No, the SNP won't be able to 'hold the country to ransom'

As the British press parrots Tory fearmongering about a Labour government supported by the SNP, few have noted how little power Nicola Sturgeon will actually have.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
27 April 2015

from the OurKingdom rolling election blog

A few weeks back, I wrote about how the newspapers were preparing to re-write our constitution in tabloid headlines. At that point, I hadn’t conceived of the scale to which this absurdity would climb. Over the last few days, the Times has declared that the involvement of elected SNP MPs in supporting a government would be a ‘coup’. The Sun has said that such a pact, if Labour weren’t the largest party, would have no mandate and, in a separate piece, that they would 'steal power'. Perhaps topping it all, yesterday’s Mail on Sunday front page screamed a quote from Theresa May that a Labour/SNP pact would be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII.

Now, I suspect the families of those who died in The Troubles might have something to say about another significant constitutional problem in recent UK history. Equally, the idea that SNP MPs should be quite so feared is ludicrous - they've run the Scottish government since 2007, and their strategy has always been to achieve independence not through silly games, but by appearing more sensible than the British state. Which isn't hard. But amidst this whirlwind of unparodyable and unparalleled panic from the right wing press, it’s important not to miss a key fact. The SNP is likely, in practice, to have much less power than most are implying over any Labour-led government.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the SNP can’t reach for the nuclear option (perhaps appropriate given their position on Trident). When Labour last relied on the party for support, in the late 70s (a fact the Home Secretary seems to have forgotten), the SNP did eventually pull the plug on the government. The resulting election was won by Thatcher. This piece of history is still one of the most potent arguments used against voting for Sturgeon’s party - in fact, Miliband used it during the last debate. It’s a mistake they know they can’t afford to make again.

The SNP has been aware of this conundrum for a long time - as was confirmed to me by a senior figure in the party a few months ago. What it means in reality is that, without any formal pact, Sturgeon's party is politically bound into providing Labour with the ‘confidence’ half of what’s known as a confidence and supply arrangement. This is why Miliband can declare that he won’t do deals with the SNP, and still be pretty sure of their support in getting him into Downing Street in the first place - and, with the Fixed Term Parliament Act, keeping him there for five years.

This then leaves us with the question of how in practice he delivers a programme of government, and my second reason that the SNP will have less leverage than people imagine. Once Miliband is Prime Minister with a minority government, he will be able to talk to every other party. Of course, some of that will be easy. In reality, there is much that Labour and the Lib Dems agree on - and, in practice, these are often things that the SNP support too, as Iain Macwhirter has pointed out. In addition, as I wrote on our rolling blog, I am pretty sure that the DUP would prefer a Labour government to minimise the squeeze on their devolved social security budget. Certainly, they will happily deal with Miliband, as, of course, will the SDLP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Sylvia Hermon.

On major issues where neither the Lib Dems nor the SNP agree with Labour - Trident being the most notable - the Tories do agree with them. And so they can rely on Conservative support. To put it another way, the government will be able to pass those proposals for which there is a parliamentary majority, and won’t be able to deliver those things without enough support. That seems to me to be a much more democratic outcome than a behind-the-scenes coalition stitch-up. Or, indeed, a "strong government" of a single party, elected on perhaps 35% of the vote, whipping through any legislation it chooses with its majority in the Commons.

Perhaps the people with the most interesting potential role over the next five years are the Conservatives. Because for all their talk of Miliband being held to ransom by the SNP, that can only happen if the Tories allow it. And I suspect that they won’t, because their voters won’t let them.

From 2007-11, the Scottish Parliament had a government of just this sort. Alex Salmond was First Minister, but his party had only 47/129 seats. We’ve heard lots from Scottish Labour recently about how, in that period, the SNP often relied on Conservative support for their budgets. This is usually given as evidence of the true nature of the SNP. In practice, I suspect it tells us more about the political context in which the Conservatives operate. Because they see themselves - and, more importantly, their supporters see them - as the natural party of government; they are expected to make ‘difficult decisions’. They are expected to compromise. And so, when push came to shove, they collaborated with the SNP at Holyrood to ensure that budgets could pass and the country could be governed. (In fact, when it came to it, Labour too at times allowed SNP budgets to pass by supporting them or abstaining, because they feared the political ramifications of being seen to create chaos).

Here’s my point: there has been much talk of the SNP pulling the strings in a Labour government. There has also been some chat about a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. It seems to me that neither of these things is very likely. What’s much more probable is a Labour minority government who will talk to MPs from all parties in different ways over the course of five years to secure agreement or abstentions for a legislative and fiscal programme which will, in many ways, be a mash up of the less contentious bits of the manifestos of all of the parties.

That might sound to some like a horrific mess. To me, it seems about as democratic as can be expected at Westminster.

Check out the OurKingdom rolling election blog for our ongoing analysis of the run up to the vote, and how the right wing press is trying to swing it

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