Sunday, April 12, 2015

The strangest of bedfellows - how SNP and Tory interests will align

The ongoing scandal over whether Nicola Sturgeon said she wants the Tories to come out in front at the general election or not, highlights issues that I have raised before. It is unclear whether Nicola Sturgeon actually told the French Ambassador that she preferred the Tories to win at the next general election. It is doubtful that we will ever really find out decisively what happened. But for the purpose of the argument let's concede that Nicola Sturgeon did not make those remarks. Then there is also the fact that the Telegraph, who broke the story, has had serious problems of credibility recently. Less than two months ago it lost its highly respected political editor because he was being effectively censored to appease the political and commercial interests that the paper supports.

So let's go with the story that Sturgeon is a victim of a Telegraph stitch-up. But what does the SNP actually want? To their credit, the SNP does have a commendable level of consistency about its political goals - unlike, say, the Tories. The SNP's raison d'etre is to gain independence for Scotland. Nor has the SNP leadership distanced itself from that core aim since they have lost the independence referendum last year. In recent months, both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have repeatedly said that they still believe that Scotland should be independent. They have said that they respect the will of Scottish people, as expressed in the referendum, but they both suggested that they hope/expect that sooner or later the will of the Scottish people will shift in favour of independence. When that happens, they believe another referendum will be inevitable.

We must understand this to understand the SNP's position. The SNP does not see itself as fundamentally invested in the ideology of who wins at "Westminster". On the surface of it, if Scotland had to be governed from Westminster, they publically declare they would prefer a left-wing government - though I am personally not convinced that the SNP is quite as left-wing and happily progressive as they claim. Nevertheless, the received wisdom is that the Scottish people would prefer left-wing governance, so the SNP should naturally be favourable to Labour. But as far as the SNP is concerned, Scotland does not have to be governed from Westminster at all.

This has led many to speculate that since the referendum the SNP's grand strategy has been to try and shift the political opinion in Scotland towards independence, especially by seeking to delegitimise "government from Westminster" in the eyes of the Scottish people. And, according to received wisdom, the best way to do that is to have the ghastly, imperialist Tories in government at Westminster, doing ghastly English things to the people of Scotland. The SNP have a direct interest in the electoral success of the Conservative party, at least in England.

For their own part, the Tories have quite a few reasons to wish the SNP all the best in Scotland. Nostalgic Unionism aside, there is no getting away from the fact that the Conservative party is now almost an exclusively English party in terms of MP numbers. They have next to no representation in other nations of the Union. And their base have been increasingly vocal about the "unfair" perks that Scotland enjoys as part of the Union: fiscal subsidies in the Barnet formula, Scottish MPs being able to vote on England and Wales only matters where similar policies in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and so on. Serious SNP gains at the election, coupled with Sturgeon's promise that this time around they will be actively voting on England-only matters will give impetus to a new constitutional arrangement that will increasingly resemble Home Rule for Scotland.

And of course, then there is the big consideration that the SNP surge in Scotland will probably cost Labour upwards of 40 MPs, which is the only way that Cameron can hope to cling on to power in the next Parliament. Work out some kind of the agreement, formal or informal, with the resurgent SNP on the constitutional question of Scottish MPs being able to vote on English-only matters, and the Tories will be able to effectively lock Labour out of government for a generation. Which, incidentally, according to the SNP will be all the more reason for Scotland to demand full independence.

The political froth of claims and counter-claims bandied about by media and ideological frictions on display during direct confrontations should not distract from the simple fact that the Tories have every reason to want the SNP to do well in Scotland, and the SNP have every reason to want the Tories to do well in England.

Nicola Sturgeon may or may not have actually said she preferred Cameron to come out in front. But there is no denying that the SNP has been more than happy to collude with the Tory propaganda that a Labour government would be a Trojan horse for the SNP, they have been more than happy to help provoke the English electorate against a Miliband-led Labour-SNP coalition by being unhelpfully assertive in their proposals for England-only policies, and have been more than happy to lend a helping hand in the right-wing media campaign to portray Miliband as "weak" - whatever that means, and nevermind that he has been the only politician to have had the spine to stand up against the abuses of the Murdoch media empire and against going to war again in Syria and Iraq.

The people of Scotland will likely get Cameron as a result of their "progressive" vote, they will likely get a messy unravelling of the Union driven by events and by English resentment, and they will get the worst of all possible settlements for their country - they will not gain independence so much as they will be set adrift by an unholy alliance of the SNP who wants independence at any cost, and a Conservative and "Unionist" party that will make sure to extract the highest possible cost.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chair of the Scotland Institute

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