Tory! Tory! Tory! Nicola Sturgeon’s win-win election
It is the autumn of 2017 and David Cameron addresses the world’s media for the last time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not since Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her own party has a Prime Minister been humiliated like this. Mr Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union was always a risky gamble — designed to buy time for the Prime Minister as much as anything else — now, at the proving time, it has destroyed the Tory leader.
Fifty five percent of Tory MPs defied their leader and campaigned against the renegotiated “deal” Cameron had brought back from Brussels. A renegotiation that was supposed to satisfy Tory eurosceptics was, instead, rejected on the grounds it was wholly inadequate. Dozens of Tory MPs in southern England remembered how five of their colleagues had been defeated by UKIP in 2015 and worried their seats might fall next. Britain as a whole rejected Cameron’s proposals too, albeit narrowly. The UK would leave the European Union and Cameron’s legacy — and place in history — was now assured: he would be remembered as the greatest Conservative failure since Neville Chamberlain.
Meanwhile, in the north, something stirred. Nicola Sturgeon, the most popular politician in Britain, noted that Scotland had voted to remain part of the EU even as England had decided it was “Better off out”. Until now The First Minister had declined to push for a second referendum to determine whether Scotland would remain a part of the Union. Now she saw her chance to strike. “Circumstances” had changed.
Mr Cameron had rejected Ms Sturgeon’s call for a “quadruple lock” whereby no part of the UK’s “family of nations” could be hauled out of the EU as a consequence of votes in another part of the kingdom. Now Scotland faced leaving the EU despite having expressed a clear desire to remain a member. The First Minister, who had survived a desperate pan-Unionist assault to win a crushing victory at the 2016 Holyrood elections, declared she would introduce a second referendum bill at Holyrood. The Scottish people would have another chance to decide their future. Unlike in 2014, the opinion polls suggested Ms Sturgeon would succeed where her predecessor Alex Salmond had failed. The game was afoot, once again…
Fanciful? Perhaps. Impossible? Certainly not. Indeed many senior nationalists believe precisely this kind of scenario could happen if David Cameron returns to Downing Street after next month’s general election. For a long time now it has been apparent that many nationalists expect Cameron to defeat Ed Miliband. Like Ms Sturgeon, they do not believe the Labour leader is Prime Ministerial material. And they have long believed that Cameron’s european difficulties are Scotland’s opportunity.
That does not mean, of course, that they crave another Tory-led government in London. Merely that intelligent nationalist strategists are aware that a second term for Cameron is no disaster for the SNP. True, it would weaken the SNP’s influence at Westminster in the short-term but this would be more than compensated for by the long-term strategic boost another Tory government would give the nationalists.
Research by the Scottish Referendum Study has confirmed that the single most powerful argument deployed by the Yes campaign last year was the proposition that Scotland is its own country and that it should henceforth only be ruled by governments for which it had voted. Another Conservative government in London enjoying the support of no more than — optimistically — two Tory MPs in Scotland would, for many Scots, be an affront too far. Up with this they would no longer put.
The SNP find themselves of being in the happy position of winning whichever way the rest of Britain votes. If, for the sake of argument, Mr Miliband is able to cobble together a government he will require nationalist support if he’s to make any progress in implementing his agenda. The SNP sets great store by “competence” and manner in which the good example a decent record in government can be used to press the case for more powers and responsibility to be repatriated to Scotland. Give us the tools, they say, and we’ll finish the job.
So a weak Labour government is hardly a terrible outcome for the SNP. True, a less flexible party might find it awkward running in the 2016 Holyrood elections against a London government that was being propped up by the SNP but the nationalists have never previously allowed logic and reason to derail their populist bandwagon. The party are experts at having it both ways. Like Boris Johnson, they take a defiantly pro-cake position: they will have their cake and, greedily, they will eat it too.
But, still, however grand it might be to see Labour squirm in power any objective analysis of the current political situation must conclude that the Tories serve the SNP’s interests better than Labour (and vice versa, of course, which is why London Tories no longer even bother pretending they don’t want the SNP to unhorse as many Scottish Labour MPs as possible). Not least because a Tory victory most probably means Labour will have been destroyed in Scotland.
Like any other politician, Ms Sturgeon’s word may not quite be her bond but I am quite happy to accept her promise that she does not “hope” David Cameron wins this election. If this is not the case — if, that is, she was saying one thing in public while hoarding a quite contradictory position in private — she would stand revealed as perhaps the most cynical and duplicitous politician of our time. No, the odds are that Ms Sturgeon, whose disdain for the Tories was born long ago and burned deep into her soul — really does mean what she says in public.
Nor would I wish to suggest that she will cheerfully endure a period of what she would deem disastrous, even wicked, government if that wretched experience helps nudge Scotland towards the United Kingdom’s exit door. Ms Sturgeon is not likely to think her people must suffer so she may prosper. Nevertheless, she might endure this suffering with a certain measure of stoicism.
Because, whether she welcomes it or not, she cannot — being an intelligent person adept at playing the long-game — be unaware of the strategic upside that comes with a second term in Downing Street for David Cameron.
Any possible Conservative-led government is almost certain to be in hock to the right-wing of the Tory party. That means it will, must even, pander to the UKIP-tendency that terrifies more moderate Tories. It means the future of the Barnett Formula and Scotland’s generous levels of public spending will be scrutinised like never before. It means the question of “English votes for English laws” will not go away. It means that English Tories will treat Scotland as a separate country already. If forced to choose between their Unionism and their lust for power many English Tories will plump for the latter. Already you can hear the sounds of knives being sharpened, ready to cut Scotland free. Too many of these people know us little and understand us even less.
Just as the Roman empire could be lost in the provinces, not Rome, so it is apparent that the Union can be lost in London, not Scotland. This is the danger the Tories are encouraging, right now. It is an opportunity to which intelligent nationalists are very much alive. As deplorable election outcomes go, this one is quite delicious.
A version of this article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on Tuesday April 7th, 2015.