Friday 27 March 2015

No deals, Mr Cameron

This week, Alex Salmond announced the SNP would vote against a minority Conservative government, if David Cameron attempts to form one after the general election. If the polls continue to hold steady, this makes it highly likely we will have a minority Labour government after 7 May, with Labour all but wiped out in Scotland but making significant gains in England.

No deal with the SNP to keep Cameron in Number 10 Downing Street.
Source: Daily Telegraph
Source: Electoral Calculus, 27 March 2015. There are 650 seats in the
House of Commons, so 326 are required for a majority.

Prior to Salmond's announcement, it wasn't inconceivable the SNP and Conservatives would do a deal. They worked together in the Scottish Parliament during the SNP's minority government in 2007-11. They have a shared goal of crushing the Scottish Labour Party. The SNP has no interest in trying to govern England, Wales and NI, and the Conservatives are barely represented north of the border.

One could imagine the SNP abstaining from a vote of confidence, in exchange for additional devolution to Scotland and some form of "English votes for English laws" package. In effect, SNP and Tories could carve up the UK into separate spheres of influence, to the detriment of Labour. Whether or not this would be a good thing is a separate question, but from a cynical point of view it might have benefited both parties.

Why has the SNP ruled this out? Because the UK Conservatives are electoral poison north of the border. Even abstaining from a vote of confidence is too much for Scottish voters to tolerate, regardless of what Scotland gets in exchange. If the SNP left the door open to working with the Tories, Labour would exploit it relentlessly in their Scottish campaign; it might allow Labour to retain many of its seats, or at least avoid the catastrophe predicted by current polls. If that is the SNP's assessment, I believe it to be correct.

Incidentally, the Conservatives' spluttering reaction that this would "undermine British democracy" does them no credit. In the British Parliamentary system, the Prime Minister needs to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. That is all. Which MPs vote for the government, and what party or region they belong to, is immaterial.

This has been a long time coming. As I've observed before, the UK Conservative party has lost practically all connection with Scotland. The leadership have written off any chance of winning a significant number of Scottish MPs. They know little and care less about Scotland; their attitude swings between patronising ignorance, and open contempt. Scottish voters have not been slow to recognise this.

The Scots have some more specific reasons to hate the Tories:

  • Political development in the 1980s and 1990s. To a large extent, modern Scottish feelings of nationhood were defined by opposition to the Conservatives. Obviously, the poll tax was a key factor; so was the long campaign for a devolved Scottish Parliament, in the face of monolithic Tory hostility.
  • Differences in values. The UK Conservatives show a gleeful relish for cutting public services and leaving the less fortunate to fend for themselves. The SNP's actual policies are a cautious, pro-business form of social democracy; but they are skilled at speaking to Scottish values, which still include solidarity and mutual assistance. Between Scotland and England as a whole, research indicates the difference in values is modest but real.
  • Cultural division. Scotland has little patience for being told what to do by southern English politicians, especially upper-class ones. David Cameron is an Old Etonian aristocrat surrounded by equally posh lieutenants, so his unpopularity is not surprising. 
Ed Miliband is an upper middle-class Londoner who doesn't look comfortable north of Watford, let alone north of the Tweed, and this does him no favours.
It is remarkable that Miliband is so unpopular in Scotland, with personal ratings even worse than Cameron's. In theory, many of Miliband's policies should align well with Scottish values; but his personality leaves them cold. As I've written before, the woes of Labour in Scotland have specifically Scottish causes, but Miliband is in no position to rescue them.

In the short term, Salmond's announcement makes it very likely Miliband will become Prime Minister at the head of a minority Labour government. Both sides have already ruled out a formal coalition; but if they are to have any influence, the SNP must work with somebody, and they have a lot more common ground with Labour than with the Conservatives.

This arrangement may stagger on for a while, but in the long term, UK politics look increasingly unstable.

The SNP and Conservative parties are locked in mutual fear and loathing. The former is becoming the largest party in Scotland; the latter will be either the largest in England, or a close second behind Labour. If they refuse to work together under any circumstances then British democracy, such as it is, will be put under massive strain. Of course this suits the SNP perfectly well; if Westminster is seen to be dysfunctional, it can only benefit the case for Scottish independence.

If the unionist parties wish to head this off, the modest adjustments recommended by the Smith Commission will not be enough. The logic of their situation points toward more ambitious constitutional reform: Far-reaching change to the UK's institutions, possibly including a form of devo-max or home rule, to produce a stable settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Time will tell whether they have the courage to take this action; it must be said, their current leadership does not inspire much confidence.

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