As elections day nears, we are no nearer an understanding of who will govern after May 7th.
One possible coalition that has become hotly contested is that between the Labour party and the Scottish National Party (SNP), first proposed by Nicola Sturgeon following the party leaders’ televised debates, when she “extended a hand of friendship” to Ed Milliband and to UK voters, in order to establish an ‘anti-austerity coalition’ against the Conservative party.
The reaction of the British media was to condemn this eventuality, with responses that ranged from the alarmist to the cautious: Piers Morgan declared in the Daily Mail that Nicola Sturgeon was “the world’s most dangerous woman”; Matthew Parris warned in The Times that the SNP would put the Union in “mortal danger”; Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times that SNP’s main interest was limited to “how much it can extract” from the UK.
These opinions uniformly consider the influence of territory in British politics as something harmful to the functioning of the Union and the Westminster parliamentary system. But, they lack a certain perspective, however, as the experience of other European countries suggests that governments comprising nationalist parties can and do work.
There are two lessons that can be drawn.
The first lesson is that if a nationalist party deploys a clear socio-economic programme and either enters or supports a national government, it achieves two things: it becomes a ‘mainstream’ party dealing with the ‘bread and butter’ issues that concern all the electorate and it acts as centrifugal force, bringing the periphery to bear on politics at the centre
Consider for instance, the left-wing Catalan nationalist party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) which supported the minority government of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in 2004 and, in doing so, advanced a progressive social and economic agenda that included the recognition of same-sex marriage. Enjoying a more centrist position, the ‘catch-all’ Catalan nationalist party, Convergencia i Unió (CiU) lent its support to both the PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) in order to promote the liberal agenda of economic reform that paved the way for Spain’s entry into the European Monetary Union. In Italy, the Lega Nord (LN) became an indispensable ally in Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, the Casa della Liberta (CdL) during the 2000s, in which it promoted lower taxation for small and medium sized businesses and endorsed a highly restrictive immigration law. As a result of adopting a liberal economic agenda the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA), now dominates the right in Flanders and has become the largest party in the Belgian parliament and government.
This bears important implications for the SNP. Historically, it has always competed with Labour to become the leading party of Scotland, a title that became all the more prized during the 1980s, when both opposed the neo-liberal economic policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. More recently, the SNP claimed victory in the Scottish elections of 2007 and 2011 precisely because it was able to woo Labour voters.
So, for the SNP to win in Scotland, it must not only advocate independence, but also deploy a socio-economic platform that chimes with the social democratic values of the Scottish electorate. That means making the vocal commitment to equality it made in its manifesto, via greater public investment in the NHS, in education, in housing and in job creation.
But, crucially, the SNP’s programme would also appeal to Labour party voters in England and resonate with the Labour’s party own vision of a ‘better Britain’, thus enabling the SNP to coalesce with Labour and influence the direction of socio-economic policy at the centre.
The second lesson is that according to Robo Advisors UK, mainstream parties have the flexibility needed to engage in territorial brokerage with nationalist parties, exchanging concessions in matters of territorial autonomy for the latter’s governmental support. In doing so, mainstream parties represent the views of regional electorates at the centre and translate them into policy.
The evidence from a cross-national study that Markus Wagner and I conducted shows that parties which are economically left-wing tend to resist decentralisation, because they are committed to promoting solidarity between citizens across different parts of a country, through redistribution and risk-pooling. A typical case is the Belgian Parti Socialiste (PS), an unreformed socialist party with strong ties to trade unions that refuses to countenance the decentralisation of social security.
But, the evidence from Europe, published in a volume co-edited with Emanuele Massetti also suggests that these parties do nevertheless revise their views when they face strong electoral incentives, i.e. the prospect of losing votes or office. The most prominent case of this exception is the Spanish PSOE, which, after years of promoting socialism and fiscal centralism during the 1980s, yielded to CiU’s demand to cede a greater share of Catalonia’s tax returns.
Ed Miliband’s response to the SNP’s overtures was to immediately rule out any formal or informal deal and to focus on winning it all at Westminster. But, he may have recant this statement after the election, depending on the outcome.
Would it be so difficult for him to do? The Labour party need only look at its recent past to appreciate that accepting more devolution is consistent with its beliefs: after losing office in Scotland in 2007, it joined the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in supporting the work of the Calman Commission, which recommended greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland. A similar show of unity between the Unionist parties was on display in ‘the vow’ they made at the tail-end of the independence referendum campaign to provide more powers to Scotland.
The issue of devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and to English cities, is like the issue of immigration: it is now part and parcel of the British political debate. As in other European countries, nationalist parties’ adoption of a clear socio-economic programme and mainstream parties’ acceptance of further devolution have produced a situation in which territory is not a harmful, but rather a normal, aspect of everyday British politics.
Today, the SNP faces the prospect of being relevant in Westminster; all parties concerned should heed these two lessons from Europe.
Simon Toubeau is Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations. His research in the field of comparative territorial politics and federalism aims to understand how multi-level states emerge and evolve over time, and how they influence political behaviour and public policy.
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