Today’s Times leader (paywall) says that Scots want a Labour-SNP coalition and that Labour’s leadership wants the same. It concludes that the SNP would use its influence in or on government to de-stabilise the UK, and that the net effect of a Labour-SNP arrangement would be harmful for everyone.
Certainly, the SNP is currently polling at just under half of the Scottish vote and it’s fair to assume that at least a small minority of loyal Labour voters secretly also want a Labour-SNP outcome.
It’s true, too, that the SNP would demand many extra goodies for Scotland in return for a deal. Indeed, if the SNP chose actual coalition – holding real power rather than carping from the sidelines – then it would add to its control of the Scottish government machinery that of a UK government department or two, and possibly even have Alex Salmond as Deputy Prime Minister. Every piece of UK legislation and every ministerial decision that benefitted Scotland would be sold to, and seen by, most Scots through the prism of the original deal. The SNP would rise higher into the ascendant in Scotland. Voters elsewhere in the UK would resent the Scots for their command of a disproportional amount of national resources.
However, The Times fails to describe the likely effect on the union of a Tory or Tory/Lib Dem coalition.
If Scots return one Tory or none at all (it’s 23 years since they did anything else) and perhaps a couple of Lib Dems, and if these two parties form the UK government, it will be impossible for Labour to prevent Scottish popular opinion from swinging decisively behind independence. This change will happen very fast, as both Labour and the SNP attack daily a UK government with tiny support in Scotland.
A second successive UK election defeat for Labour – in these volatile times – would convince many of those who will vote Labour in May that a future Labour vote will be a wasted one. Such people will lose faith in the UK as a political construct, and at the same time be far more prepared to swallow their fears about independence. They will put their faith in the SNP both to “fight for Scotland’s different values” and push for another independence referendum, telling themselves they might vote Labour again in an independent Scotland. Meanwhile, the easy, anti-Tory vitriol in Scotland (much of it expressed, anachronistically, as anti-Thatcher) would reach ever-greater heights and could easily become something much worse still.
Imagine, now, the absurdity of a Tory prime minister begging Scots to prevent an anti-EU England from forcing a UK – that the Scots don’t want to be part of – out of the EU. And imagine what would happen if, having voted overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU, Scots found themselves outside it owing to an overwhelming English majority? One way or another, a second independence referendum, this time with popular support on the Yes side, would surely follow on in short order.
So, as the Times says, a Labour-SNP coalition will be a difficult business for the union. But in truth, the SNP knows that looking like a wrecker alone doesn’t play well with voters – that’s why its ministers have spent much of their time in Scottish government being uncontroversial and businesslike. The party would secure next year’s Scottish parliamentary election, which many think is a foregone conclusion anyway. Yet, significantly, a lot of Scots would continue to find securing a big share of UK resources to be a lower risk proposition, and inherently more attractive, than outright independence.
But as the Times doesn’t say, a Tory-led UK government is the outcome most likely to lead to sudden schism within the union. That’s why the SNP would prefer that outcome.
The greatest significance of the Times editorial, though, may lie in the fact that it puts a single general election result before the union. It raises the fear of Labour-SNP chaos to encourage undecided English voters into the Tory camp, knowing, I think, that such a Tory win will make the union less secure. In truth, it feels like the English establishment is swinging against the union, that it has decided the too-powerful Scots are holding England back and if they demand too much they’d be far better gone.
Perhaps the old English and new Scottish establishments have reached a consensus after all?