The interminable campaign of an election year is less than two months from its end, and as winter turns to spring, with every day that passes another slew of opinion polls and seat forecasts is released (think of them as buds on the tree of decision, or milk teeth on the infant of democracy). Whichever metaphor you prefer, the one thing they almost all agree on is that we’re heading for an election with no clear winner, but that one party in particular has a strong chance of holding the balance of power: the Scottish National Party. As a result, there is an increasing amount of speculation in the media about how the SNP will behave in a hung parliament. Do they want a coalition with Labour? Or perhaps just a confidence and supply agreement? What is their price? And so on.
In particular, a number of observers recently have been picking up on Labour’s campaign message of “vote SNP, get the Tories.” On the face of it this message sounds like a laughably desperate, wildly counterintuitive appeal to voters. And repeated on its own, without any argument to back it up, it’s precisely that. After all, if there is a massive swing from Labour to the SNP, almost every projection shows that this would mean a host of red Labour seats turning SNP yellow, not Tory blue. Then there is Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence at almost every opportunity that the inhabitants of these yellow seats would never put the inhabitants of the blue seats into power, indeed she wants her party to be a radical force pulling a government of the red-seat-inhabitants further to the left. Are you keeping up? Good, because it’s about to get a lot more complicated.
That’s because some commentators have been pointing out that while all of this is true, there remain perverse incentives for the SNP to do a deal with the Tories anyway, or at least to find a way to retain them in office instead of Labour. The argument goes like this: the SNP need a maximally austere Tory government in power (a government with no mandate in Scotland whatsoever) so as to continue to fuel the sense Scottish voters have that England and Scotland are now on radically divergent political paths. Even better for the SNP, the Tories want a referendum on the EU (a subject over which there is a substantial possibility of further divergence between English and Scottish voters), and Labour do not. According to this school of thought, the SNP might hope to bring about the perfect storm required to produce a vote for independence in a second referendum.
Yet, there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about such a scenario unfolding, and not just the fact that the election result itself is still highly unpredictable at this stage. As mentioned above, Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out very publicly doing any kind of deal with the Tories. Indeed, when asked about it she sounds almost as though she’s suffering an allergic reaction. So, how much wriggle room would she have if she wanted it? Not very much. First of all, an explicit negotiated deal would be almost entirely out of the question. Sturgeon cannot be seen to sup with the Tories, even for mutual gain. She’s supposed to be implacably opposed to everything they stand for. So it would have to be an unacknowledged wink-and-a-nod deal. That requires the Tories to choose by themselves to announce some kind of sweetener (presumably devolution that goes well beyond anything proposed by the Smith Commission), and it would require the SNP to take the risk that abstaining on a confidence vote in David Cameron’s government (they couldn’t risk actually voting for him) would not be seen as a betrayal of their values, or worse, of Scotland.
There is of course a historical precedent here. In 1979, a smaller group of SNP MPs joined with Margaret Thatcher’s Tories and the Liberals to bring down a Labour government in a confidence vote. All this practically did was to bring forward an election that had to be called within a few months anyway, but even so it cost the SNP nearly half of its vote and nine of its eleven seats. There are some important differences this time around- devolution now shields Scotland from the full effects of a Thatcherite government on steroids, and the independence referendum has turned the SNP swing voter of the 1970s into the full-blooded SNP convert of the 2010s. Polls reveal attitudes toward Labour in Scotland are now every bit as negative as attitudes toward the Tories, and as such many voters may simply not view a Tory government as the ultimate Armageddon scenario Labour would like to paint it as. Indeed, many of them appear to have started believing that rule from London is an Armageddon scenario under either of the two main parties. But once they saw the effects of uninhibited Tory rule, even if those effects were mostly felt in England and only viewed from afar by Scots, would they still be indifferent? It would take a brave politician to risk this. Is Nicola Sturgeon that brave?
Arguably, the strongest perverse incentive for the SNP is to engineer a grand coalition. What better way to complete the toxification of Westminster than to force Labour into bed with the hated Tories. To bring this about, they may well have to bring down both David Cameron’s government and a subsequent Labour minority government, perhaps even in swift succession. Then they can rail against the united Westminster establishment as it implements further cuts and renews Trident. Even without an EU referendum, these might still be propitious circumstances in which to hold another vote on independence.
But perhaps it won’t come to that and the SNP will behave more responsibly than some predict. They have long been at pains to explain that you can be pro-independence while still being internationalist and acting in solidarity with those beyond the borders you believe in. Whilst Scotland is still in the union, there are only three kinds of government it will ever have at UK-level; a Labour-led government, a Tory-led government or a grand coalition. You don’t have to be the biggest fan of the Labour party to see that the first of these options is the least austere, especially when there’s predicted to be a spending gap of as much as £43 billion between this option and the worst alternative. The SNP don’t have to actively vote with Labour if the Lib Dems, SDLP and others allow it to outnumber the Tories. They can even vote against renewing Trident if they like (after all, the Tories are unlikely to play parliamentary games with national security).
The SNP have spoken during the referendum campaign the language of solidarity, of a social democratic, internationalist worldview. In May, their English neighbours in particular will be threatened by a Tory agenda more anathema to these values than any seen on these shores in a very long time. The SNP will then have to prove that those values don’t dissipate at the first sign of tactical advantage. Anyone who really wants to see Scotland flower into an independent nation standing as a beacon of social justice ought to be watching them like a hawk.