“Tartan Tories?”: devolution wrangling makes life difficult for Labour – and helps the SNP

Could Smith Commission negotiations help Scottish nationalists by keeping a right-wing government in Westminster?

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Everyone knows there are fewer Tory MPs in Scotland than pandas, so it's always a bit of an exotic spectacle when the Prime Minister pops up north of the border. But rather than being gawped at in Edinburgh Zoo, he is in Scotland today to outline the plans for devolving further power to Holyrood.

Although negotiating the Smith Commission's recommendations sounds a little technical, it is actually an event worth gawping rather closely at, because something unusual is happening. As David Cameron meets Scotland's First Minister, the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, devolution plans are revealing a tricky situation for the Labour party. The SNP appears to be making the prospect of working with Labour in Westminster, come a hung parliament, very difficult indeed.

Cameron and Sturgeon are discussing certain proposals – such as the Scottish Parliament overseeing 60 per cent of public spending, almost full tax-raising powers, and a new welfare package worth £2.5bn – during his visit. This is the follow-up to the "vow": a pledge on extensive devolution made by all three main Westminster party leaders in the final days before the Scottish independence referendum. It was brought about by Gordon Brown, who devised a timetable for devolving more power to Scotland, during his 11th-hour speeches to save the Union.

Although it was Brown who signed Labour (and the other parties) up for this, and the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has accepted the recommendations of the Smith Commission, it is not how Labour would have liked to see things go. I have already reported that Labour voices on the Smith Commission were lamenting Brown's rashness in promising such a dramatic deal, and it is no secret that Labour, unlike the Tories, was opposed to devolving full taxation powers to Holyrood, until the Smith Commission reported that Scotland should have full income tax control. 

Labour's initial opposition (it U-turned after Smith reported) was due to its belief in protecting the UK's fiscal union, its fear that such power in Scotland would exacerbate the clamour for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), and the fact that Scotland making the difficult decisions would take some blame off the Tory-led austerity drive in Westminster among Scottish voters. When Smith reported, Brown warned of a "Tory trap" and Alistair Darling voiced his reservations about its findings, and suspicion endures in the party now that the devolution deal is being negotiated by Cameron and Sturgeon.

Although Sturgeon has rattled government figures with her confirmation that SNP MPs will vote on NHS matters to “help to protect Scotland’s budget”, this intervention is worse news for Labour. The more Sturgeon attempts to wield the SNP’s power in Westminster – and the party is en route to winning substantially more seats there – the more it will aggravate those calling for the English question to be answered with EVEL. EVEL, of course, would hobble Labour if it were to become the party of government.

Yet there may be another tactic at play here. If the SNP continues to make such tough demands, it makes it less and less likely that it would be able to do a deal with Labour following the general election. This gives the nationalist party the opportunity to say it attempted to work with Labour, but was unable to come to an agreement, and to therefore allow the Tories to take the lead in coalition negotiations and go into government again. The advantage of a Conservative-led government in Westminster for the SNP is clear: it can continue to differentiate itself from the right-wing English establishment and thus take support from Labour in Scotland.

A former Scotland Office aide tells me that one of the main reasons the Conservatives have been pro-devolution since the Strathclyde Commission (set up by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in 2013) is because they, “knew it would outsmart Labour. Basically it is really clever politics to make Labour look like the stuffy party that is holding back Scotland from fulfilling its future. And so they are going to get punished by the SNP next year [in the Scottish Parliament general election]”.

It is also worth remembering that the SNP worked informally with the Tories in Scotland from 2007-11 to prop up the minority government there. Nationalists in Scotland are often dubbed “Tartan Tories” by their detractors, who see them as having a parochial focus derived from an essentially conservative ideology. Indeed, the Tories are pushing the credentials they have in common with the SNP. One Tory source close to the Scotland Office tells me, “the Tories are keen to devolve power down and out while Labour don’t trust people to make decisions about their own lives”, and denies that there is any “irony” about the SNP finding it easier negotiating with Tories than with Labour.

One Scotland Office adviser tells me, “Smith goes two separate ways for the SNP and Tories and benefits both. For the SNP, it was never going to be good enough so it strengthens the indy case. For the Tories, it begins the process of ditching Scotland, which isn’t crawling with their supporters. And for Labour, it removes power from Westminster, which is where they want to work out of.”

It is also worth pointing out that, while Labour’s life is being made increasingly difficult, the Lib Dems come off rather well in the new devolution negotiations. The proposals are a step in the right direction to the Home Rule plan for which the party has long been aiming.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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