Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading the runes

Exactly five years ago (give or take the odd day) I was busy trying to work out in my head what the outcome of the 2005 general election might mean for the SNP's chances of winning power at devolved level in 2007. Although I'm not sure I truly believed it in my heart of hearts (it was difficult to when the SNP had just scored its lowest vote share since 1987, and had been unexpectedly beaten into third place by the Liberal Democrats), the conclusion I came to based on hard logic was that fate had thrown up almost the ideal result. Why? Because it meant that Labour would have to defend its Holyrood powerbase right in the middle of a third consecutive term of office at Westminster - exactly the moment at which public dissatisfaction with the party could reasonably be expected to be at its peak. Even better, I supposed, Labour's middling majority of 66 was just high enough for Tony Blair to resist calls for him to depart the premiership earlier than he intended. The nightmare scenario for the SNP was always that the Holyrood campaign might have taken place in the midst of some kind of Brown honeymoon.

So, in spite of my instinctive doubts, that line of logic turned out to be remarkably well-founded - although Blair's departure just two months after the Holyrood vote can admittedly be seen as a very near miss! But can the runes be read in a similar way this time? Firstly, in spite of Jim Murphy's predictable gloating, the SNP's result is actually better than in 2005, with a clear second place in the popular vote that had looked distinctly unlikely throughout much of the campaign. That's the good news, but unfortunately a few alarm bells are ringing in my head about the drama presently unfolding in London.

Perhaps the greatest danger resulting from Thursday's inconclusive result is that it could lead to a snap second election - one which could very easily take place exactly one year from now, ie. coinciding with the Scottish Parliament election. It hardly bears thinking about what the effect on voting patterns might be if the Holyrood campaign was effectively subsumed into a Westminster one (although on the plus side it would probably boost the SNP's vote for Westminster).

Secondly, a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in London - especially one implementing savage cuts in public spending - might provide Scottish Labour with a kind of perfect storm one year from now. They'd be the only one of the four main parties contesting the Holyrood election not to be hampered by problems of incumbency - ie. they could paint themselves as the only true 'opposition' party, and even (risible though it might seem) as the sole party of 'change'.

And leaving aside the SNP's own fortunes for a moment, what about the impact on the cause of Scottish self-government more broadly? All we can really conclude for the moment is that meaningful progress on fiscal powers might be more likely under a Tory/Lib Dem government than under a majority Tory government - but only very fractionally more likely. For all that the Lib Dems are probably sincere in their desire for enhanced devolution, it's hard to imagine them making it much of a priority in the current negotiations. Probably the only hope for progress now lies with a Labour/Lib Dem arrangement, but that scenario looks increasingly implausible - Nick Clegg seems to have boxed his party into a position whereby failure in the negotiations will most likely lead directly to a Tory minority government, rather than to alternative negotiations with Labour.

But, to finish on a positive note, such an outcome does nevertheless provide some clear opportunities for the SNP. My suspicion is that the party's message in this campaign - that they could deliver significant concessions for Scotland in a balanced parliament - didn't resonate as much as it could have done for the very simple reason that the public couldn't visualise it actually working out that way in practice. That is very likely to now change. Even if the Lib Dems agree to a 'confidence-and-supply' arrangement, it's almost inevitable that individual votes will crop up in which the SNP hold the balance. If so, Jim Murphy - or his successor - will be greeted with considerably more scepticism in future when he tries to dismiss the SNP as an 'irrelevance' in Westminster elections.


  1. I'm glad you wrote that. I had it in mind last night to try to write some sort of analysis along these lines, working out what this would mean for us in a year's time.

    The likelihood of the elections on the same day, is small, given the unholy mess that two election systems caused last time, and I wonder if they would dare hold the elections a few days, or even a few weeks apart.

    On the other hand, they might have a situation where there was no choice if the government fell. Ohhhh helll....

    A lot depends on whether Labour still has Iain Gray as leader and if there are any hiccups in Holyrood.

    It could also depend on how Labour and the SNP work together in Lodnon as opposition parties...and how that affects their relationship in Edinburgh.

    There are too many unknown unknowns for me...

    Like I said James, I'm glad you worte this.

  2. Well, maybe "wrote" would be better.

  3. Thanks, Tris. It's interesting what you say about Iain Gray - I'd imagine that Murphy's victory in East Renfrewshire makes it more likely that Gray will still be the leader next year. (I never really believed in the theory that a defeated Murphy would seek to take over from Gray, but I suppose there was an outside chance.)