One Year Later

I was not intending to comment on the anniversary of the referendum, but there is one aspect of it which I feel should not be forgotten.

Opinion polling immediately before the referendum showed that there was a reasonable chance of Yes winning, albeit by a narrow margin. There are three possible explanations for the difference between the polls and the referendum result; perhaps all three are valid to some degree. The first is that the opinion polls were overestimating the Yes vote. I suspect this is what the Unionists would argue – in this scenario, the Vow was, with hindsight, unnecessary and this somehow diminishes, in their eyes, the need to honour it. The second explanation, which some independence supporters seem to accept, is that significant numbers of people who had intended to vote Yes succumbed at the last minute to the threats of Project Fear. The third is that the Vow tipped the balance in favour of No by seducing many of those whose first preference would have been Devo Max, but would have preferred independence to the status quo.

If I remember correctly, in a poll carried out for Lord Ashcroft immediately after the referendum, 26% of No voters (about 14% of all those who voted) gave the prospect of additional powers being granted to the Scottish Parliament following a No vote as a reason for their choice. Before the infamous Vow, just days before the referendum, there was little if any reason to believe that Westminster would reward Scotland for a No vote with significant additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. It therefore appears that about a quarter of No voters may have been influenced significantly by the Vow; if even two fifths of these people would have voted Yes had there been no Vow, then Yes would have won.

I suspect that there are very few people in Scotland, other than dyed-in-the-wool Unionists, who believe that the Vow has been, or will be, honoured. With the Vow, the Unionists offered a deal to the Scottish electorate, Devo Max or something close to it in return for a No vote. However, as soon as they got the result they wanted – quite possibly only because of the Vow – they reneged on it. In my view, that is sufficient reason to regard the No vote as invalid and to demand a new referendum – sooner rather than later.

After a Long Break…

Search in Wikipedia for “political compass” and you will find the following: “The political compass is a multi-axis political model, used by the website of the same name, to label or organise political thought on two dimensions… [It] uses responses to a set of 61 propositions to rate political ideology on two axes: Economic (Left–Right) and Social (Authoritarian–Libertarian).”

These two axes are not the only ones which might be used to classify political parties. One could attempt to rate parties on the basis of their honesty. In government, do they implement their pre-election pledges, or at least attempt to do so? Do they act on behalf of the electorate as a whole, as they would claim, or for a small part of it? Can their policies be influenced by MP’s own financial interests or by money, whether as political donations, lucrative directorships and consultancies, or outright bribes?

As a second axis for a graph, one could use Idealism–Opportunism. I will discuss this by describing the hypothetical end members of this scale; any real party will show some mixture of idealism and opportunism.

An entirely idealistic party would have a definite vision of the society it wished to create, and all its policies would be geared towards achieving that society. If those policies were not popular with the electorate, it would not abandon them, but would seek to persuade voters of their merits. An idealistic party might be good or bad, depending on its goals; the Nazis had their ideals but, tragically, those ideals were evil.

An idealistic party, like a religion, can inspire zeal and even fanaticism amongst its followers. While this may be a source of strength for a party, it can also prove a fatal weakness, for with fanaticism can come an obsession with details of the doctrine, and an uncompromising conviction that there is only one true path from which no deviation is acceptable. This is probably why Wikipedia lists six current UK political parties with the word “Communist” as part of their title; what might have been one minor party is fragmented into complete insignificance.

A purely opportunistic party would have only one ideal, namely that it should form the government whenever possible, so that its leading MPs might have the chance to enjoy the prestige, perks and privileges (legitimate or otherwise) of ministerial office. Its policies would be chosen entirely on the basis of their likely popularity with the electorate. Blatantly obvious opportunism is unlikely to appeal to voters, or to inspire ordinary party members to go out and campaign for the party; it would have to be disguised (perhaps as populism), and hence an opportunistic party would also be a significantly dishonest one.

In opposition, an opportunistic party may well decide that their failure to win the most recent election proves that the winning party had the most attractive policies. (This, however, ignores the possibility that other policies, not espoused by any major party, might have been more attractive to the electorate as a whole, including those who were not persuaded to vote by what was on offer.) They will then be tempted to adopt policies as close as possible to those of the government. If they do so, they cannot mount any effective opposition to the government’s policies without being seen to be hypocritical; all they can do is indulge in empty rhetoric and argue over minor details. Voters will assume that a party which has been an ineffective, lacklustre opposition is unlikely to provide a competent government.

It is tempting to say that Labour is an opportunistic party, but that would be too simplistic. New Labour is certainly much more opportunistic than idealistic, but Corbyn’s election shows that the Labour party contains another strand, which I will call Real Labour. Real Labour largely retains the ideals of the original Labour party, of Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee. In any case, what does one mean by the Labour party? On the one hand, there are what I think of as the apparatchiks, the MEPs, MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and paid officials; on the other, there are all the ordinary party members and supporters. Amongst the apparatchiks, New Labour has been dominant since Blair became the party’s leader more than twenty years ago, but the scale of Corbyn’s victory shows substantial support for Real Labour amongst its ordinary members and supporters.

If Corbyn retains control of the Labour party, it is likely that there will be a substantial shift, not just to the left but also towards a less opportunistic choice of policies. However, New Labour has embraced neo-liberalism, and poses no threat to the interests of the Establishment and the mega-rich; the inequality between rich and poor increased as rapidly under Blair as under Thatcher and Cameron. Real Labour could be very different, and so the Establishment, with its control of the media, will do its utmost to discredit Corbyn and his supporters, while disgruntled Blairites will seek to undermine him at every opportunity. The fight for the soul of the Labour party is far from over. It is likely that, regardless of the eventual outcome, the Labour party will be so divided for the next few years that it will continue to have little prospect of winning in 2020 or even in 2025.

One question is how Corbyn’s win will affect the SNP and the prospect of Scottish independence. Of course, any move back to its roots, and to its principles, by Labour will tempt some of those who have changed their allegiance from Labour to the SNP to switch back, but my guess is that that this will not make a significant difference, partly because Corbyn will be felt to be less relevant to Scottish Labour than to Labour in England and Wales, and partly because of the likely internal divisions within Labour.

If the Blairites succeed in replacing Corbyn, or manage to thoroughly divide the Labour party (no doubt blaming Corbyn for the consequences of their own disloyalty), then some Scottish voters who still believe that Labour will return to power and save Britain from its current drift towards a corporate fascist police state will give up that hope and start supporting independence. The other extreme is that Corbyn transforms Labour, persuades many of those who did not vote in May that Labour is worth voting for, and the UK becomes a more tolerable country to live in under a future Real Labour government. If that happens, the case for independence will be weakened. The worst outcome would be one in the middle, where Corbyn is successful enough to let people hope for a Labour victory in 2020, but not enough to achieve one.

Should those of us who support independence therefore hope that Corbyn and Real Labour do not win? I would say no for three reasons. The first is that it would be selfish; there are millions of people in England who do not support the Tories and do not deserve to suffer the consequences of Tory (or even New Labour) government. The second reason is that I suspect that the prospects of actually achieving independence, once there is a clear majority in favour of it, may be better with a Real Labour government at Westminster.

What I believe is as follows. Cameron only signed the Edinburgh Agreement because he was certain that Scotland would vote to stay in the Union, and that this would badly damage the SNP and rule out Scottish independence for decades – after all, it took 18 years for Scotland to get a second referendum on devolution, even though a majority voted for devolution in the first one. It is very unlikely that Cameron or any other Tory Prime Minister will sign any similar agreement, knowing that this time a Yes vote is probable – if it is not probable, the Scottish Government is unlikely to want a referendum. Either the Scottish Government will be prevented from holding a new referendum, or Westminster will not recognise a Yes vote as valid. The only way we will get a negotiated independence deal from a Tory government is if support for independence reaches such a level that they they feel that they have no choice, because the alternative will be a Unilateral Declaration of Independence which will have the backing of a majority of the people in Scotland. A UDI would be a scary prospect for many people, and support for one, as a last resort, is only likely to go above 50% if there is truly massive support for independence, and a great deal of anger directed at Westminster.

My guess is that, since Labour can no longer rely on Scotland returning mostly Labour MPs, a Real Labour government would be easier to deal with. Real Labour would not renew Trident, and would not have the same need to keep hold of Faslane. Real Labour is less likely to look back on the British Empire with nostalgia, and to treat Scotland as the last remnant of that Empire, as England’s last colony.

The third reason to hope for a revival of Real Labour south of the border is that, should Scotland become independent, England would be a better neighbour under Real Labour than under any neo-liberal regime. It will be easier for the Scottish Government to implement socially just policies if England is doing something similar. For example, if the top rate of income tax and benefits were both significantly higher in Scotland than in England, there might be an exodus of rich people from Scotland (for tax purposes at any rate) and an influx of unemployed and disabled people.

I am glad that Jeremy Corbyn is the new Labour leader; I see it as an encouraging sign that the neo-liberal tide might perhaps be about to ebb. What it will mean for Scotland, and the cause of Scottish independence, I do not know, but I am cautiously optimistic that it might open up new opportunities, especially if the Tories start quarrelling amongst themselves over EU membership.

More Constitutional Thoughts

In a recent radio programme, it was suggested that in the nineteenth century, while many other countries were adopting formal constitutions, people in England were so proud of Magna Carta as a sort of proto-constitution that they thought that Britain did not need anything else.

The speculation prior to the election about what might have happened if the result had been a hung parliament highlights the unsatisfactory nature of the UK’s uncodified constitution, key parts of which are are mere conventions. What happens if there is disagreement over conventions which have somehow developed over the years? How long does does it take for ‘what usually happens’ to mutate into a definite convention? How can a convention be enforced, if those in power choose to ignore it?

One can turn to the Cabinet Manual for guidance and a review of existing practice, but that is all; it does not necessarily provide hard and fast rules. For example, the final sentence of section 2.10 is “It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention.” At the end of section 2.19 it states “The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.” Note the use of ‘expected’ rather than ‘required’.

The office of Prime Minister was not originally defined by any law; indeed, no decision was ever taken that the UK should have such a creature. At the start of the 18th century the monarch, as the head of the government, appointed a number of Cabinet ministers, who were answerable to the monarch, not to one of their own number. When George I became king, he initially attended Cabinet meetings but stopped, largely because he could not speak English. In 1721, following his successful handling of the crisis caused by the collapse of the South Sea Company, Sir Robert Walpole was appointed as First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons, and became, in retrospect, Britain’s first Prime Minister. However, the term ‘Prime Minister’ was initially used only unofficially and in a rather sarcastic way, and Walpole and other 18th century Prime Ministers rejected it. The first official use of the term was in 1878 when Disraeli signed a treaty as Prime Minister. Eventually the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937 gave legal recognition to the position of Prime Minister, as opposed to the office of First Lord of the Treasury, with which it has always been linked.

Initially it was the monarch who chose the Prime Minister, but a convention developed that the Prime Minister should be someone who can command the support of a majority in the House of Commons, and thus usually the leader of the largest party in the Commons. As the role of the Prime Minister developed, power gradually transferred from the monarch to the Prime Minister. The royal prerogatives, defined in the constitutional settlement that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and still mostly formally vested in the monarch, are in reality exercised by the Prime Minister; theoretically, the Prime Minister advises the monarch and the monarch, according to yet another convention, always accepts that advice.

Given the extent of the powers which have become attached to the position of Prime Minister, can it be right that the question of who becomes Prime Minister in the event of a hung parliament can be decided on the basis of mere conventions? Is it reasonable to allow the party of government to change its leader, and thus the Prime Minister, in the middle of a Parliament without the approval of the electorate as a whole? Should some alternative arrangement be devised, whereby the electorate as a whole can decide specifically who should become Prime Minister, or perhaps President? At present, one vote every five years is all the ordinary voter gets with which to indicate their choice of MP for their constituency, party of government (with all its policies) and Prime Minister, as a package deal.

The Tories are proposing to repeal the Human Rights Act. The fact that they may well be able to do so, in spite of having been elected by not a lot more than a third of those who voted, and by less than a quarter of the electorate, points to another major flaw in the UK’s uncodified constitution. Although some Acts of Parliament, such as the Human Rights Act, may be considered as parts of the constitution, they have no special status, and can be amended or repealed like any other pieces of legislation, by simple majority votes in both Houses of Parliament.

With a good codified constitution, it should not be possible for Parliament to modify any part of the constitution. That privilege should be reserved to the electorate as a whole, who should be able to ratify or reject any proposed changes to the constitution in a referendum. While there have been occasional referendums in the UK, the cynical view might be that these are only held when the UK Government is hoping that the proposed change will be rejected (e.g. reform of the electoral system and Scottish independence); the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) is clearly of constitutional importance but there was no question of a referendum being held to approve that, or to ask whether the interval between elections should be reduced to 4 years, or even to 3 years as in Australia.

The UK is in dire need of a complete constitutional overhaul. Changes are needed to the electoral system, to end the unjust ‘first past the post’ system which tends to freeze out smaller parties and to make the votes of those who live in ‘safe’ constituencies worthless. The House of Lords needs to reformed or abolished, perhaps along with the monarchy. Some kind of federal system is needed to accommodate increased devolution. In short, the UK desperately needs a coherent written constitution. However, I do not believe for one moment that this will happen. England is too (small ‘c’) conservative and too fond of archaic traditions and rituals. Above all, the present system suits the Establishment. For example, it is very unlikely that a government which has achieved an overall majority with just under 37% of the vote will want to change the voting system. All we can expect is some tinkering here and there, which may may make an already messy system even messier (e.g. devolution of powers in England to some cities, rather than all regions) or replace existing problems with new ones (e.g. EVEL ).

The only realistic way in which the people of Scotland can gain the benefits of a coherent, well designed constitution, which will promote such ideals as democracy and human rights, is through independence.

(My first ‘Constitutional Thoughts’ were posted on this site on the 7th of April last year.)

Cause for Rejoicing?

I do not normally use this blog to respond immediately to recent events, but rather to look at other issues which I have been thinking about for some time. However, I feel I have to say a few things about the election results.

I do not feel elated by the unprecedented landslide in Scotland, because I had been expecting it for quite a while. All the polls had been showing the SNP well ahead of Labour, and this was consistent with the surge in SNP membership since the referendum. Yet there was always the nagging thought that perhaps it was just too good to be true, and therefore I felt a certain amount of relief, mixed with a slight regret that it was not a clean sweep, when I saw the results.

My main feeling was a mixture of disappointment and anger, because I was definitely not expecting the Tories to win an overall majority. I consider that some of the policies pursued by the Tories over the past five years can reasonably be described as evil, and now those policies will be continued and perhaps extended, without whatever slight restaining effect the LibDems might have had. Perhaps the Tory win brings Scottish independence closer, but the price for that will be high.

I will shed no tears over the disintegration of the LibDems. Once they were a party I would certainly have voted for if the only alternatives had been the Tories or Blairite Labour, but then (like many others) I did not realise until after the last election just how far to the right they had moved under the leadership of crypto-Tory Clegg and his Orange Book cronies. What will become of them now, I neither know nor care. Perhaps they will manage to reform under new leadership and become something more like the old Liberal party, or else they may just fade away into irrelevance. Possibly the most appropriate outcome would be for the remnants of the LibDems to merge with the Tories.

I think few people will now consider Miliband to have been a good leader for the Labour party. Perhaps he got a raw deal, being attacked by the right-wing press and having to cope with Blairite members of his own party. I think that he might have made a half-decent Prime Minister, given the chance, except that,  when it counted most, he was too weak. When Cameron attacked Labour’s right to enter any kind of alliance with the SNP, he capitulated. If he had fought back against Cameron (and doubtless certain elements within his own party, such as Jim Murphy), and defended both Labour’s right to choose its own allies and the SNP’s right to be part of such an alliance, he might have been more convincing as a potential Prime Minister. The suggestion that, in a hung Parliament, Miliband might have chosen to let Cameron stay on as Prime Minister rather than accept support from the SNP must have cost Labour votes in Scotland. Even in England it may have signalled to some voters on the left that it was not worth voting for Labour.

Now Labour has to find a new leader. My suspicion is that whoever is chosen will argue that Labour lost because they were perceived by voters in England as being too left wing, and Labour will take another lurch to the right. From a Scottish and SNP point of view, the Labour party is very nearly as right wing as the Tories, but some people in England still appear to think that Labour are dangerous, left-wing radicals. However, being very similar to the Tories is probably not going to be a winning strategy for the next election either. If people think that Tory policies are good, then are they not more likely to vote for the real Tories rather than a Labour imitation?

One can argue that Labour lost the election because they were weak in opposition. They never really challenged the arguments used by the Tories to justify their policies. For example, they accepted the idea that it is essential to reduce the deficit by drastic austerity, and merely quibbled about the rate at which it should be done. There is a strong argument that drastic cuts in public spending damage the economy, and have slowed economic recovery while causing a great deal of hardship. Yet Ed Balls said there was nothing in the most recent budget which he would have changed. (For a good discussion of this by someone who clearly knows more about economics than I do, see and other articles on the same site.)

A strong opposition party would have been prepared to put forward its own distinctive policies, and would have strived to persuade the electorate that its policies were better than those of the government. Labour consistently failed to do this over the last five years, and through that failure they have done a grave disservice to the English electorate by denying them any distinctive and credible alternative to the current neo-liberal consensus. I doubt whether they will perform their duty as the official opposition any better between now and the next election. On the contrary, I expect they will decide that Miliband’s tentative efforts to move slightly towards the left were in the wrong direction, rather than too little and too late.

For the SNP, a hung parliament in which they supported and tried to influence (perhaps with limited success) a Labour minority government could have provided them with some oppportunities but also many dilemmas; the relationship between the SNP and Labour would have been a difficult one, with many possible pitfalls. However, not supporting a Labour government, if one had been possible, would not have been a viable policy. A Tory majority provides a more straightforward situation; unless Cameron offers significantly greater powers for the Scottish Parliament than the surviving Smith Commission proposals, there will be little or nothing in the Tory agenda that the SNP can agree with, and a great deal which it will oppose as strongly as possible. It will be important for the SNP’s contingent at Westminster to be conscientious in voting against Tory measures whenever it is appropriate, even when there is no hope of actually winning the vote. The SNP are now the third largest party at Westminster, and will have the right to regularly ask questions at Prime Minister’s Questions; they must try to exploit this as effectively as possible.

What all this means for Scottish independence is hard to predict, although my guess is that it makes independence within the next few years somewhat more likely than it would have been with a Labour government. So much depends on how Cameron behaves towards Scotland and the SNP. Will he be more conciliatory, or will he continue to talk of the SNP as though they do not deserve to participate in the governance of the Union? Will he deliver more than the Smith Commission proposals, or less? How far will he go with ‘English Votes for English Laws’? Will he be willing to examine the options for genuine constitutional reform, such as a federal system for the UK?

The other big question for the whole of the UK is whether there will be a referendum on EU membership, with the possibility that Scotland might vote to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to leave. Could we even see Scotland becoming independent following an agreement between Westminster and Brussels that Scotland should be treated as the sole continuator state for the purpose of EU membership? (Will those wanting a UK exit be accused of wanting to ‘destroy’ and ‘break up’ the EU by removing 12.7% of its population?)

Now the countdown starts to the Scottish election next year. It should be an interesting year for Scottish politics.

Does Cameron Expect Miliband to Commit Political Suicide?

It is reported that David Cameron is urging Ed Miliband to rule out any possible co-operation between Labour and the SNP. Of course, this is merely an attempt at gaining a few more votes in the forthcoming election. Miliband would have to be extremely stupid or barking mad to do as Cameron demands, and I do not believe for one moment that Miliband is either of those. (Neither do I think that Cameron is stupid or mad, but I do not think much of his trustworthiness.)

Let us assume that the election produces the result that the polls are indicating as likely, with Labour and the Tories winning roughly the same number of seats, the LibDems losing most of their current total and the SNP winning most of the Scottish seats, and that between them Labour and the SNP have a small majority. What will be the possible outcomes in this situation, if the SNP say to Miliband that, if no deal is reached between Labour and the SNP, the SNP will adopt a policy of abstaining on any confidence votes? (I am not saying that the SNP leadership would, or should, take that stance, but it can be argued that Nicola Sturgeon’s assertions that the SNP will not support the Tories leave open the possibilty of the SNP supporting neither of the two main parties, and instead remaining neutral.)

Firstly, the Tories and Labour could agree to hold a new election, but since the Labour party is apparently in a much weaker financial position than the Tories, I suspect that they would be reluctant to face the expense of another election campaign, unless they expected to fare better in a second election, in which case the Tories would probably not want one. (Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a Commons motion to hold an early election requires at least 434 votes in favour of it to pass, and so either of the two main parties would be able to block one.)

Secondly, Labour and the Tories could form a coalition, but Miliband need only think of how much damage has been done to the LibDems by their partnership with the Tories. Clegg may well go down in political history as a leader who destroyed his own party; would Miliband wish to copy him? Also, Miliband is not very popular within the Labour party, and an alliance with the Tories would surely be very unpopular with many within the Labour party. Miliband might be quickly replaced as leader by someone who would break with the Tories. From a Unionist point of view, there would be a danger that a Tory/Labour partnership would be perceived in Scotland as anti-Scottish and push support for the SNP to new heights.

Thirdly, one of the two main parties may put together the best alliance it can without including the SNP, and form a minority government. Assuming that the LibDems are willing to work with either the Tories or Labour (or with neither), then it will almost certainly be the party which wins the most seats which forms the government in this situation. If this is Labour, then in theory they can spurn the SNP’s advances, but their government will be a weak one which could struggle to pass new legislation without support from the Tories. Neither being an ineffectual government nor relying on Tory support will do anything to improve Labour’s prospects at the following general election.

The real dilemma for Miliband arises if the Tories win a few more seats than Labour, and are therefore better placed to form a government if the SNP takes a neutral stance. Polling has shown that an overwhelming majority of Labour voters in England back a deal with the SNP if the alternative is a Tory government. There would also be a number of Labour MPs who would be angry at being denied the possibility of a ministerial position, salary and perks. Therefore, if Miliband were to continue to refuse a deal with the SNP and let Cameron form a government, his position as Labour leader would be untenable and almost certainly he would quickly be replaced by someone who would be willing to enter an alliance with the SNP. One no confidence vote with the SNP voting in favour would see Cameron deposed as PM and the new Labour leader being invited to form a government. (In any case, it seems to me unlikely that Miliband will survive for long as leader of the Labour party unless he becomes Prime Minister.)

Finally, Miliband can do the sensible thing and strike a deal with the SNP to ensure that, as a minimum, they will back him in any confidence vote. That way, he can probably look forward to at least one term as Prime Minister and the opportunity to make his mark on history, for better of for worse.

In short, a deal with the SNP may be the only way in which Miliband can prevent his leadership of the Labour party, and with it his political career, coming to an inglorious end. If you were in Miliband’s position, would you give your main political rival an assurance that, unless your party wins more seats than his, you will commit political suicide?

Methinks They Do Protest Too Much

Complete freedom of speech is not really desirable even in the most open society, because this could permit people to lie and deceive with impunity, and to provoke public disorder. Hence it is not legal to lie when giving evidence in a court of law, or to falsely spread rumours that someone is a paedophile. Nor is it legal to incite others to commit acts of violence, or to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre to create a panic when there is no fire. The right to free speech cannot be absolute; boundaries must be drawn between what is legal (even if undesirable) and what is illegal. In an open society, speech (including the written word) should be legal unless there is a clear and compelling reason for prohibiting it. In recent times, ‘hate speech’ has become unacceptable, particularly when directed against people on the basis if their ethnicity or sexuality. What about religion?

Criticism of a specific religion, or religion in general, is criticism of an idea, a belief system. No free society should seek to restrict discussion of ideas, even if some people will be offended when their strongly-held beliefs are challenged. People can, in principle, change their religion; they cannot change their ethnic origins or their sexuality. Mocking or verbally attacking someone on the basis of their ethnicity is definitely wrong, but doing so on the basis of their beliefs may be justified since these beliefs are, or should be, a matter of choice. This argument can also be applied to political views.

In the light of this, what should we make of the recent Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian? If it is an attack on the SNP, then, however much it lacks both humour and insight, we have to tolerate it and shrug it off. The problem is that by apparently making a reference to some obscure quotation which few people have ever heard of, it is deeply ambiguous; it can easily be interpreted as saying that the Scottish people are fond of incest. When it is interpreted that way, it crosses over the border into the realm of anti-Scottish hate speech. Perhaps Steve Bell, knowing about the quotation he used as the basis for the cartoon, could not see this himself, but the editor of the Guardian owes an apology to the Scottish people for publishing a cartoon which is arguably racist.

However, I do not expect there will be any apology, nor will there be one from any of the other papers published in England which have been spewing out hatred of the SNP, which is also badly tainted with anti-Scottish bile. As others have pointed out, it makes nonsense of all the ‘love-bombing’ before the referendum. Scotland is valued as a part of the UK when it comes to providing oil revenue, hosting Trident, helping to pay for railway lines in England and sewers in London, and so on, but not when it appears that Scotland might, for once, play a significant role in determining what kind of government the UK is to have.

If the English really are as horrified by the possibility of the SNP allowing Labour to lead the next government, rather than the Tories, as their newspapers suggest they are (or encourage them to be), then they have a very obvious solution, which the SNP would happily help them to implement. Either party to a marriage can bring about a divorce; the English could simply end the Union. Then they would not have to trouble themselves with constitutional dilemmas such as EVEL or additional devolution, or the possibility that the SNP might challenge the idea that there is no alternative to austerity (except for the rich, who must be allowed to get richer). They would be free from the possibility that in the event of a Brexit referendum, the Scottish vote might just tip the balance in favour of continued EU membership, thwarting the will of the English people. All those English voters who have been convinced that the Scots are living on overly generous handouts of English money will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Tarff Advertiser ( has an interesting viewpoint on the flood of anti-SNP articles in the English papers. He suggests that Westminster has a large collection of skeletons in a locked closet, and they are panicking because the SNP might get hold of the key. It would be very interesting if they did. Amongst many other things, we might learn how SNP activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Willie MacRae managed to put a bullet in his brain and then throw the gun out through the window of his car.

Who Will the Winner(s) Be?

Polls indicate that in Scotland the most desired outcome of the general election is that Labour form the next government with the support of the SNP, but not necessarily a formal coalition. Obviously, for this to happen the SNP must win most of the Scottish seats and the overall outcome must be that neither Labour or the Tories can command an overall majority, even with any plausible combination of smaller parties (other than the SNP) as coalition partners. The results of the recent Ashcroft polls in selected Scottish constituencies suggest that even constituencies which previously had seemingly unassailable Labour majorities will be won by the SNP. If the current level of support for the SNP is maintained, it is possible for the SNP to win 50 seats or more, enough to be a significant force at Westminster. (The dramatic change in Scottish politics is highlighted by the fact that polls are consistently showing lower levels of support for Labour in Scotland than in Britain as a whole.)

Across the UK, Labour and the Tories are very nearly level now in the opinion polls, but it is likely that some people will edge towards voting for the devil they know, and that the Tories will pull slightly ahead in terms of vote share by May. However, outdated constituency boundaries are expected to give Labour an advantage of perhaps 20 seats. It is therefore possible that Labour and the Tories will win very nearly the same number of seats. In that case, the Tories will probably not be able to form a majority government with either the LibDems or UKIP as a coalition partner. A Tory/LibDem/UKIP coalition seems improbable, and might well fall short of a majority even with the DUP as a minor component.

Labour, on the other hand, could be faced with the need for an alliance with the SNP (and presumably Plaid Cymru and perhaps any English Greens) if they are to form a government. Given the antagonism displayed by Labour, especially the Scottish branch, towards the SNP in recent years, such an alliance would be deeply unpopular with many within Labour. During the independence campaign Labour and the Tories were partners in Better Together, and the SNP were their enemy. Would Labour really perform the necessary U-turn, or would they prefer to hand power to the Tories? After the last general election, they did not try very hard to create a coalition which would have had to include just 6 SNP MPs. However, if they somehow let the Tories back into power because of their dislike of the SNP, there will be many Labour voters who will not forgive them, both inside and outside Scotland.

Labour argue that if Scottish voters elect mostly SNP candidates, this will increase the risk that the Tories will get back into power. This is true only if Labour refuse to enter into an alliance with the SNP. If Labour are willing to do a deal with the SNP, then it is the total number of Labour and SNP MPs that matters. Therefore, if Labour say “Vote SNP, get the Tories” they are implying that they would rather let the Tories stay in power than co-operate with the SNP. If this is the case, surely they owe it to their own voters to be honest about their intentions.

From the SNP’s point of view, any alliance with Labour can only be justified if it can be used to win substantial and useable new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Labour will be very reluctant to make any such concessions, as these are likely to be unpopular with the significant fraction of English voters whose xenophobia extends to Scotland. They are on course for losing most of their Scottish seats, and face being in the same position as the Tories, who do not have to worry about antagonising Scottish voters as they have very few seats even potentially at stake here. Even if the Labour leadership agrees to the transfer of powers to Holyrood, there is no guarantee that the necessary legislation will be passed by the Commons, as Labour backbenchers might rebel and vote against it. My feeling is that any deal that the SNP might make with Labour should be that the Scottish Parliament will be granted agreed new powers by a specific date, with it being made clear that if Labour do not deliver on time the alliance will definitely end.

What are the alternatives?

One possibility is that whichever of the two main parties wins the most seats could form a coalition with the LibDems (or UKIP in the case of the Tories) and try their luck as a minority government. However, a government which is significantly short of a majority is likely to be weak and ineffectual, and the parties involved might well lose support as a result. A coalition government brings with it one set of problems, while a minority government has another set; a minority coalition government will have both, and be a nightmare for those trying to run it.

Another possibility is that the Tories and Labour could agree to hold a new election; between them, they would easily be able to muster the 434 Commons votes required for this under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, this would probably produce a very similar outcome to the first election, and would be unlikely to resolve the situation.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the most dramatic alternative, namely a Tory/Labour coalition. After all, New Labour and the Tories have espoused very similar policies, and there have been occasions when Labour have voted with the Coalition or collectively abstained from voting, such as when Labour allowed the Coalition to pass ’emergency’ legislation to retrospectively legalise their workfare programme. However, the Labour leadership may have enough sense to realise just how much damage this would do to the Labour party. Many of the voters throughout the UK who still cling to the belief that Labour is a party of the left, or to the hope that one day Labour will return to its roots, could be forced to accept that Labour is now a neo-liberal party like the Tories, more concerned with the interests of the Establishment than with those of ordinary people. Would Labour copy the LibDems and commit electoral suicide? Of course, the Tory party would lose some voters as well, people who equate social justice with communism, but such people may well defect to UKIP anyway. My guess  is that it would be Labour who be the biggest losers.

From the point of view of the Establishment, one danger of a Tory/Labour coalition is that it would expose what a sham democracy in the UK really is. It reminds me of a story I heard many years ago, about someone who watched a heavyweight professional wrestling match where the opponents were apparently deadly enemies; later, in a chip shop, he saw the same two wrestlers, the best of friends. Labour and the Tories pretend to be different, in order to giver voters the illusion that it matters which one they vote for. If that illusion is shattered, voters might start giving enough support to more radical parties, UKIP on the right and perhaps the Greens on the left, to upset the present cosy arrangement.

What is my prediction? I do not really have one, except that the aftermath of the election is likely to be very interesting indeed.