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What’s the worst that could happen?

So, what’s the worst that could happen? If the opinion polls are broadly correct, and the SNP is returned as the largest party in May, what could be the realistic downside? given that most people seem to have dismissed Tony Blair’s forecasts of constitutional apocalypse.
The reaction to the government’s warnings about families being split asunder and the nation being left defenceless, has been one of bemused disdain in the Scottish press – traditionally a bastion of unionism. Times change.
However, while customs posts and border guards may not be on the agenda, people still have a right to ask what an SNP vote would mean. If many voters are contemplating lending their votes to Alex Salmond what would he do with them? Yes, we know that the SNP would have to form a coalition with the unionist Liberal Democrats and there would be a referendum before independence. But what else?
Now, the SNP have a whole raft of policies for the Scottish parliament including local income tax, abolishing student debt, subsidising homebuyers and even keeping teenager drivers off motorways. The question is whether they would ever be in a position to implement any of them. Or perhaps the question should be: would they want to implement them?
It seems to me that the only credible worst-case scenario of and SNP win is that there could be a prolonged period of constitutional instability and legislative stasis in Holyrood. The real danger is not independence as such, but that an SNP-led coalition could become so preoccupied with constitutional processes that there might simply be no time or energy left to pass any significant domestic legislation.
This is certainly the fear of the Liberal Democrats, who of course, would have to join with the SNP if there is to be any alternative to Labour. The Libdems, and indeed the Greens, are intensely suspicious of the SNP – which is puzzling because they agree with most of its policies. You would be amazed at the length to which the LibDems go to play down the prospects for partnership with the nationalists. Given the logic of a proportional representation, this amounts to a kind of denial.
Personality has a lot to do with it. What keeps Liberal Democrat ministers awake at night is the thought of waking up on May 4th and finding themselves sitting round a table with Alex Salmond as First Minister. They regard him as arrogant, impetuous, a demagogue even.
Strange this, since their former leader, Jim Wallace, worked closely with Salmond in the devolution referendum campaign in 1997. But Liberal Democrats now talk about the SNP leader the way some Labour ministers talk about Gordon Brown – as if he has psychological flaws that would make it impossible for him to head a coherent administration.
This is why some LibDems are seriously arguing that, if there’s to be a Nat/Lib coalition, the First Minister should be Nicol Stephen – a condition the SNP could never accept. So let’s not even go there. Alex Salmond, like him or loathe him, would become First Minister of Scotland – if there is a coalition at all.
The other main LibDem demand is that the SNP abandon its commitment to legislate, within the first hundred days, for a referendum on independence. Indeed for any referendum. This, they say, would be the real nightmare: Alex Salmond, intoxicated by his own charisma, a man in a hurry, running a one-man administration, doing whatever it takes to break up the union by turning every issue into a constitutional one, the better to prepare the ground for the referendum when it comes.
The SNP in government would not be interested in young drivers’ lives – they say – but in forcing a confrontation with Westminster. The nationalists would invent spurious motions on Trident and immigration in order to provoke further friction with London. There would be endless financial wrangles over the Barnett Formula and the proper level of public spending in Scotland.
Holyrood would, in this scenario, cease to be a parliament, and would turn into a theatre of national liberation. A stage on which Alex Salmond could seek his destiny as Scotland’s saviour from English domination.
The Liberal Democrats would be in and out of the coalition like a cuckoo clock, trying to hold Salmond to agreements, and then marching out when he insists on going his own way. If the Greens were in there too, things could be even more chaotic. Scotland , indeed the entire UK( because English nationalism is very much in play now ) would become unstable until the referendum finally happens, sometime around year three.
Now, I don’t want to overplay this. We are looking , remember, at the worst that could happen if the SNP entered government in bad faith. There are a couple of reasons for thinking that it wouldn’t be this bad. First, thinking members of the nationalist movement are now beginning to take seriously the prospect of government and are realising that if they make a horlicks of it they could be in opposition for a long time thereafter.
The second reason is that there may not be any coalition. Liberal Democrat ministers I speak to are adamant that they will refuse to hold any talks until the SNP drop the referendum. It may seem perverse for the party of constitutional reform to deny the Scottish people a say on their own constitutional future, but that’s the deal. The SNP would have to turn their referendum into a neverendum – a ballot some time in the distant future.
Independence may be the nationalist Clause Four, an electoral millstone, but is no sign that Alex Salmond wants to get it off his neck. In conversations I have had with him he is adamant that he is not in the business of sidelining separatism, that he relishes Labour’s focus on independence and that he’s happy to talk about it all the way to polling day.
All of which means that we must look at a very different prospect altogether if the polls are right: that Labour might have to form a minority administration with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. There’s no law that says the largest party has to be part of the government.
One reason Jack McConnell was so understated at the Labour conference, while his Westminster colleagues were putting the boot in, may be that he is thinking along these lines. Politics in a proportional parliament is about co-operation and confidence building, not denunciation and ultimatums. McConnell can’t afford to drive the Liberal Democrats and the Greens into the arms of the SNP by belligerent unionist bluster.
This is why the FM has been so equivocal about issues like Trident and nuclear power; cautiously distancing himself from the London line on asylum and immigration. He needs to put himself in a position to lead an alternative coalition if he and the SNP end up neck and neck in the Scottish elections.
And then a truly terrifying thought occurs – far worse than any of the other nightmare scenarios. That, after May, nothing may change at all.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


2 thoughts on “What’s the worst that could happen?

  1. Since we’re playing fantasy politics here…What would be the effect on Parliament if the SNP becomes the biggest party but its another Labour/Lib coalition. Would this mean that the SNP would get the lion’s share of the committees as the largest party? Surley that would make for interesting times.

    Posted by Anonymous | December 5, 2006, 6:21 pm
  2. I saw this when it was published in the Herald. The smear campaign has started. What a load of nasty “fantasy” rubbish. “Independence may be the nationalist Clause Four, an electoral millstone”Only if you’re completely unable to think out of the box of municipal or local government politics. In a your favourite outcome of a new lib-independenceless SNP Scottish council they’re going to solve all Scotland’s problems by the marvellous and innovative divvying up of the block grant. Not. Iain, try lifting your head out of the playpen and thinking independently.

    Posted by DougtheDug | December 5, 2006, 7:10 pm

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