If the SNP denies Labour an outright majority, then what? Photo: Getty
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The battle for Scotland will echo the referendum and may define the election – and beyond

Labour and the SNP have competing visions for Scotland and the UK – could they really find common ground in Westminster?

As you may have noticed, the general election campaign is already underway, with messages from political leaders popping up almost as soon as the fizz was gone from the New Year celebrations. Why? Well, staking an early claim for votes in a fiendishly unpredictable election is no bad thing.

Nowhere is this more so than in Scotland where the fallout from September's divisive referendum has seen the Scottish National Party surge in the polls. Though comprehensively rejected by the electorate over independence Nicola Sturgeon's merry band could yet become major players in a parliament they view as wholly alien.

Recent polls have predicted the nationalists – who now possess a membership list in excess of 100,000 – are set to return in excess of 50 MPs to Westminster. Stunning as that forecast may be it would be wise to bear in mind that the bookies still reckon Labour is (just about) best-placed to become the largest party in terms of seats across the UK.

This suggests Ed Miliband has a better than evens chance of holding onto much of his Scottish powerbase where Labour currently have 40 seats and the nationalists just six. Still, should the SNP end up with even 20 MPs, comfortably beating their record of 11 members in 1974, they will be cock-a-hoop. That would be enough – possibly – to deny Labour an outright majority.

It will therefore be of some comfort to Ed Miliband that Sturgeon has categorically ruled out ever cutting a coalition deal with the Conservatives. Yet should the electoral arithmetic be tight Labour may still be required to dance with its own personal devil in power. 

Bitterness between the two parties over the recent referendum remains, of course, but there are deeper wounds, notably from 1979 and the fall of Jim Callaghan's government. Labour has never forgotten nor forgiven the SNP (dubbed the Tartan Tories) for voting against the government in the no-confidence motion which was lost by a single vote and so ushered in the Thatcher era. It was a move that prompted Callaghan to memorably remark during the debate that this was, “the first time in recorded history that turkeys had been known to vote for an early Christmas.”

In the here-and-now, these two old electoral foes are again at daggers drawn. Sturgeon, on unveiling a poster of green Commons benches turned tartan in recent days, suggested Labour's claim to be the only party able to keep the Tories out of power was, “an insult to the intelligence of the Scottish people.”

Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour's new leader, duly responded by saying the election was not about, “painting a bench tartan”, but, “getting David Cameron out.”

Frankly no matter what happens on 7 May, a Miliband minority government entering a formal coalition with the SNP would be less than credible (no matter how much the SNP may wish to tease that such a thing is viable).

It's not difficult to picture the outright fury in English shires at the sight of nationalists – possibly Alex Salmond included – not only voting on English laws, but defining them; agitating over Trident, calling for an end to austerity measures, stifling debate on the EU and demanding greater powers for Holyrood.

A loose pact, or "confidence and supply" agreement is surely as far as things could go. Even then Labour would need to constantly demonstrate there was no tail wagging the dog. The SNP would also have the advantage of knowing all the tricks in the minority government playbook, having gone down that route in Edinburgh between 2007 and 2011.

So some of the actors may have changed since those heady days last September, but expect the march towards Downing Street to feel very much like an extension of the independence campaign – a kind of referendum on the rebound with no love lost.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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