Conservative protesters outside Chatham House during Ed Miliband's speech on foreign policy. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the SNP wouldn't drag Labour far to the left

The nationalists are barely more left-wing to begin with.

The belief that a Labour minority government reliant on SNP support would be dragged significantly to the left has hardened into conventional wisdom. Some, such as Len McCluskey, welcome this prospect, while the Tories and others issue dystopian warnings of a high-spending, high-taxing, high-borrowing administration that scraps Trident. Slightly embarrasingly for Labour, Peter Mandelson's consultancy firm Global Counsel has warned: "[The SNP will] pull the Labour party to the left, away from the centre ground of English politics. This will include pushing Labour towards higher public spending. In addition, the SNP will intervene in some high-profile policy areas, such as by attempting to block the replacement of the Trident nuclear fleet."

But as I've written before, the SNP's leverage is nowhere near as great as stated. In the case of Trident, those MPs in favour of renewal (most of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems) will far outweigh those opposed. As long as the Tories are prepared to walk through the division lobbies with Miliband, there is no chance of the SNP blocking defence spending (as its deputy leader Stewart Hosie has grandiosely suggested they would).

On fiscal matters, the SNP wouldn't drag Labour significantly to the left for the simple reason that isn't much to the left to begin with. As the IFS noted last week, the party's "stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric". The nationalists' commitment to ensure that the deficit and the national debt fall "in every year as a share of national income" means that they have less room for manoeuvre than assumed. Indeed, under some assumptions, the SNP would cut public spending by £5bn more than Labour over the next parliament. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls responded by emphasising that Labour wanted to deliver a surplus on the current budget, rather than merely balance it (which could entail greater cuts), but the gap between the two parties is still marginal.

In the case of tax, the SNP manifesto proposes "the reintroduction of the 50p top tax rate, a tax on bankers' bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of 'non dom' status, reversal of the married couples' tax allowance, and a review of the pension tax relief available to the wealthiest." But every one of these measures is already supported by Labour. Indeed, it was arguing for them long before the SNP. Only recently, under Nicola Sturgeon's leadership, has the party unambiguously embraced social democracy. Under Alex Salmond, it refused to support a 50p tax rate and argued for a 3 per cent cut in corporation tax. If anything, as Stephen argued recently, it's the SNP that has been dragged leftwards by Miliband.

But in politics, perception matters more than reality. And as the most recent Scottish polls show (with the SNP reaching a new high of 54 per cent today), the perception that the nationalists are far to Labour's left is one that is doing them no harm at all.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution