A new double act has been doing the rounds of Scottish political salons in recent weeks: David Martin and Alyn Smith, two effective and experienced MEPs, one Labour, the other SNP, have been talking up a Holyrood coalition between their two parties after the scheduled 2021 Scottish elections. Brexit, likely to be fully effective then in all its gory horror, could be seismic politically.
So far, the now somewhat chastened pair’s tentative proposition has met with hostility, certainly within the Scottish Labour Party where both leadership rivals, Richard Leonard and Anwas Sarwar, have ruled it out – albeit formulaically. As in: we’re out to win and replace the SNP as the Scottish Government, ruling alone. Thus Leonard’s banal comment: “the only coalition I want to see is the one between the Labour Party and the trades union movement”. That wise old bird, Malcolm Chisholm, ex-MSP, has been a rare voice of support.
Henry McLeish, former Labour first minister, toyed with the idea of a Lab/SNP pact or understanding at Westminster during the 2015 general election campaign but the most outspoken proponent has been SNP former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill. “If the SNP and Labour continue to knock themselves black and blue, the Tories will just overtake them,” he told the Herald last month. ““At some stage, it will have to come about. It is long overdue. The hatred is deep and the divide, as in Ireland, is over the constitution, not necessarily over policies.”
It’s the hatred, much of it real, some at least synthetic, that most commentators seize upon. The doyen, Iain Macwhirter, recently spun this yarn: Labour hates the SNP with a loathing that is barely rational, given that they are on the same side on many issues, Brexit only being the most recent. It sometimes seems to turn this loathing inward as it struggles to find a way of dealing with the Nats. Kezia Dugdale tried to unroll the old blueprint for federalism, but was disowned by Jeremy Corbyn – not so much because he opposed home rule but because he just doesn’t care about constitutional politics”.
In similar vein, Many Rhodes, editor of Holyrood Magazine, wrote: “(Labour) hates the SNP and has a myopic view of it and of the constitution. That puts it out of step with a large chunk of the Scottish electorate whose votes are no longer loyal to just one cause.”
Kingdom of the blind
But this is pretty myopic itself. First, current polling evidence suggests that – were the ferret-like May cabinet and government to collapse over their internal contradictions over Brexit and/or the DUP to dump the Tories or pandemic sexual groping by ministers/MPs (to name just three eventualities) – the British electorate would vote in a minority Labour government requiring SNP support whether in coalition or a confidence and supply deal. Together, they could agree to “ditch Brexit” and “end austerity.” This would have ripple effects in Scotland.
Second, it is Brexit more than anything that is driving this process of disintegration of old tribal loyalties and voting habits. The current talk about new parties emerging is just that: frothy over-excitement in the Westminster bubble and its environs. But what might happen if the Brexit/Art.50 negotiations break down irrevocably and the UK economy fell off the cliff-edge as recent continental visitors have warned? If the dire prophecies of companies, skills and jobs leaving did become real? If Sterling went into freefall? If the inescapable prospect of a hard border between the six counties and the 26 on Irish soil brought back armed conflict – or maybe moves towards a united Ireland?
Third, Britain and Scotland are not (or may not prove) immune to the socioeconomic fissures caused by globalisation, inequality, digitalisation that are transforming the post-1945 and post-1989 political settlements in mainland Europe, throwing up new parties (Macron’s/Five Star, say) or reviving the far right or boosting populist/nationalist movements of left or right in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Hungary et al. The ‘big tent’ parties or Volksparteien that dominated the past six decades are, pace Labour, losing out. In the UK, the “governing” party cannot even summon the courage to turn up an vote in the Commons – and its cabinet has virtually no legislative programme.
As 2017 approaches its tawdry end, who knows what the next few years will bestow upon us? Certainly, if Brexit in some shape happens in March 2019 and a 20 or 24-month transition brings nothing but economic pain and social conflict along with a revived Far Right, then the ‘progressive alliance’ between Labour and SNP at least in Scotland and/or in Westminster may not just be desirable but essential to save democracy – and a lot more.