Thursday, February 25, 2010

How can the SNP capitalise on a hung parliament?

It's extraordinary when you consider where we were just three or four months ago, but as of this moment we really do appear to be heading towards a hung parliament. I emphasise 'as of this moment', because with the bizarre series of twists and turns we've seen over the course of this five-year parliament, it could all look very different in a few weeks' time! But there's no question about where we stand right now - with four successive YouGov polls showing a six-point Tory lead, and the latest ICM poll showing a seven-point lead, the tightening of the position can't be put down to rogue polls or sampling issues.

So where does this leave the SNP? A great deal has been made of the possibility that the party may now fall way short of the twenty seat target set several years ago by Alex Salmond. The Liberal Democrats will be the real power brokers even if there is a hung parliament, we are told, with the SNP and their handful of MPs remaining firmly on the periphery. But the chance to look back at the 1974 election last week reminded me that it all turned out rather differently last time round. The Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe imagined they had been landed with the golden opportunity they'd been waiting decades for - but got precisely nothing out of it. They didn't get electoral reform, or the chance to serve in a coalition government. A few years later, in the period of the Lib-Lab pact, they were banking a great deal on at least securing the very minor consolation prize of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, but failed even on that count.

By contrast, the SNP - who won just seven seats in February 1974, exactly the same number as they hold now - exploited the hung parliament situation to achieve something quite extraordinary. They turned Labour's whole policy on Scottish devolution on its head, and ensured that much of the following five years was taken up with the attempts to get a Scottish Assembly onto the statute book. Ultimately, thanks to the cynical machinations of George Cunningham and co., it wasn't to be, but nevertheless 1974 marked a truly historic shift in Labour's thinking on the issue that undoubtedly paved the way for the Scottish Parliament we now have. So who said small parliamentary groups are in no position to win significant concessions?

The question really is, if the SNP find themselves in such an influential position once again following this general election, what their shopping list should be. We've heard quite a bit of speculation that support for any minority government might be conditional on extra economic assistance for Scotland. The logic for this is obvious, and might well appear to be the only responsible priority in the current circumstances. But I think the party would do well to remember just how long the Liberals (and indeed the rest of us) have had occasion to regret their failure to secure a fair voting system when they had the chance in 1974. Golden opportunities don't come along very often, and need to be seized with both hands when they do. I'd suggest therefore that, from a strategic point of view, progress towards the prize of a more powerful Scottish Parliament should be a very high priority for the SNP as well.

1 comment:

Doug Daniel said...

I think Trident could be near the top of that shopping list. If the SNP could get the next Government to cancel the programme, or at least move it outside Scotland, then that would be quite a coup and show the SNP can get things done in Westminster as well as Holyrood.

The main goal would presumably be transferring more powers to Holyrood, with control over the running of elections being among those. I can't see a small group of SNP MPs managing to get fiscal autonomy for Scotland, so they would have to concentrate on smaller issues that matter, but are seen to be less of a "threat" to the union. I think the only chance we have of the next UK Government not conveniently forgetting about their Calman commission proposals is with a strong group of SNP MPs in there annoying them about it.