Andrew Whitaker: Imagine an SNP v Tory Holyrood

The Tories could be the main opposition to the SNP. Picture: Getty
The Tories could be the main opposition to the SNP. Picture: Getty
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Hype about the prospect of the Tories out-polling Labour in May’s Holyrood election has become so rife, that it’s supposed conventional wisdom that the battle for second place is becoming the main talking point, with no-one really doubting that the SNP will once again win hands down.

Whether or not one buys into the spin that the Tories are in with a realistic chance of pulling ahead of Labour in Scotland, it’s a story that won’t go away right until the wire on election night, by which time such speculation will have been done to death.

Putting all the potential permutations to one side, it’s worth indulging in speculation of a different kind, namely what would Holyrood and Scotland look like were the SNP to win handsomely again, but this time with the Tories scraping home as the second biggest party.

A re-elected SNP government holding an even bigger majority than in 2011, taking all the constituency seats and towering over the opposition party in terms of the number of MSPs, would see the nationalists virtually unhindered within the context of Holyrood’s devolution settlement.

But a nationalist government faced by an opposition party of the centre-right, rather then the left or centre would see the creation of a political situation if not unparalleled in Western Europe, certainly not the norm and definitely new terrain for Scotland and the UK.

When one thinks of politics in Western Europe the model tends to be that of a Labour or social democratic type party vying with a centre-right or Conservative party for power, one that’s found for example in France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia.

It’s difficult to think of too many examples where a nationalist government’s main opposition is a centre-right party or vice versa, particularly in a situation where the once dominant leftist party has been relegated to third place.

Labour supporters will know just how devastating finishing behind the Tories at Holyrood would be for the party, but the consequences in terms of support for independence, anti-austerity, left wing politics as a whole in Scotland and a voice for working class people are arguably just as profound.

The SNP has successfully managed to style itself as a social democratic party of the centre-left despite what is often criticised as a patchy record at best on issues of equality in Scotland, such as an alleged neglect of the college sector where many working class students attend, as opposed to the more influential universities.

There is also the issue of cuts to council funding, which shadow chancellor John McDonnell likened to those imposed by Thatcher in the 1980s, a claim which despite criticism may come to have resonance when the axe starts to fall in key areas of provision.

Whatever Nicola Sturgeon says about the forthcoming Holyrood election not being about a second referendum, many people now vote SNP largely on the back of the national question, with the 50 per cent polled by the party in Scotland for last year’s Westminster election not that far from the 45 per cent who backed independence in September 2014.

There are of course those who vote SNP despite backing the No side in 2014 and independence supporters who continue to vote for other parties, including Scottish Labour and the Greens.

Either way the SNP has managed to style itself as the party of Scotland and all polling suggests it will dominate Scottish politics for many years to come.

However, the existence of a nationalist government in power that, whatever attempts it makes at playing up its centre-left credentials, has only the goal of independence as its reason for being, and a centre-right opposition, would make for a near absence of class and socialist politics at Holyrood. Such a prospect is a sobering one for a nation that provided Labour’s founding father Keir Hardie, Red Clydeside movement figures such as James Maxton and John Maclean, as well as more recently the likes of the late Labour politicians Robin Cook and John Smith.

Although it looks unlikely that a second independence referendum is coming for the next few years at least, the re-emergence of the Tories as a force in Scottish politics nearly 20 years after what looked like the killer blow to them at the 1997 general election could contribute towards a spike in support for independence. Despite the affable leadership of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives remain aligned to the governing Tories at Westminster presiding over the harshest UK austerity in decades.

For parallels of sorts, it’s worth taking a look at the examples of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in Ireland, where the two centre right parties have largely held power between them on a Buggins’ Turn basis since the creation in 1922 of the Irish free state.

It’s also a nation where the Irish Labour party has never really succeeded in getting above third party status despite the occasional spell as a junior coalition government partner.

Another example of similar nationalist dominance is Argentina, where parties based on the cult of former president Juan Peron and his wife Eva (Evita) have held power for much of the last 70 years.

But while the SNP is still to the left of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it’s perhaps time for a brief reminder that the Tories have often voted with the SNP on key areas, most recently over the council cuts package in John Swinney’s latest budget.

There was also the parliamentary support the Scottish Tories gave to Alex Salmond’s minority government in key votes between 2007 and 2011, something that’s barely talked of these days.

So if a SNP government versus Tory opposition scenario to play out after 5 May, it would be nationalists versus unionists with bells on it and the marginalisation of a Labour Party that for all its faults still takes its raison d’être as that of tackling inequality and the redistribution of wealth.