Are we heading for a constitutional crisis? As things stand – and, of course, they may change – the most likely outcome of the election is a minority Labour government propped up on a “confidence and supply” basis by the Scottish Nationalists. What would Middle England make of that?
It is perfectly possible that England (population 53 million or 84 per cent of the UK) could comfortably return the most votes for the Conservatives yet find itself pushed around by Scotland (population 5 million or 8 per cent of the UK). It is hard to believe that the English are going to take this lying down. Far from English votes on English laws, as promised by David Cameron, we could end up with legions of Scottish votes on English laws.
The irony will not be lost on Scots who have resented rule from London for decades. Now the English can see how they like being ruled from afar. Not that any of this politics of grudge and grievance makes much sense unless you disavow the Union and the notion of the UK as a unitary state.
Judging from the polls, the party of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, is on course to wipe out most of Labour north of the border and return 40-50 MPs to Westminster. Labour’s seat tally could well be limited to around 270 but with the SNP pledged to “lock out David Cameron from Downing Street”, the only viable government could well be one led by Ed Miliband with vote-by-vote support from the Scottish Nationalists. Chuck in a few MPs from the minor parties or rather more from the rump of the Lib Dems and Miliband has the numbers to pass comfortably the finishing line of 323 Westminster seats.
Today’s Financial Times calculates that there is a 27 per cent chance that the next government will comprise a loose coalition of Labour and the SNP. This contrasts with a one per cent chance of an outright Conservative majority and a 6 per cent chance of a renewed Tory/Lib Dem coalition.
To make matters worse – and intensify doubts about the democratic legitimacy of such a result – the SNP is busy ramping up its list of demands for an incoming Prime Minister Miliband. An extra £180 billion of public spending, a say over the Budget, an end to the benefits cap, starting HS2 from Glasgow or Edinburgh rather than London, evicting the Trident nuclear deterrent from its base in Faslane. And no doubt that is just for starters.
No one, certainly not this site, can plausibly accuse Cameron of running a right-wing government. But Britain might well find itself waking up to a seriously left-wing government, and not principally because of Labour and Miliband. The SNP with its visceral loathing of the Westminster government and its hostility to England will act as if it were a sizeable far left pressure group within the Labour Party.
At one level, it is good for Cameron that Miliband faces losing at least 30 seats in Scotland. But if these seats are merely swallowed up by a far left nationalist insurgency dedicated to pushing Miliband into even more radical positions and holding the balance of power, the Conservatives gain little, other than the prospect of an unstable and potentially unpopular Labour-led administration.
Conservative strategists are already trying to exploit Labour’s putative reliance on the SNP by deploying posters depicting Miliband as being in Alex Salmond’s pocket. The aim is to drive down the Labour vote in England by painting Miliband’s party as the plaything of the tartan hordes massing on the border. But with England having little understanding of Scottish politics, it is doubtful that this message has so far made much impact on southern voters.
The West Lothian Question – how can one justify Scottish MPs deciding English laws when English MPs have no say over powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament? – will be hugely amplified by the spectacle of Sturgeon and Salmond calling the shots at Westminster.
It will seem as if the referendum on Scottish independence last year settled nothing and an English backlash – good riddance to the Scots – looks inevitable. That, of course, is what the SNP wants, so it is reasonable to assume the SNP will be most unreasonable if it gets its paws anywhere near the levers of Westminster power.
Odds on a divorce of the two countries by mutual agreement are getting shorter.