There seems to be a general assumption that the string of ‘ifs’ which leads to a hung parliament means an enlarged SNP group would be ‘kingmakers’. Or, as Nicola Sturgeon puts it in what looks rather like an attempt to lower expectations, a “strong, progressive influence”. If she is trying to stop people getting too carried away, she may have good reason.
If it is supposed that the SNP group of MPs will wield significant power over British Labour in a hung parliament, we must ask what is the nature of that power. It is not enough simply to look at the numbers and say that, because SNP cooperation is needed to get over the line separating government from opposition, the SNP will be in a position to make major demands. Nicola sturgeon has even gone so far as to list those demands. That list, as reported by this newspaper on 25 November, includes,
- Stop Brexit
- End austerity
- Abandon Universal Credit
- Axe the two-child benefit cap
- Grant a Section 30 order
I doubt that many outside the ranks of irredeemable and irremediable Tory loyalists would take exception to anything in Sturgeons catalogue of demands. But are they attainable? Are they deliverable? How might British Labour respond were they to be handed this list in the course of post-election haggling among the parties at Westminster?
Having witnessed the strenuous, contorting effort they’ve made to avoid having a clear position on Brexit, does anybody believe British Labour is even capable of adopting a firm stance on the issue? Going from wherever they might be as you read this to an unwavering commitment either way doesn’t look at all like a journey Jeremy Corbyn is ready to undertake. This is the ‘leader’ who says he would remain neutral in any new EU referendum.
If the Tories can claim to be ending austerity, so can a British Labour administration. Whether this will be noticeable on the ground is a very different matter.
British governments tend not to do anything bold if they have a ready excuse for not doing so. Abandoning Universal Credit may well be that kind of bold action. It would be too expensive! It would cause even more disruption and suffering! Better to fix it than forsake it!
Axing the two-child benefit might be a concession British Labour could offer. But only so they could accuse the SNP of rejecting the chance to end an iniquitous Tory policy when it turned out to be the only concession and not enough to win their support.
The Section 30 order has been dealt with at length elsewhere. No British government is going to facilitate any process which puts their precious Union in jeopardy. For all British Labour’s efforts to differentiate themselves from the Tories’ hard-line anti-democratic position, they have no more intention of cooperating in the Section 30 process than any of the other British parties. They are certainly not going to grant permission for a new independence referendum until and unless they can be sure of being able to sabotage the process at some later stage.
On that final – and some would say most crucial – demand, British Labour would be likely to try and string the SNP along as much as possible. Hence the deliberate vague and open-ended ‘undertakings’ on the matter. They can put off even responding to the Section 30 request for as long as they wish.
It’s not looking too promising for Nicola Sturgeon’s list of demands. So, how might she react to these demands being rejected – either outright or by implication? What can she threaten Jeremy Corbyn with in order to compel his compliance?
There are, in principle, three ‘big sticks’ Sturgeon might be able to wave. She could threaten to enable a Tory government. She could threaten to bring down a British Labour government. Or she might be in a position to threaten to force another election. Another election would be no more likely to resolve things than the last one or this one. But the SNP would be vilified for forcing the people of the world’s greatest democracy to go out and vote. Don’t they know that’s not how democracy is supposed to work!
Enabling a Tory government and bringing down a British Labour government may seem like the same thing. That’s because they are. They just happen at different times. The threat to enable a Tory government would be wielded during initial efforts to reach an arrangement. The threat to bring it down would hang over a British Labour government for as long as it lasted. However, Nicola Sturgeon has decisively ruled out the SNP ever allowing the Tories back into power should they be ousted. So that threat is not available. Whether or not one approves, it is an option binned.
What we are left with is the SNP making demands backed up with the threat that, unless these demands are met, they might bring down the British Labour government at some point in the future. One would hope that this point remained undefined. To commit to taking action at a particular time or under specified conditions would severely limit room for movement.
How serious, from British Labour’s perspective, is this threat? Not very. In fact, it’s barely a threat at all. Nothing that isn’t happening right now, or is immediately imminent, can be considered a threat. Especially when pretty much the entire political environment is consists of threats of one kind or another. Once they were in power, it would be very easy for British Labour to call the SNP’s bluff. Bringing down a British Labour government, with the corollary of letting the Tories back in, would seem to be a draught of political hemlock for the SNP.
Would they do it? More to the point, can Nicola Sturgeon make Jeremy Corbyn believe that the SNP would be so bold as to effectively usher the Tories back into government. It is feasible. There is a line that Sturgeon could take which might see the SNP through the ‘scandal’ of ‘sabotaging’ a ‘progressive’ British Labour administration. It could be maintained that it is actually British Labour’s fault. They could be portrayed as the ones who have behaved in such a way as to make it impossible for the SNP to continue propping them up.
If this line was used in conjunction with saying it made no difference to Scotland which party was in power at Westminster, it could at least take the edge of the inevitable storm of vilification from the British media. But it would be massively risky. Does Nicola have the bottle? Can she convince Corbyn she does? Personally, I doubt it.
The SNP’s influence over a minority British Labour administration would be minimal. Because the only thing they can threaten them with would almost certainly do the SNP more harm.
It all comes down to one simple fact – Scotland’s interests cannot be served within the UK. Our MPs cannot wield meaningful power, or influence, in the parliament of England-as-Britain because the system is set up to ensure that Scotland (and all the periphery of England-as-Britain) will always be subordinate. That is what the Union is for.
If we send 45 or 50 or more SNP MPs to Westminster expecting them to be a major force, we are likely to be disappointed. But we absolutely must elect as many SNP MPs as possible because only thus can we keep alive the possibility of escaping the Union and bringing all of our government home.
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