I made the mistake of reading the UK newspaper The Independent’s leader endorsing the current coalition last night. It included this:
“For all his talk of no deals with the SNP, Miliband is bound to rely on that party to get his legislative programme through. This would be a disaster for the country, unleashing justified fury in England at the decisive influence of MPs who – unlike this title – do not wish the Union to exist. If that were to be the case while Labour were the second biggest party either in terms of vote share, or seats – or both – how could Labour govern with authority? They could not. Any partnership between Labour and the SNP will harm Britain’s fragile democracy. For all its faults, another Lib-Con Coalition would both prolong recovery and give our kingdom a better chance of continued existence.”
I’ve read a lot of nonsense during this election, but I do not think I have seen anything quite so idiotic as this.
It seems likely that around half of Scottish voters will vote SNP in this election. They might be voting SNP because they want independence, but they may also be voting SNP because they like their policies for how the UK should be governed. Perhaps voters think the SNP will better stand up for Scottish interests. But whatever their reason, they are being told that if they vote this way, they will be effectively disenfranchised. The Independent agrees with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that SNP MPs must at all costs have no influence, however slight, on the government of the United Kingdom.
I fully understand why the Conservatives are taking this view. They hope that by playing the English nationalist card, which they have done since the morning after the independence vote, they can attract more votes in England. Nick Clegg has gone along with the idea because he wants excuses to avoid a coalition with Labour. Of course the right wing press have been shouting about the ‘threat’ posed by the SNP, not because it makes any sense, but because their role is to maximise the Conservative vote. But I did not think that anyone who was supposed to be independent took any of this nonsense seriously. Apparently I was wrong.
The Independent believes that because the SNP want independence, they must have no influence on the government of the UK. What terrible things would any SNP influence lead to? How exactly could 50 odd SNP MPs force the 600 remainder to do unspeakable things to this country? The Independent does not say, but it does say that there would be justified fury in England at the prospect. Why justified fury? Again no hint. It is just asserted that any partnership between Labour and the SNP will harm Britain’s fragile democracy.
Now it seems to me blindingly obvious that one way to harm a democracy is to tell a group of people that their votes can only count as long as they do not vote for a particular party. It does not matter how many people in Scotland vote for the SNP, it seems we have to ensure that the SNP plays no role in the government of the UK. Which means your vote cannot count. The logic of this argument is that the SNP, because it advocates independence, should not be allowed to put up MPs for election. That would be ridiculous and profoundly undemocratic. So instead we will allow the Scottish people to vote for the SNP, but then ensure their elected MPs can have no influence. That seems even more undemocratic!
Now if I was a SNP voter, I would be furious at being disenfranchised in this way. I would think to myself, am I only allowed to take part in UK elections as long as the people who I vote for play no part in government? What kind of United Kingdom is that? If I was one of the 55% who voted against independence, I might wonder if I had made the wrong decision. Even if I did not vote for the SNP, I would be very concerned that my choices were being limited in this way.
And then there is the idea that the Union is somehow safer in the coalition’s hands. What the Union needed from its Prime Minister the morning after the vote was a statesman like speech about the healing of divisions and the importance of working together. What we got from Cameron was an attempt to placate some of those in his own party by talking about English votes for English laws. Whatever the merits of the argument, it was the wrong time and place if you were serious about preserving the Union. Cameron has continued to play the English nationalist card in this election: not because he wants to end the Union, but because he wants more votes. He has no concern about how this goes down north of the border, because his party have so few votes there. But if the Union ends, it will be through Scottish votes and not voters in England.
So how exactly does electing a government whose main party has no interest in Scotland, and which therefore is happy to stoke up English resentment against Scotland, supposed to be better for the continuing existence of the United Kingdom? How is denying certain Scottish MPs any role in UK government suppose to encourage Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom? Now maybe the leader writers at the Independent were looking around for arguments to support the coalition, and given how difficult that is, this was the best they could do. Perhaps their heart was not in it. But to argue that to encourage Scotland to remain part of the Union we should disenfranchise a good proportion of Scottish voters, and that this will be good for democracy, is truly Orwellian.