them that this is the nearest thing they have to a trump card and Nicola Sturgeon has joined her predecessor in doing her level best to help the Tories play it.

Now, I think Ed Miliband should have eliminated the prospect of the grotesque hybrid long before he did – as soon as it was clear what the Nationalists were up to. At least he has done so now though that is brushed aside since the Labour-SNP bogey, with a couple of Greens thrown in, is so essential to the Tory message in England.

The gap between Sturgeon’s rhetoric and the way the Tories are merrily using it can be summed up in the simple fact that, if it succeeds, there will be a Tory government, whether minority or majority. Too little attention is then paid to the question of how the SNP would behave if this result is achieved, with their enthusiastic assistance.

I am a great believer in judging actions by their outcomes, rather than stated intentions. It is integral to Sturgeon’s appeal to bang on about how anti-Tory the SNP is, always has been and always will be. Only a modest knowledge of history is required in order to appreciate what bunkum this actually is. But apparently, if it is said often enough and glibly enough, it is taken at face value.

A moment’s pause for thought points in another direction. On the morning of 8 May, to paraphrase Richard Nixon’s press secretary, “all previous statements will be inoperative”. There will be a new political reality and with one leap, the Nationalists – particularly if they are in a position to exert any influence over government – will be free.

In these circumstances, there is a very obvious deal for them to do with the Tories which is, essentially, English votes for English laws in return for some version of full fiscal autonomy. But maybe “in return” is not the appropriate term since each aspect of that exchange would have a great deal of appeal for both Tories and SNP.

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Restricting the rights of Scottish MPs to vote at Westminster would greatly strengthen the Tory position on all the domestic affairs of England – a consideration which would not lose the SNP a moment’s sleep. And, on purely economic grounds, full fiscal autonomy would be a no-brainer for Whitehall since it would result in much less money being sent to Scotland.

A Labour government could never agree to full fiscal autonomy for a range of reasons, not least that – whatever happens at the general election – it will have a continuing interest in picking itself up and fighting another day in Scotland. The Tories are very close to having no such residual interest. The more Scotland is removed from the Westminster equation, without going the whole hog, the better for them. As Sturgeon’s repositioning on full fiscal autonomy confirms, the SNP knows as well as everyone else that it is an absurd demand which would leave Scotland much, much worse off. Its appeal lies purely in the politics of increased separateness from the rest of the UK. The Tories are pragmatic enough to allow them the political claim while easing the financial transition, as part of an overall package which keeps them in power.

If all that happened, the Nationalists would have 90 per cent of what they want and could wait awhile to have a go for the other 10 per cent. The Tories would be able to claim that they had maintained the Union while reducing the role of Scottish MPs to foreign affairs, defence and a few other UK-wide measures. And the short-term prize for them would be that they were still in government. The SNP get away with presenting themselves as a party of the left when they have done absolutely nothing at Holyrood to justify that description. But all history shows that, if they think it is in their interests, they will do a deal with anyone – particularly the Tories – while their main strategic objective is the elimination of Labour in Scotland.

Anyone who believes they are voting SNP to prevent a Tory government should think again. The far greater likelihood is that a block of SNP MPs will help David Cameron back to office and thereafter the deals done by the Nationalists will be in their own strategic political interests without too much thought for the implications, beyond the constitution, for the Scottish people.

All that aside, I doubt if most undecided voters in Scotland will be persuaded by arguments of who might do deals with whom. Labour’s best hope lies in reminding them of what Labour governments have done in the past and can do again for working people, their families and the wider social fabric.

Along with many other fictions in Scottish politics, the one about the two options to form a UK government being much the same as each other, with the Nationalists, on the basis of no evidence at all, providing a radical alternative has gone woefully under-challenged. The final irony will be if the newly-minted social radicalism of the SNP is the instrument which helps deliver victory to the Tories and then leads to subsequent arrangements for the cynical convenience of both.