If the SNP denies Labour an outright majority, then what? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser