A poll by The Herald suggests that some people across the UK are worried about Scottish National Party (SNP) influence after the general election – 46% across the UK believe it would be negative. Instead, they should celebrate its role as a major force in British politics. After all, the polls have also said for some time that most British people want Scotland to remain in the UK. This is the price some people must pay for that arrangement.
The main concern is the idea that the tail will wag the dog (or Ed Miliband will be in Alex Salmond’s pocket); that a UK government will have to make major concessions to a party representing a tiny part of the population. To me, this highlights a misunderstanding of the influence that the SNP would have in practice.
It seems unlikely that Labour would enter into any kind of formal agreement that allowed SNP MPs to become ministers or play a direct role in the management of government departments – indeed, Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the Scottish nationalists.
It is also unlikely that the SNP would tie itself completely to the maintenance of a minority Labour government. In general, this is because smaller parties can suffer in the next election when they become too associated with the larger party (partly since they no longer represent a distinctive party of protest). The Liberal Democrats may not forget this lesson in a hurry.
Yellow Labour peril
In the same way, the SNP would risk being hoist by its own petard. Having made great play of the idea of “red Tories”, in which Labour joined forces with the Conservatives to oppose Scottish independence, it needs to avoid becoming “yellow Labour”. Instead it may try to engage on a case by case basis, opposing the renewal of Trident (which seems likely to happen anyway, since the Conservatives support it), but not contributing to the kind of regular opposition that would undermine the government completely.
The SNP has begun to describe itself as Labour’s conscience; as a party able to reinforce old Labour values. It has cultivated an image of a social democratic party, an alternative to “austerity politics”.
The SNP and Labour may disagree on what that alternative might be, particularly since Labour has, to all intents and purposes, accepted that it will initially inherit the coalition government’s policy commitments. Yet you can still see the potential for the SNP to push for policies that Labour might favour if it didn’t have compete so hard on territory occupied by the Conservatives.
A second concern with UK voters is that SNP influence could reawaken the independence question, perhaps producing a second referendum or a concerning amount of constitutional change. This is unlikely too. It is too soon to hold another referendum and another Yes campaign would not have the support.
While the SNP might secure a few more concessions, perhaps to devolve more social security functions, I doubt it will draw a line in the sand on something like fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Instead it may continue to play on its strengths to represent the vague but important idea that it is “standing up for Scotland”.
In this case there is some potential for the SNP to play a wider role in British politics, to articulate a general sense that Westminster politicians do not represent the periphery. The kinds of complaints that gain traction in Scotland may also play well in Wales and some English regions.
A final concern is that a Labour-SNP agreement will put paid to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For me that is the most entertaining part of this outcome. Just imagine the SNP and UKIP taking completely opposite stances on the need for a referendum to reflect identity and a sense of national exceptionalism, and portraying their stances as purely principled.