Is there no end to this man’s vaulting ambition, his audacity, his arrogance? Not content with running the Scottish parliament, Alex Salmond now wants to run Westminster too. He told the SNP conference that with twenty seats at the next general election he could hold the balance of power in the House of Commons.
We will “make Westminster dance to a Scottish jig” he said, in what is possibly the most provocative remark made by the SNP leader since he became First Minister. It was rhetoric guaranteed to get the London media in a lather about Scottish truculence. Many Conservative MPs, and Labour ones too, think the Scots already have far too much influence in Westminster, and want Scottish MPs to lose the right to vote on English bills. So they may dance, but I suspect Westminster might want to change the tune.
Nevertheless, Salmond’s 2010 election scenario works like this: Gordon Brown’s popularity continues to plunge right up to the UK general election. The Tories’ advance under David Cameron is limited by his being a party, essentially, of the South of England. The Liberal Democrats, under the untried Nick Clegg fail to make a significant breakthrough. The result is that the Westminster parliament is hung, with no party having an absolute majority – something that hasn’t happened in British politics since the 1970s.
It’s impossible to predict the result of the next UK general election, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that Labour returns with 280 MPs, down 76; the Tories return with 260, up 62; and the Liberal Democrats find themselves with 70 seats, up 8. The SNP, if Salmond delivers, will have 20 seats, up 14, and the other small parties, like Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein, make up the remainder. The SNP, and the minority parties, could have a strength greater than the balance between the Tories and Labour. Would this allow the SNP to force Westminster to dance to their jig? Not on this arithmetic. It seems unlikely that, even with the other small parties, the SNP would be able to outweigh the combined strength of the Liberal Democrats plus one of the large parties
Alex Salmond has ruled out entering any formal coalition with the either the Tories or Labour. Nevertheless, the SNP could have a considerable influence. Were the nationalists to work in concert with the Liberal Democrats they could form an important bloc of 100 seats. Whatever, it seems highly likely that Labour will have to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or try to run a minority administration. In other words, Westminster politics will become like Holyrood politics; a business of tactical alliances and co-operative politics. Now, the SNP has turned out to be a pretty effective force in a parliament of minorities, and Salmond is hoping that they might be able to translate their Holyrood skills to Westminster.
Salmond’s own ambition is to replicate the success of the Bloc Quebecois, the nationalist grouping in the Canadian federal parliament in Ottawa. It means, in effect, detaching the SNP in Westminster from the SNP in Holyrood. In 1990, the Parti Quebecois formally changed its name and adopted a markedly different political programme for federal elections. Instead of simply campaigning for independence, the Bloc Quebecois promised to fight for the interest of Quebec as a whole in the Ottawa legislature. This turned out to be a pretty successful pitch. (Though it has to be remembered that Canada has a proper federal system, with a division of powers, and a different political dynamic from our system of asymmetrical devolution). In the 1990s, the BQ entered tactical alliances, mainly with the Conservatives, which influenced the shape of Canadian politics. In a practical sense, this is already happening in the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP has remained in government thanks to deals done with the Scottish Conservatives.
In a Westminster context, there would be every reason for the “Bloc Ecossais” to work closely with Liberal Democrat MPs and the minor parties in pursuing regional interests. If this delivered real benefits for Scotland, it might enhance the SNP’s electoral position in time for the Holyrood elections in 2011. It might also persuade the Liberal Democrats to look more favourably on the idea of a referendum on the constitution. Using the influence of the “Bloc Ecossais” might also lure the UK Conservatives down the road of constitutional change, if they think that this might be a way of destabilising a minority Labour administration. However, this way lies danger.
It is worth recalling that the downfall of the Labour government of James Callaghan in 1979 was brought about by the 11 SNP MPs withdrawing their support. They were incensed at the outcome of the 1979 devolution referendum which delivered a “yes” vote but not by enough votes to meet the 40% rule. Jim Callaghan called the SNP MPs “turkeys voting for an early Christmas”, which turned out to be pretty accurate since the SNP lost 9 of its seats in the ‘79 election as the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher took over in Westminster. Labour have never forgiven the nationalists for being the midwives to Thatcherism.
Could the “Bloc Ecossias” strategy damage the SNP in Scotland once again by making them look like Tartan Tories? The SNP certainly seems inordinately comfortable these days about doing business with Conservatives. It was noticeable that Alex Salmond’s speech to conference yesterday stressed Tory-lite policies like abolishing business rates, cutting bridge tolls, freezing council tax, increasing police on the beat. The day before, Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy leader of the SNP, had been selling the SNP government on its social democratic achievements, like prescription charges, council housing, ending private sector involvement in the NHS. It might be that Alex Salmond is already seeking to locate the SNP, tactically, in a position somewhere to the right of Labour with a view to increasing his bargaining power in a hung Westminster parliament. This is similar to the tactics used by the UK Liberal Democrats
But is it all too clever by half? Well, it is certainly risky, if history is any guide. Britain is still a unitary state, not a federation. If the SNP in Westminster appeared to be responsible for once again bringing down a UK Labour government, and inflicting a new Conservative era on Scotland, this might not do them much good in Holyrood. There is also the small matter of winning 20 seats in Westminster. In the 2005 UK general election, the SNP only won 6 seats, a dismal third behind the Liberal Democrats. Mind you, we scoffed at Salmond when he said he would win 20 seats in the Holyrood elections last may – and that is exactly what he did.