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Why has the SNP changed its definition of voting only on “Scottish matters”?

Preparing for power, home and abroad.

By Michael Gray

Today the UK government published “Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement”. Some have wryly observed that the title lacked a question mark.

The further powers proposals for Scotland come after months of negotiations that formed the Smith Commission. That commission is hot on the heels of the lengthy independence campaign and the previous two Scotland Acts in 1998 and 2012. Constitutional flux remains on the agenda.

While fast-tracked legislation of tax, regulatory and welfare powers may feel like bold leadership at Westminster, Scotland is another country. Rather than pacify calls for change, the paper has already been met with disappointment from the Scottish Trade Union Congress, the Poverty Alliance, Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations and Citizens Advice Scotland.

Enter the Scottish National Party. This May, the SNP plans to channel support for Scotland’s national interest and political reform into an election victory. First and foremost that means forcing Westminster to deliver a powerful Scotland Act.

The SNP, with 1.6m Yes voters and nearly 100,000 members to tap into, has dominated post-referendum polls in Scotland. This is despite the 55 per cent vote against independence and the SNP’s traditionally poor performance in Westminster elections.

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The response to this surge from the main Westminster parties has been inept. Rather than push for substantial change, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have welded themselves into a joint position with the Conservatives.

This is electorally nonsensical. A single Unionist position plays directly into the hands of the SNP. As on austerity, nuclear weapons and the referendum campaign, they can state that Labour and the Tories are indistinguishable. “Red Tories” is not a label Ed Miliband can afford to stick.

In theory opportunities remain to revive Labour fortunes. Further tax powers, universal credit and control over the minimum wage and workers rights, were all on the table for a progressive coalition to support.

Sadly Labour chose in their devolution reports (April 2013 and March 2014) to back a more diluted form of devolution that the Conservatives. Johann Lamont resigned stating that her proposals were vetoed from London. This is a deep hole that Jim Murphy is struggling to dig his way out from.

Poll after poll, albeit 104 days premature, predicts the SNP at 40-45 per cent. In the wacky world of first past the post that means over 40 of Scotland’s 59 MPs would be pro-independence, and potentially hold the balance of power across the UK as a whole.

So Nicola Sturgeon has the wind at her back in Edinburgh, and now alongside the Greens and Plaid Cymru has an eye on the dividends of holding a veto over all UK policy. Under her new leadership Sturgeon made the terms of any deal clear: further powers for Scotland, an end to austerity, and abandoning Trident nuclear weapons. All red lines.

The benefit for Labour (Sturgeon has ruled out any deal with the Conservatives) is power. That is why the SNP have now changed its definition of voting only on “Scottish matters” at Westminster to encompass the NHS. If Labour needs the SNP to pass a UK budget or any proposal in England, then the SNP need to vote.

The idea of left-wing Scottish MPs in the Westminster driving seat horrifies the Tories. But the benefit for the whole UK is stability. If the UK needs the SNP to function, then it is a necessary deal to prevent currency and stock market shocks.

It all depends how the electoral dice fall.

Imagine the script: Alex Salmond striding back into the Palace of Westminster whistling Jerusalem on his way to save England from the establishment. After a democratic renewal, the SNP are readying themselves for the challenge.

Michael Gray @GrayInGlasgow is a journalist with CommonSpace, a new digital news service in Scotland

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