A dominant SNP will face complex issues in the pursuit of ‘progressive’ UK politics

Sturgeon: Well in control

As the party gathers for its pre-election spring conference in Glasgow, Alex Bell considers possible realities of a SNP breakthrough at Westminster this year.

Alex Bell, author and journalist, is a former special adviser to the Scottish Government
Alex Bell

The possibility of the SNP becoming the third largest party in Westminster, and woven deep into the fabric of the Britain’s constitutional cloth, means the Nats will have a crucial role in devolution for England.

We should set aside the scaremongering over Alex Salmond pulling the strings and see instead a chance to develop devolution for all parts of these islands, at a speed and depth of the people’s choosing.

The SNP go into this election riding an astonishing wave of enthusiasm. It can’t but make some within its ranks giddy with excitement. Yet it approaches this breakthrough moment suprisingly light on detail. We know it wants Devo Max, but there is no document setting out how the Scottish Government plans to get this, or exactly how it will be structured. In truth, the nationalists are doing what they do best – making a big ask and leaving it to tactical politics to see what they can get.

Within their ranks, the more switched-on realise that Devo Max is a tricky proposition. Cutting the Barnett Formula and relying on the Scottish tax base is a complex move at the best of times, and these are not, in economic terms, the best of times.

There may well be more of an appetite for ‘slow’ devolution than is apparent at the moment. Bear in mind, under Devo Max the number of MPs from Scotland would be cut, or abolished altogether, and it is a moot point if that’s really what these new politicians want.

Then set Scotland’s demands within a British context. It is clear the SNP are closer than before to Plaid Cymru and the Greens, and as such are presenting themselves more as a progressive political force for the whole of the UK than just a single-demand movement. You can see the party adapting before our eyes into Scotland’s party at Westminter, not revolutionaries set to smash the system, but ambitious people out to play the Westminster game for, ideally, Scotland’s advantage.

Once that game commences, it can’t but involve a wider discussion about what greater powers for Scotand means for the rest of the UK. The SNP are, in effect, volunteering to join a more consensual and negotiated settlement. They can’t sit on a Westminster committee and simply tune out the concerns of Manchester or Belfast – the path to Scottish self governance becomes inextricably linked to wider demands about accountable democracy and local power.

Sturgeon at the Hydro rally: From Scottish nationalist to British progressive?
Sturgeon at the Hydro rally: From Scottish nationalist to British progressive?

The SNP MPs could take the position that the affairs of the North of England, for example, are for Northeners alone, but it would be unworkable. Once involved in UK legislation, the party would have to do deals and develop policy for all parts of Britain and Northern Ireland. They have said as much in pledging to be ‘constructive’ when elected. The question for the other parts of the UK is what does it does this mean.

Much the most successful devolved administration in recent years, in terms of acquiring new powers, has been London. The capital city has a relationship with the Treasury which is benign, allowing London to gain new financial instruments and investment to advance its cause. If the North of England were to press for something similar, it would very hard for the new parliament to resist.

The issue for the politicians of Manchester and Newcastle is how do they come together to express this demand in a coherent way. Voters rejected devolution proposals ten years ago. Given the rise of Scotland they may be more enthusiastic this time round. As with Scotland though, the area is Labour dominated and the national party may resist local power for fear of what it means to head office. The South West of England may also move to gain more powers, though this seems less developed at the moment.

The big issue for the SNP in Westminster is Northern Ireland. The Nats were able to duck the issue of what Scottish Independence meant for the peace process during the referendum because no one in the UK had the appetite to entangle the two. That is no longer possible – there is an inevitable, if unpredictable, link and it may prove very challenging to negotiate. Nobody wants to upset the peace process but that’s the risk, no matter.

The irony of this election, assuming the polls are right, is that it makes the SNP more British then ever before – integral to how all the isles develop, as influential on matters in Lands End as John O’Groats, as responsible to be a constructive and benign an influence as possible.

The Guardian journalist Martin Kettle rightly pointed out that the next British PM will have to be a very wise man indeed – we should add that every SNP MP, and the party leadership in Scotland, will all have to be Solomonic in their wisdom, and saint-like in their patience, if they aren’t simply to screw things up for our neighbours.

Alex Bell, author and journalist, is a former special adviser to the Scottish Government