Monday, 2 February 2009

Westminster still matters for the SNP

I read with interest Jeff's take on the YouGov post-budget-vote-Scottish poll printed at the weekend. And I'd throw a note of caution his way.

For yes, he is right (and he'll enjoy my saying so!) in that "Holyrood is the main show in town for the SNP." Poll numbers from there are not only based upon the popularity of the SNP in government in Scotland, they follow the workings of the Scottish Parliament and give a clear indication of voters' intentions in Scottish Parliament elections (albeit two years prior to the next - scheduled - one of those). And since 1999 the party has focused its energies on the Holyrood Parliament, with the "gradualist" approach of winning seats, taking office, proving competence, holding and winning a referendum seemingly well in its way to fruition.

But (you could sense it coming) what of those who are banished from Holyrood, sent to serve time in a foreign land, that Parliament hosted by the arch-nemesis? For if there is only one game in town, if Westminster is but a mere distraction, why bother with the place? Why not invite abstentionism? Or, if you must stand, why not refuse to take up your seats - as Sinn Fein's members do?

There is a reason. You see, the SNP's strategy, while bold, seemingly foolproof and inherently democratic (in that it lets the people decide their constitutional future - a noble and somewhat under-used gesture) has one, somewhat major flaw: No one knows whether it can be done.

This referendum would require a majority of votes in Parliament to be held, it is true. But even if the SNP could muster a simple majority (65 - possibly with the aid of Lib Dems and Greens - of 129) that probably would not be enough. Not enough? And why on earth not I hear you ask?

Well... here's the rub. There's no guarantee that such a vote in the Scottish Parliament would be upheld as "within the remit of the Scottish Parliament." Any changes to the Scotland Act, "constitutional arrangements" or "sanctioning" of a referendum which seeks to change these arrangements would probably have to pass through Westminster.

So yes, 65 might be a majority in the Scottish Parliament... but the 7 SNP MPs fall far short of a majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster. And I'd argue Jeff's point. Yes the main game for the SNP is Holyrood. And yes, if they are to achieve their raison d'etre of independence then it will be through a referendum. But it is - at the very least - debateable whether that referendum will be delivered through the Scottish Parliament or by Westminster if/when the SNP gain a majority of Scotland's MPs.

I'm not one of those who subscribes to the belief that a hung parliament will aid this goal. But what I am pointing out - albeit in a rather long and winded way - is that Westminster, while now a second priority for the SNP, remains an important part of their plans for the constitutional future of Scotland.

But a good poll for the party!


Anonymous,  2 February 2009 at 16:28  

Hi Malc,

I too was a little puzzled by SNP Tactical Voter's minimising attitude to Westminster.

Pre-devolution I had assumed that a simple majority of SNP MP's was to be taken as a mandate to begin negotiations with Westminster for Independence, the results to be put to the Scots in a referendum.

Post devolution, it could be argued that the SNP would have to have a majority (Scots) representation in both parliaments before this should be undertaken, but given that statistically a majority in Holyrood is an almost impossibility to achieve for any single party this is not a practical proposition.

It would seem therefore that a more reasonable approach might be to use a referendum from Holyrood to determine if negotiations for independence should be commenced and provided that the SNP was also reasonably well represented in Westminster a postivie result in such a referendum could not be ignored by Westminster or the international community.

In any case, before Independence is achieved I would assume automatically that the SNP would already have good representation in Westminster. After all it is the principal instrument of British democracy even if it sometimes does not behave like it.

I think it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of the Westminster dimension in the independence argument.


Malc 2 February 2009 at 16:52  


I don't think we're being overly fair to Jeff here. He wasn't minimising the role that the UK Parliament plays for the SNP (in fact, I'm not even sure he mentioned the referendum in this regard). He was simply stating that the party views polls (and elections) for the Scottish Parliament as of primary importance in their quest for independence - that is, they take priority over Westminster.

I was simply pointing out - and I think you are in agreement with the point - that it is not cut and dried that independence nor a referendum upon negotiations can be delivered through Holyrood... and that it might be more prudent to keep both avenues open. Which is, essentially, what the party has done. Resources are finite, and, understandably, they are being ploughed into Holyrood contests over Westminster ones. Time will only tell whether this strategy will bear fruit.

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