One of the best political parody accounts on Twitter commented on Alex Salmond’s decision to stand as a candidate for the Scottish National Party at Westminster:
Most Scots, whether they voted Yes or No in the referendum, want Devo-Max. This is not what the Smith Commission is suggesting the Westminster parties offer Scotland. This is because it cannot: the raison d’être of the Smith Commission was to preserve the existing sovereignty of Westminster (which derives its authority from the monarch, not the people) and the principle of devolution is that the powers of Westminster are effectively ‘loaned’ to Holyrood, and can be taken back at any point without consulting Holyrood, as happened with the (energy) Renewables Obligation in 2013 (see here, and here, for example). What the Smith Commission has essentially done is (a) look for any other titbits from the lucky-bag list (Lesley Riddoch’s term) that Westminster could give Scotland, or (b) things that will damage the standing of the Scottish parliament, and especially the SNP in the expectation that this will strengthen the unionists’ cause (as Iain Macwhirter argued eloquently in the Sunday Herald: “The Tories didn’t propose income-tax devolution by accident. It is a scorched earth policy that they believe will kill social democracy in Scotland.”). Devo-Max, or Home Rule, is easy to understand – everything apart from defence, foreign policy and macro-economic policy – whereas almost nobody I’ve spoken to remembers anything much from Smith, except the poisoned chalice of income tax rates without the power to change thresholds. We are certainly not getting rid of Trident as most Scots want; indeed, the Ministry of “Defence” (War Ministry is more apt given British foreign policy!) is planning on relocating further nuclear submarines to Scotland in the near future.
Some argue that the May 2015 General Election might change all this if the SNP hold the balance of power, with neither “Labour” nor the Tories able to form a simple majority at Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon has reaffirmed that the SNP will not support the Tories, and that the price for supporting “Labour” would be to get rid of Trident (and presumably stop other nuclear submarines from being based here). That’s a welcome move on her part, but not one that “Labour” will necessarily find easy to deal with, wedded as it is to the hypocrisy that WMD are A Good Thing (as long as it’s us that have them and not countries we don’t like). However, even aside from such a policy issue, I’d be surprised if “Labour” will want to have any kind of alliance with the SNP.
The key difficulty for “Labour” is that they pretend the Scottish branch is left of centre, whilst the rest-of-the-UK party is actually right of centre, as they seek to outdo UKIP and the Tories. The obvious problem with trying to outdo such racists rather than addressing their racism is that it makes “Labour” racists too. We can also point to “Labour’s” broad acceptance of the Tory/LibDem budget and austerity plans (minor tinkering aside) and we can see that “Labour” have clearly positioned themselves to the right. That is their choice.
However, that the SNP, even under Salmond, has in recent decades become more left-wing than “Scottish Labour” could ever even pretend to be given the policies the Scottish branch is told to support from the London head office, is a profound difficulty for them in Scotland and in the wider UK. It now gets worse for “Labour” because Sturgeon is genuinely more left-wing than Salmond, and “Labour” simply cannot convincingly argue a left-wing case against the SNP (as this desperate internal message from one of the “Scottish Labour” deputy leadership candidates, Katy Clark, shows; see also here). And for the 2015 General Election, the old “Scottish Labour” message that voters need to vote “Labour” to keep the Tories out no longer holds: Scotland voted “Labour” in 2010 (40 out of 59 MPs) and the Tories still got in.
There are many people in the “Labour” party in Scotland and rUK who are genuinely left-wing. How they cope with the right-wing leadership is difficult to comprehend… except, of course, that they chose these leaders because their primary purpose is achieving power. There is little sense of how that power might then better be used to benefit the wider population, and that, perhaps, is one of the consequences of Westminster’s sovereignty issue: if your power comes from a useless hereditary institution such as the monarchy rather than the people, it will eventually make the people irrelevant and result in a political cartel, as John S Warren puts it.
So never mind “wee things” like Trident (as former “Scottish Labour” leader Johann Lamont memorably described our WMDs, illegal wars, the Bedroom Tax, childcare and more): the real issue is that the SNP, especially under Sturgeon, is far more of a left-wing party than the Scottish branch or UK “Labour” as a whole can hope to even pretend it is. This, I think, substantially drives the irrational visceral hatred of the SNP on the part of “Scottish Labour” and to a somewhat lesser degree the wider UK “Labour” party: there is a recognition that the SNP are where “Labour” once were, but deep down they realise they are no longer of the left, despite their public protestations. And with Sturgeon in charge of the SNP, this is likely to get worse, not better.
So will there be a coalition at Westminster in 2015? I’m sure that if there were a coalition between the SNP and “Labour” we would see Trident being got rid of, and a substantially improved powers arrangement coming into play, probably moving towards Devo-Max, with Salmond heading that up for the SNP at Westminster under Sturgeon’s direction from Edinburgh. However, I think a coalition between “Labour” and the SNP is unlikely. Whilst I think the SNP could enter a coalition with the “Labour” party based on policy agreements on issues such as Trident and Devo-Max, I don’t see how “Labour” could overcome the resentment they have for the SNP being where they think they should be on the political spectrum, even though they themselves refuse to make the necessary changes to be put themselves on the left: Salmond as Deputy Prime Minister would be too much for “Labour” to cope with. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think the cartel may well come into play and we’ll see a Grand Coalition of “Labour” and Tories sharing power between them: not only are their policies very similar, they are both far more comfortable with each other than they are with the provincial upstarts from North Britain. Whilst Britain has not had such coalitions in the past (other than in war time), other countries have had such coalitions, and Britain is changing: up until 2010 there hadn’t really been a coalition such as we have now between the Tories and Liberal Democrats. All things are in flux, and they could easily argue the economic crisis is so severe that a Grand Coalition is needed to fix it (never mind that the Tories have made it worse, and “Labour” would do the same).
Whichever way the 2015 election goes, presuming the SNP maintains something close to its current level of support, Sturgeon’s party wins:
- if “Labour” or the Tories win a majority even though the SNP take most of Scotland’s Westminster seats, the “democratic deficit” argument is immeasurably strengthened, and any decision on the Smith Commission proposals will probably be watered down still further. Both of these things make the case for independence ever stronger, especially since the cuts the Tories and “Labour” plan to continue making are going to be devastating (as is evident from local council budgets: 1, 2) – if you think they’re bad now, in a few years’ time they will have transformed the country, and not in a good way!).
- if there is a coalition, the SNP can justly claim they got rid of Trident and achieved something better than the Smith Commission proposed, approaching the Devo-Max that the unionist parties promised before the referendum and that many Scots want; this would be a positive move for Scotland (and indeed the rest of the UK, even if rUK media seek to portray otherwise!) and a real achievement for the SNP. Of course, Salmond would be a responsible Deputy PM in coalition, as evidenced by the competent way he behaved as First Minister of Scotland – he takes such responsibilities seriously.
- if “Labour” need a coalition partner but opt for the Tories in order to exclude the SNP, they have no hope of recovery in Scotland and possibly elsewhere for a generation or more (how would “vote Labour to keep the Tories out” sound then?). Meanwhile, the SNP can make left-wing mischief for the government at Westminster from the sidelines, perhaps with Plaid Cymru and the Greens. I’m sure Salmond would make a very good leader of the opposition to a “Labour”/Tory government, in a way that would probably come as quite a shock to their comfortable rhetorical routines.
More importantly, the arguments for Scottish independence would become ever stronger and the case for another referendum would become more difficult to resist. A “Labour”/Tory government would, of course, resist that, perhaps even along the lines suggested by the “Labour” party’s Jack Straw, but would they really want an irredentist Scottish resistance movement on their hands, rather than a peaceful campaign for independence? They’re surely not that stupid?
Katy Clark is right: “Scottish Labour” are in deep trouble. More than that: “Labour” as a whole are in deep trouble. She’s right that “Labour” don’t have the “right values and policies” – the problem for her and the rest of “Scottish Labour” is that Ed Miliband’s “Labour” shows no intention of moving towards the “right values and policies” before the 2015 election. All of which benefits the SNP – perhaps the Angry Salmond Twitter account really is onto something in suggesting Salmond ‘takes’ Westminster: the SNP will win regardless of the outcome.
PS No, I still am no further with thinking how, as a Green party member, I should approach the 2015 election. I’ll be waiting to see what happens with candidate selection and perhaps discuss the issue there…