Support for the SNP has reached an historic high, both in terms of membership and voter support. This unprecedented rise on the back of the Scottish independence referendum may have important implications for both Scotland’s constitutional future and the outcome of the next General Election.
To understand the current situation we need to rewind the clock a little to the immediate aftermath of the referendum. Standing outside Downing Street, Cameron announced that a Commission would be set up under Lord Smith to review what additional powers should be devolved to Scotland. This was on the back of Gordon Brown’s inspired ‘vow’ during the referendum campaign. That Commission reported in late November and has subsequently been followed up with a Command Paper that all of the major parties have signed up – if not endorsed.
The Smith Commission though was only one part of the complex political scene which has been unwinding since the referendum. Salmond stood down as First Minister and then subsequently announced he would stand for a Westminster seat. In stepped the heir-apparent, Nicola Sturgeon and her new, left-leaning Cabinet. Labour was criticised for its lacklustre referendum campaign and soon earlier divisions between the Scottish party and London ripped wide open with the resignation of the Scottish leader, Johann Lamont MSP. Her replacement at the end of the year, Jim Murphy MP has reinvigorated Labour north of the Border, but is it enough?
Current polls show a seismic change in Scottish Westminster voting patterns. While the most recent polls show Labour regaining some of its former support, it still lies a very distant second to the SNP. And while there is an expectation that the poll gap could close some more, many Labour MPs in comparatively safe seats still run the risk of being wiped out. Some polls have suggested a national swing so great that all but a handful of Labour MPs will survive – the reality is likely to be a lot less brutal than that, but we could still see the SNP with 20+ MPs – far more than the likes of UKIP across the UK.
A new Coalition?
If the SNP do perform as well as many pundits predict, what impact could that have on Westminster? Sturgeon has been quick to dismiss any suggestions of propping up the Conservatives – though the two parties worked very effectively together in the Scottish Parliament for years and a Conservative minority government could just survive on some informal agreement with the smaller parties. An EU Referendum, however, could well be sufficient to trigger another Scottish independence referendum.
The alternative is either a wider coalition (with the Lib Dems and Labour etc.) or propping up a Labour administration. For the SNP, there are a number of red-line issues – one being Trident and another being powers to the Scottish Parliament – and no doubt the option of another referendum. How palatable these might be to Labour remains to be seen, but they are not natural issues of agreement. Equally, the prospect of a marriage between Salmond and Miliband could only be described as likely to be torturous.
Scottish politics is likely to have a huge bearing on the outcome of the next General Election and its impact is likely to be lasting. Not only could we see enhanced powers beyond the Smith Commission, but the way being paved towards a second referendum. Whatever the outcome of the General Election, we’re in for a very bumpy ride ahead.