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5 January 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 1:50pm

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?

By Douglas Beattie Douglas Beattie

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. 

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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.”

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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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