Tony Greaves writes … Haggling over more than the haggis?

 

Let’s assume, as I did in previous pieces here and here, that no party will win a majority on May 7th, and that all the post-election pressure will be for a minority government with an arrangement with one or more other parties that falls short of coalition. On current polls the Liberal Democrats will not get enough seats for it to be practicable for us to enter coalition, and the third largest party will be the SNP who have made it clear they will not enter any coalition but will seek a looser agreement with Labour.

None of this may happen but the probability seems high enough to discuss how it might work. I am also assuming that, for reasons I’ve also set out previously here, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act will make it very difficult for anyone to force an early second election. In spite of this (or perhaps with some level of ignorance) both Labour and Conservative MPs seem to favour minority government. All this could mean that a minority government may not only be the short term outcome, but could last for some time – perhaps a full five years.

The position of the SNP is interesting, to say the least. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech at the SNP conference is worth reading in full. Her pledges to vote down a Conservative Queen’s Speech are just rhetoric – if it’s going to be voted down, it’s not going to take place. If the post-election negotiations result in a deal between Labour and the SNP which means that between them (or with a few added friends) they can muster a majority for Miliband, Cameron will have to resign. The Queen is not going to invite anyone to form a Government unless and until her advisers tell her they can survive a vote of confidence – and that the Gracious Speech will not be kicked out in the lobbies.

On the other hand Sturgeon came closer than before to saying that SNP MPs would take more interest in “English matters”. She talked about budget matters including welfare reform. She talked about working practices and the living wage. She talked again about the NHS across the UK. But she also talked a lot about the constitutional issues – “all that is deeply undemocratic and unfair about the Westminster notion of democracy”. She appealed to “ordinary people across these islands who feel just as let down by that out of touch Westminster system as we do” and to “people of progressive opinion all across the UK”. She pointed out that the SNP know how to make minority government work. You don’t have to like her or her party to realise that this is the kind of thing that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been saying for decades.

But if Sturgeon and her party are serious about all this they are going to have to think hard about their role at Westminster. If they hold most Scottish seats and continue to abstain on “English matters” they will fall into the very trap that the Tories are trying to set with Hague and Cameron’s “English votes for English laws” nonsense, handing the English Tories a majority on “English” legislation. And when the Commons send Bills to the Lords, with or without SNP help, they will go to a Chamber without a single SNP member (their own choice) where the very clear balance of power will be held by the hundred-plus Liberal Democrats. If Sturgeon wants the SNP to be treated seriously in helping to sort out Westminster – “to shake up and reform that discredited and outdated system” on behalf of “the needs and demands of those ordinary people, wherever they are in the United Kingdom” – she’ll have to find ways for her party to take part and perhaps also do deals with us. If Labour have any sense they’ll only shake hands on a deal if SNP MPs promise to pull their weight on matters affecting the rest of the UK.

* Lord Tony Greaves is the Liberal Democrats Lords Spokesperson for the North of England.

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26 Comments

  • “If Sturgeon wants the SNP to be treated seriously in helping to sort out Westminster – “to shake up and reform that discredited and outdated system” on behalf of “the needs and demands of those ordinary people, wherever they are in the United Kingdom” – she’ll have to find ways for her party to take part and perhaps also do deals with us.”

    Since I have been banging on about federal government – I feel I must point out this is the only clean, clear and just way to ‘shake up and reform that discredited and outdated system’. Unless the possibility of the devolved governments holding the rest of the UK electorate to ransom is removed – this will be a continuing problem. Federal government would do just that – along with an elected HofL.

    Perhaps the Lib/Dems could join with the SNP to achieve these ends.

  • Another interesting article by Tony, I agree with John Tilley commenting on your first article – you should write in LDV more often. I had not realised that the SNP have no members in the House of Lords. Tony posted under his second article the composition of the House of Lords – “Con 227, Lab 216, LD 104, XB 181, Non-affiliated 20, Other parties 15, Bishops 26” and then stated, “the Crossbenches usually have the lowest turnouts. Tories and Labour are similar, and the LDs highest (occasionally around 80%).” Therefore even if we are reduced to less than 40 MPs in the General Election our support will be needed in the House of Lords especially if there is a minority government.

    Maybe with a different leader we could ensure that the gains we achieved in government are kept and those things we should have vetoed are repealed. A minority Labour government with SNP and Liberal Democrat support could be a progressive government without the authoritarianism that Labour governments usually have.

    It is also good to see a Liberal Democrat call “English votes for English laws” nonsense. We should have made an opposition to this much clearer. As Scotland and Wales have a separate Parliament so should the English regions leaving the UK Parliament to deal with non-devolved matters and for it not to meet in sub-sets.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Mar '15 - 1:46pm

    Michael BG – Don’t assume that the SNP are not authoritarian – their record in Scotland, by this measure at least, is not good. I do of course think you are right on federalism within both the UK and England and it may be a chance to open up that whole debate.

  • “…Sturgeon … appealed to “ordinary people across these islands who feel just as let down by that out of touch Westminster system as we do” and to “people of progressive opinion all across the UK”. She pointed out that the SNP know how to make minority government work.

    You don’t have to like her or her party to realise that this is the kind of thing that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been saying for decades.”

    Exactly!

    It is also the case that Ths SNP have already entered into an agreement with PC in Wales and The Green Party in England.
    They have a shared opposition to Trident and the Austerity approach that provides state subsidies for bankers and landlords but cuts the benefits of the poor, whilst pointing people to the food back.

    Liberal Democrats should be on the side of the people in the food banks – not on the side of the bankers and the arms dealers.
    Our natural place is alongside those in politics who are working for and with the people (the many) against those who are working for the privileged few.

  • David Evans 30th Mar '15 - 3:36pm

    John is absolutely right. Or as Jo Grimond put it “Liberals should be on the side of the governed not the governing”. Nick, where did it all go wrong?

  • Malcolm Todd 30th Mar '15 - 4:29pm

    “How can the SNP work with a party that says things like that about a democratically elected party?”
    By being grown up enough to ignore overblown rhetoric.

    Clegg in 2009 said “David Cameron is the con man of British politics.” Cameron once described Clegg as “a joke”. Didn’t seem to stop them working all too happily together, did it?

  • John Roffey 30th Mar '15 - 4:49pm

    Michael BG 30th Mar ’15 – 1:38pm

    “As Scotland and Wales have a separate Parliament so should the English regions leaving the UK Parliament to deal with non-devolved matters and for it not to meet in sub-sets.”

    If the will for change exists – the Westminster Village could be divested of the vast majority of its powers through Devo-Max to the Regions. Defence & Foreign Affairs are the obvious exceptions.

    Interestingly the conditions for this are almost certainly going to arise after the GE. If the Lib/Dems & SNP agreed not to support either of the two main parties – unless this this process was agreed to – it would become very difficult for either to operate a minority government for very long.

    Presumably the Unionists in NI and Plaid Cymru would provide eager support.

  • John Tilley: talking of food banks thought you might be interested in this press story on Saturday
    “Soup kitchens in Burton see huge dip in numbers of visitors”

    ALL three soup kitchens in Burton have recorded a fall in the number of people attending for a free meal and could be at risk of closing as a result.

    Locks as if the “Economic plan” is working??

  • @Tony Greaves,

    Many thanks for another thoughtful article, Tony? Have you ever thought of going into politics? 😉

    “She pointed out that the SNP know how to make minority government work. You don’t have to like her or her party to realise that this is the kind of thing that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been saying for decades.”

    I agree with you to a point – that point being that the SNP simply don’t want that government to exist in the first place. I worry greatly about any party that either wants the UK to break up, a regressive rather than progressive step to my mind, or or us to leave the EU having a major role in the next parliament.

    @David Evans

    Or, as Asquith said – neither left nor right, but keep straight on.

  • ATF 30th Mar ’15 – 5:06pm
    Asquith no doubt said that after a drink or two, it would have been a practical approach to walking home.
    Not for nothing was he known as “Squiffy”.

  • Philip Thomas 30th Mar '15 - 5:58pm

    Why are we assuming the Tories have a majority in England and Wales? Given this is a scenario in which SNP+Labour is a majority (or quite close to it), it seems unlikely that the Tories outnumber Labour in England+Wales, let alone Labour+Lib Dems. After all there are only a small number of Scottish Labour Mps likely to be left in this scenario.

  • John Roffey 30th Mar '15 - 6:18pm

    ATF 30th Mar ’15 – 5:06pm

    “I worry greatly about any party that either wants the UK to break up, a regressive rather than progressive step to my mind, or or us to leave the EU having a major role in the next parliament.”

    I think we can safely assume that the SNP do not want to leave the UK – primarily because the low oil prices – which are predicted at last at least for the medium term – have blown a big hole in the budget proposed at the time of the Referendum. What the SNP want now is Devo-max.

    The main problem with our present style of government is that it was the created during a time when the British Empire was, the unchallenged, most powerful nation on Earth and Westminster Palace – which was built during that period – reflects this stature. A confrontational style of politics was then appropriate. However, now, in truth, we are a middle ranking nation?

    As if it knows its time is up – the Palace – built for confrontational politics with the opposing parties two sword lengths apart – has got almost beyond repair. A middle ranking nation needs its politicians to work together for the good of all – and the Scots have shown how this can be done in a parliament that reflects that need.

    Federal government and Devo-max would provide an opportunity to make those adjustments that were probably needed following WW2 – but tradition made virtually impossible.

  • John Roffey 30th Mar '15 - 6:29pm

    Sorry about to odd mistakes in the above post – the first brandy is poured at 6.00 pm precisely!

  • @John Roffey

    I wish we could assume that, but I err on the side of thinking that the SNP want independence regardless of the cost – as the Ref campaign seemed to prove.

    @JohnTilley

    Maybe so. John – but he was the last of our ilk to win a majority so he may have a few words of sage advice to keep in mind.

  • John Roffey 30th Mar '15 - 6:50pm

    ATF 30th Mar ’15 – 6:47pm

    I think you should do a little research on the damage the low cost of oil has done to the Scottish economy.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Mar '15 - 11:32pm

    Interesting article by Neil Ascherson in today’s Grauniad about the dangers to the SNP in being sucked into the Westminster system, and comparisons with the Irish Nationalists for many years before WW1.

    Tony

  • John Roffey 31st Mar '15 - 8:26am

    Tony Greaves 30th Mar ’15 – 11:32pm

    “Interesting article by Neil Ascherson in today’s Grauniad about the dangers to the SNP in being sucked into the Westminster system, and comparisons with the Irish Nationalists for many years before WW1.”

    A cautionary tale for the SNP, however, as Ascherson acknowledges, the two challenges for additional powers have different backgrounds. In the case of the Irish Parliamentary Party – it was a group in Ireland making the challenge against a hostile majority. Here, if the SNP recognise their opportunity, it would be a case of the majority of the nation making a challenge against the much hated Westminster Bubble.

    A recent poll found that politicians were less trusted than estate agents and although it is doubtful that the group have ever been greatly trusted – since the Coalition came to power many of its actions have been almost unbelievably vicious, for modern times, against a large section of the population. Whether the SNP do have the interest in the predicament of many others at heart or the gumption to build alliances that can provide a platform for real and lasting changes is another matter.

    Gone, it appears, are the days of principle and any sense of fairness – today hard cash rules. If the SNP do recognise that there is available considerable sums that could be redistributed to all parts of the nation through federalism and devo-max and and do not seek to make these gains solely for Scotland – success is quite possible.

    If instead they do seek to benefit only those they represent – they will be branded ‘greedy Scots’ and are likely to suffer the same fate as the Irish Parliamentary Party.

  • Perhaps it does suit most political parties election strategy to undermine the popularity of the SNP by continually stating the party’s aim is to leave the UK – in this way they can then be declared ‘enemies of the state’. The Party’s budget for survival as an independent nation was questionable in the run up to the Referendum – as was the extent of their independence if they joined the EU as a small nation if they had won [if they didn’t most of their big employers would have relocated to somewhere else in the EU[.

    This analysis in the FT does show why the Party would lose a great deal of support if it successfully negotiated another referendum and won – the standard of living for the Scots would drop significantly.

    “The collapse in oil industry tax revenues would have posed a big challenge to Scotland if it had voted for independence last year, but as a continuing part of the UK, Scotland will be shielded from most of the impact.”

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a75399ea-c278-11e4-bd9f-00144feab7de.html#axzz3VxGtUNed

  • The SNP is authoritarian in Scotland because it’s the government. It’s much less authoritarian in the UK as a whole because it can’t form the government.

    If it find itself effectively holding the balance, it will probably try, largely for presentational reasons, to make some kind of arrangement that takes into account Plaid Cymru’s wishes and it seems to me the Plaid is more naturally anti-authoritarian.

  • @Simon Banks

    What make the SNP authoritarian in any normal definition of the word?

  • Robin Bennett 31st Mar '15 - 3:16pm

    If this lottery election gives one party, or a Con/Lib coalition, an overall majority, the SNP will be powerless. The other prospect – a Labour administration with SNP support – would be ideal for Milliband, not the SNP. The SNP would have to support him on policies such as taxing the rich and easing off on austerity, while he could look to the Tories to keep Trident, and for cutting the deficit and staving off devo max. The only bargaining chip the SNP would have would be to bring down the government, with the possibility of a return to Tory rule as happened in 1979. Then, Callaghan’s jibe of “turkeys voting for Christmas” came true. Their representation in the Commons fell from 11 to 2.

    By the way, Nicola Sturgeon today made it plain on Radio Scotland that any second Referendum will be a decision for the SNP government, if re-elected, in the next Holyrood parliament. That sounds like a promise not to be as nation-breaking at Westminster as some commentators predict.

    Another thought. The SNP’s Holyrood minority government 2007-2011, by having to gain support from Lib Dems or Tories to pass its budget, had competence thrust upon it. Such was the admiration in which it was held that in 2011 the SNP gained an outright majority. (Some bizarre policies followed). A minority Westminster government party might similarly do well in 2020.

  • Tony Greaves 31st Mar '15 - 5:14pm

    Perhaps a better word than authoritarian to describe the SNP government at Edinburgh would be “centralist” or “centralising”. A cynic might think they would therefore get on well with Labour.

    Tony

  • David Allen 1st Apr '15 - 12:14am

    The argument seems to go like this.

    Some people like and trust the SNP, think they can play a constructive role, and do not expect them to behave as “greedy Scots”, to quote John Roffey. Those people think the SNP are “people we can do business with”, to quote another famous policitian.

    Other people distrust the SNP, think they will hold the rest of the UK to ransom, and want the other parties to outlaw the SNP from any UK government.

    I have a third view. I have a lot of sympathy with the SNP, but I also think they are smart politicians who play a good game, and will maximise their opportunities. The clever strategy, in these circumstances, is: (1) Ever so gently, get one SNP foot in the door; (2) wait patiently and act nice; (3) when opportunity arises, provoke a crisis to the SNP’s advantage.

    Accepting SNP support will be dangerous for Miliband, if he does it. The SNP are in a position to put the prop in place, then threaten to pull it away two or three years later when Miliband is at his most vulnerable.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Apr '15 - 1:49pm

    The SNP’s position in the independence referendum was that they could do well by:

    1) Keeping the revenue from North Sea oil just in Scotland instead of shared out across the UK

    2) Lowering corporation tax, to attract corporations to set up brass plates in Scotland to suck taxes into Scotland that otherwise would be more widely distributed.

    In other words, their position was “we want to do well for ourselves at the expense of everyone else suffering”.

    As a Londoner, I strongly oppose the line we often hear “Mansion tax is unfair, because it will fall mostly on Londoners, if we have higher taxes on property it should be through more council tax bands, then it stays in London” for the reason that I am very much AGAINST the sort of selfish attitude shown by the SNP. I believe the wealth of this country (the UK) should be shared evenly, and thus if a tax happens as a side effect to take from one part and give to another, that is not a bad thing.

    I agree that Scotland has retained its position as a separate country in a voluntary union in the UK, and therefore if it does want independence paid for as the SNP suggests, it has a right to it. But I don’t think the SNP has any right to the image of principled leftists they are trying to build when the reality of their position is that they will pay for what they want not by redistributionist policies but by taking what is currently more widely shared all to themselves.

    As such, if this is the SNP’s line, it seems to me they could easily reach a deal with the Tories which involves then supporting (by abstention) more big cuts in England while being paid off by generous funding for Scotland. The Tories may think a 5% rise per head in public spending in Scotland is a price worth paying to secure a 10% cut per head in public spending in England.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Apr '15 - 12:43pm

    David Allen – the SNP might want to pull away the props at some stage. But as I have explained previously in LDV, once a minority government is in place it will be difficult to dislodge under the FTPA unless and until both largest parties think (at the same time) that it is in their interests to have a General Election. The mere act of the SNP “pulling the props” – even if that is in their interest which may be unlikely – won’t cause an early GE.

    Tony Greaves

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