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The Salmond strategy

Brian Taylor | 17:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 October 2009

It is a given in Labour demonology that it was the SNP who brought down Jim Callaghan's government in the 1970s.

Like most givens, it is somewhat remote from the facts.

Yes, it was the votes of the 11 SNP MPs which, added to the others, defeated Team Callaghan in a Commons vote of confidence.

But defeat at the polls - and the subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher - were, of course, dependent on the votes of millions of people. Not the SNP 11.

Still, it can be a position of some influence to hold the balance of power in a hung or tight parliament.

That is the argument being advanced by Alex Salmond at the SNP conference in Inverness.

He says that his party could wield power at Westminster if it obtains its target of securing 20 MPs.

Hung parliament

To reminisce a little more (c'mon, I've been covering politics for a wee while, give a guy a break), I recall when David Steel enthused his Liberals by sending them home to their constituencies . . . to prepare for government. (The built-in pause was part of the effect.)

The Salmond message is a little different. Go home to your constituences . . . and prepare for a hung parliament.

Might be said to lack a little punch. I dissent. I believe that it is a sensible strategy from an SNP perspective.

Like most such strategies, it is born of necessity.

Nationalists are facing two taunts from their opponents in advance of the coming UK General election.

Taunt one: that they would favour the election of a Conservative government - because said Tories would be likely to have only a handful of MPs from Scotland at most, thus highlighting a claimed democratic deficit and assisting the cause of independence.

Taunt two: that SNP votes are irrelevant at a Westminster General Election because the Nationalists are in no position to form a UK government.

Serious players

Of the two, the second is more potent.

Privately, Nationalists know they have to prevent such a thought from gaining salience in the voters' minds particularly in an election where the two largest parties, Labour and Tory, will be keen to stress that they, and only they, are serious players.

The Salmond strategy addresses both taunts, simultaneously.

Firstly, the offer is potentially there for whichever party forms the next UK government.

Whomsoever the Queen invites, the Nationalists would seek to influence, should they have the clout.

That will be Mr Salmond's answer to the "Tory taunt". He will say that his stated preference is for a hung parliament.

The Nationalists, incidentally, point to polling evidence which suggests that people favour such a curb on power, particularly in the light of experience at Holyrood.

At the same time, challenged as to relevance, Mr Salmond will say - and is saying - that the Nationalists could be in a position to lever gains for Scotland at Westminster, if given the chance by the voters.

Budget measures

What is the SNP offering? No coalition: they wouldn't offer, the UK parties wouldn't countenance.

Rather case by case support: in particular, on the budget measures which are certain to follow the next UK election.

What would they want? Again case by case but, most immediately, action to ameliorate spending issues in Scotland.

For example, the release of money held in Whitehall from the fossil fuel levy.

They would also press for a role for the Scottish government in future international events: a role presently denied in, for example, the forthcoming Copenhagen climate summit.

Would they go further and demand, for example, the cancellation of Trident? My information is that would be seen as pushing it somewhat, overplaying the hand.

Would the big UK parties play? They would do almost anything rather than be dependent on the votes of the SNP.

Further, they will argue volubly that the SNP remains irrelevant to the future governance of the UK.

But, Mr Salmond will counter, the electoral arithmetic might dictate otherwise.

As in the 1970s, the outcome will rest with the voters. Not with the calculations and stratagems of politicians, however skilled.


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