THE SNP’s self-denying ordinance not to vote at Westminster on matters devolved to Scotland was never about some loftily-held principle. We know that, now.
For years, Nationalist MPs have made great play of their position, which fits neatly into the narrative that Scotland and England’s interests differ while saying “we respect our southern partners too much to meddle in their affairs”. But behind that clear message were inconsistencies.
Because of the Barnett formula – the mechanism by which public spending in Scotland is set, based on a proportion of what’s spent south of the Border – all manner of votes from which SNP MPs absented themselves have had an impact on Scotland.
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Any matter that involves spending money (and that’s most of them) means an adjustment to the funds granted to the Scottish Government by Westminster.
The SNP explained away the paradox of its position by pointedly ignoring it. What purpose is there in dealing with complicated reality when there’s a principle at stake?
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week abandoned that principle, announcing that SNP MPs would vote on English matters after May’s general election. No more would her party adhere to the principle of English votes for English laws (or, pleasingly, Evel) and instead would take part wherever Scotland’s interests were at stake.
The decision came after Sturgeon said she wouldn’t rule out the prospect of the SNP working in coalition with Labour at Westminster, throwing up the possibility of Alex Salmond holding a position of power in a future UK government.
Privately, senior SNP figures accept that, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic, the chances of Labour ever inviting them into power are minuscule. And while Labour may not publicly have ruled out any future coalition deals of any kind, the notion of any Westminster partnership with the SNP is considered unthinkable by the party leadership. In fact, it’s window dressing for the new position, which is designed to allow the SNP to focus on the NHS.
One of the Yes campaign’s strongest hands during the constitutional battle was the commitment to saving the NHS from privatisation. The SNP and its partners in the Scottish Green Party warned that a No vote would mean the Scottish NHS would suffer because of an increase in the use of private service in England.
No campaigners were hugely concerned about the impact of this message, which particularly caught the imagination of what we might think of as traditional Labour voters in urban communities.
In fact, the Yes message on the NHS didn’t stand up to scrutiny. There may have been an increase in the use of private contractors in the health service but this doesn’t mean a decrease in funding; private services still have to be paid for from the public purse.
The Yes campaign calculated, quite correctly, that many voters would believe the “privatisation” they were talking about would mean the introduction of charges for services when, in fact, it did not.
Having seen the impact of the Yes campaign’s NHS message on traditional Labour voters, Sturgeon is perfectly happy (and very wise) to want to return to the subject.
As May’s election approaches, Labour has a strong message for Scottish voters, regardless of whether they voted Yes or No in the referendum: only their party can help prevent a Conservative victory. Sturgeon believes she has her own powerful message: Vote SNP to save the NHS.
When Prime Minister David Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street on the morning of 19 September last year, to welcome the No vote in the referendum, he spoke of the need for a new, clearer, political settlement across the UK. Just as this would mean a stronger Scottish Parliament, it would also mean the need to look again at ensuring only English MPs could vote on legislation directly affecting only voters in England. This sharply political move was designed to weaken Labour at Westminster. A future Labour government, dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority, could easily find itself in a minority position on English votes. Cameron knew what he was playing at.
But by making Evel a talking point, the PM also opened the door to Sturgeon. He gave her an issue on which she could clash with him, and appear to be fighting Scotland’s corner.
Once Cameron began loudly agreeing with the SNP position on Evel, Sturgeon changed her tune (and, all nuance be damned, she will almost always believe the right place to be on any argument is wherever Cameron isn’t).
Scottish Labour argued throughout the referendum campaign that the SNP was scaremongering on the NHS. I agree.
The problem for Labour, now, is that it is doing exactly the same thing. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham recently claimed the NHS would not survive a further five years of Conservative-led government; a mixture of privatisation and marketisation would destroy the service as we know it. When the SNP suggested this last year, Labour dismissed it as nonsense. Now it’s straight from their gospel.
Shorty after becoming SNP leader last November, Sturgeon ruled out running the general election campaign on the promise of a second independence referendum and said, instead, that her party’s priority was to hold the Westminster parties to their collective promise of more powers for Holyrood.
There is, however, a potential constitutional prize to be won, here. It might not be terribly dignified but if Sturgeon can hack off enough English MPs (across the parties) with her decision to meddle in their business then a little anti-Scottish backlash would do her no harm at all. Anything that weakens the bonds – whether practical or emotional – of the Union is good for Scottish Nationalist business.
The SNP has long struggled to appear relevant in Westminster elections. By making the NHS her priority and threatening to leave her party’s mark on English legislation, Sturgeon may have solved that problem.