Argument

And the Winner Is… the SNP

Whether it's a Conservative or Labour-led government in London, Scottish nationalists will come out on top.

First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon waves at a campaign rally in central Edinburgh on May 6, 2015. Britain's political leaders launched their last day of campaigning today for the most unpredictable election in living memory which could yield no clear winner and weeks of haggling over the next government.
AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN        (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon waves at a campaign rally in central Edinburgh on May 6, 2015. Britain's political leaders launched their last day of campaigning today for the most unpredictable election in living memory which could yield no clear winner and weeks of haggling over the next government. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday’s general election in Britain is wide open. With the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party neck and neck in the polls, with about one-third of the vote each, neither is likely to win enough seats for a majority. Anti-establishment parties — the anti-immigration, anti-European Union, U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) on the nationalist right, the anti-globalization Greens on the localist left — are polling well but will struggle to gain seats, since only the party with the most votes in any constituency gains representation in Parliament. While support for the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, has collapsed since the last election in 2010, the party may still hold on to enough seats to return the current coalition to power, potentially as a minority government. Or the Liberal Democrats may do a deal with Labour instead. Or Labour may gain office, either alone or with the Lib Dems, with some form of support from the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). And that doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities.

But whatever happens, one party is almost certain to emerge as a winner not just on election day but in the years ahead: the SNP.

The SNP’s strength is something of a surprise. After all, the nationalist party failed in its bid for Scottish independence last September, losing the referendum that it had called by 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent. One might have expected this defeat to deflate support for a party whose principal purpose had been rejected by Scottish voters.

It turns out not at all. Galvanized by the referendum campaign, Scottish voters have deserted Labour for a party that they believe is more likely to fight for their interests. Polls suggest the SNP could win as much as 50 percent of the popular vote in Scotland — and almost every constituency.

The SNP also stands to gain from almost any government configuration that emerges from the election. A key plank of the Conservatives’ campaign has been that a minority Labour government would be in the pocket of the SNP, a party committed to dismantling the United Kingdom. While this could turn out to be true, the blatant appeals to English nationalism — by suggesting that a government that relied on the MPs elected by Scots would be illegitimate — benefits the SNP, anyway. The more the English resent the Scots, the more Scots are likely to reciprocate, until eventually they decide to go their separate ways. The SNP can also turn the Conservatives’ argument on its head by arguing that any Conservative-led administration with scarcely any Scottish MPs is not a legitimate government, which would bolster SNP arguments that only independence would guarantee Scotland a government that represents Scottish views.

Prime Minister David Cameron has also promised voters a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay in the European Union if he is re-elected. His likely coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have signaled that they could agree to this. But if Britons voted to leave the EU, this would give the SNP an opportunity to call another referendum on whether Scotland should become independent — and remain part of Europe. Independence supporters would have a better chance of winning such a plebiscite, since the status quo wouldn’t be an option. Faced with taking a leap into the unknown with the rest of Britain by leaving the EU, or taking the plunge for independence within the EU, the latter may seem less risky.

The SNP also stands to gain from a Labour-led government that relied on its support in some form. While a formal coalition is unlikely, the SNP could use its leverage to demand greater autonomy for Scotland — and hence greater powers for the SNP administration in Edinburgh — as well as more generous funding from London. An added bonus, from the SNP perspective, is that this would infuriate the English, boosting support for English nationalism in general, and for the Conservatives and UKIP in particular. A poll for the Economist found that only 10 percent of people in England and Wales would want to pay for Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom, while 70 percent would pay nothing to keep it in the Union. (And 6 percent would actually pay to see it leave.) The SNP would have every incentive to be unreasonable, since independence seems more compelling if Britain isn’t well-governed and the English and Scots are at each other’s throats.

Last year’s hard-fought referendum campaign has weakened the increasingly tenuous bonds between Scotland and England (as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, the other parts of the U.K.). Campaigning in Scotland against independence, both Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband often seemed like they were visiting a foreign country. The SNP was able to channel anti-establishment sentiment against distant “Westminster politicians” for its own gain. Those Westminster politicians still managed to win the referendum, but mostly through fear and threats of how tough Britain would be on an independent Scotland. While that was an effective tactic, it is a disastrous strategy. As John Kay pointed out in the Financial Times, “to stabilise a rocky marriage, it is wiser to woo your partner with promises of shared happiness than to threaten the dire consequences of divorce.”

Two big changes might make for a happier union: One is electoral reform. Now that Britain has a multiparty system, its majoritarian electoral system fails to give proper representation to voters’ views without delivering stable government. Shifting to some form of proportional representation would ensure that the 50 percent of Scots who don’t support the SNP were properly represented in Westminster and that any government in London had Scottish MPs.

The other change that would make sense would be to move to a truly federal structure. Decentralizing power would be healthy for democracy as well as for the quality of local administration, while providing laboratories for policy experimentation. Given England’s dominance in the United Kingdom, this would need to proceed on the basis of English regional assemblies, along with the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish legislatures. Devolving power to English assemblies would also ease English resentment at Scottish MPs voting on English laws, without English MPs having a say on Scottish laws.

Such big, bold changes may seem unlikely. But without them, Britain may stumble towards break-up, as Scottish and English nationalism feed off each other. Then the SNP would really have won.

Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute. Previously economic advisor to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess—and How to Put Them Right. Twitter: @plegrain

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