In the hysterical babble that passes for political debate in the 2015 election campaign, a blizzard of figures, distortions, evasions and lies has obscured the growing possibility of electoral reform, as a consequence of a hung parliament. What are the prospects?
It was the eminent legal philosopher Sir Neil McCormick (who died in 2009) who applied the terms “existentialist” and “utilitarian” to the concept of Scottish nationalism. His view was “anything but narrow, xenophobic or anti-English. It was generous and outward-looking, inspired by the best traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment and the democratic intellect”; in other words philosophical, utilitarian, rather than existentialist.
In the hubbub surrounding the Scottish Referendum last year, little attention was given to which form of nationalism we were (principally) dealing with. Many (including the writer) would argue that it was the growing divisions in political philosophy that powered the Scottish sense of outrage with Westminster policies, rather than a desire to exist “alone and apart” as a Scottish nation. Pragmatism, after all, has never been in short supply in Scotland.
It is as a consequence of this that we have seen the startling swing in the polls in Scotland in recent weeks, away from “Tory lite” (Labour) towards the more left-inclined SNP: it is a totally utilitarian driving force. Bentham defined happiness as the measure for utility, by saying that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. It is the Scots’ anger with the “wrongness” of Tory policies that drives their nationalism, more than a cultural desire for segregation. The election babble has heightened this difference, and it has highlighted the Tories’ mendacious portrayal of any Labour/SNP “arrangement” as being somehow undemocratic. The only way they can (almost) sustain this argument is by saying that support for SNP will result in the destruction of the UK. This can readily be debunked if we look at matters logically.
The rise of the SNP is partly, but substantially, driven by loss of faith in Labour, which thinks it cannot stay electable and embrace a more progressive programme: the SNP can present such a programme and be Labour’s “true” voice. The election of a minority Labour government, supported by SNP, can pave the way towards a more progressive programme and the Fixed Terms Parliament Act will allow its policies to be embedded. That done, the SNP “threat of secession” will simply be defused, because Scots, already frightened by the volatility of the oil price, will be sufficiently mollified by a less right wing Westminster to veer away from separatism: pragmatism will rule, dreams of independence will die for at least a generation – and perhaps for ever.
There is another, more mundane, reason why the SNP “threat” is far from imminent. Much has been said recently about the possibility of another Scottish referendum, if there is a Labour/SNP “arrangement”. But it was Cameron who agreed to the first one, safe – he thought – in the knowledge that it would be lost.
“I felt, as the prime minister of the UK, I had a choice. I could either say to them ‘well you can’t have your referendum, it is for us to decide whether you should have one.’ I think that would have led to an almighty and disastrous battle between the Westminster parliament and the UK government and the Scottish government and the Scottish first minister. So I did what I thought was the right thing, which was to say ‘you voted for a party that wants independence, you should have a referendum that is legal, that is decisive and that is fair.'” (May 2014)
(That word “fair” again!) In his frantic scrabbling for arguments to support his present struggle for re-election, he has now conveniently forgotten that it is Westminster which has to agree to the granting of another referendum. In any event (as has been pointed out by Nicola Sturgeon) it is up to the Scottish people to demand a referendum, through a parliamentary mandate – not Nicola Sturgeon or any other leader. And even if that were forthcoming, and Westminster demurred, it is hard to envisage matters being so grave that there would be a “disastrous battle” between Edinburgh and Westminster.
That said, It is not coincidental that Cameron’s assault on the SNP and its legitimacy may well result in more votes for him – but his election would do little to preserve the Union (quite the contrary). The resumption of normal right wing service in Westminster and/or the threat/reality of the UK quitting the EU would assuredly rekindle the independence debate. High stakes and a high-risk strategy that seems at odds with his avowal to keep the Union intact; but all’s fair in party politics and self-preservation. In summary, referendum ructions are much more likely under a minority Conservative government than a Labour one, for a further reason.
Mention has been made in a previous article about the inability of those to hear, who will not hear; we now have the inability of those who will not read to see the writing on the wall: to wit, that the political system of two major parties – Tweedledum and Tweedledee – is broken. A new order is possible, although the turkeys will have to vote for Christmas.
That new order – the advent of proportional representation in Westminster- can become much more probable if it is Labour who form a minority government. Clegg thought he had scored a point in getting the subject on to the agenda, when he negotiated with Cameron – until he found out that such a concept is alien to the Tory mind (how could he have thought otherwise?). Indeed, the Labour leadership might be little different, so how can either of the two turkeys be persuaded to vote for PR? How do you turn turkeys into statesmen?
SNP are already comfortable with PR through the Additional Member System, Lib Dems ought to be be overjoyed with any form of PR, were it to be resuscitated (but see Clegg’s comments today regarding his refusal to do any deals involving SNP!); UKIP would join the party, as would the Greens and Plaid Cymru. What’s not to like, for the minority parties?
But is there sufficient support within Labour and Tory ranks to put the subject back on the political agenda? Can the SNP at least postpone the dream of independence, in favour of a progressive programme and the assurance of the dustbinning of the monstrous first-past-the-post Westminster system? Might they, on the other hand, see this change as being contrary to, rather than in support of, the more “existentialist” form of their nationalism?
Although he is less in thrall to his left wingers than Cameron is to his right wingers, it is hard to see Miliband and the Labour Party voting for a reduction in their own power – even if that would be the statesmanlike thing to do. But it is impossible to see the Conservative Party doing so: the future, unless it deals with preservation of entitlement, has less relevance for them than the past.
Which is why a hung parliament, with Labour charged with forming a government, once the Tories (who look like having the largest number of seats) have failed, holds just the possibility of far-reaching change. The glittering prize of eliminating the first-past-the-post system and implementing some form of proportional representation could just be within the nation’s grasp. SNP might hold the key but they also have to hold their nerve; if given the chance, they could negotiate hard for a prize that could go to all of the UK. If only Clegg and Sturgeon would, together, force through a real PR agenda with Miliband…