A guest this lovely Sunday from Rory Scothorne. Rory is an Edinburgh University student, political blogger and part-time music writer who once had a tweet quoted in the Scotsman and won’t let anyone forget it, although he can’t remember what it actually said. He blogs about Scottish and UK politics at Scotland Thinks, where his writing has been generously described as ‘swivel-eyed’ and ‘a load of codswallop’.
There are few certainties in Scottish politics, but you can always be fairly sure that Labour and the Scottish National Party won’t get on. Since devolution, the enmity between Scotland’s two biggest parties has sizzled with the mix of hatred and grudging respect that characterises the most established of foes.
There are obvious reasons for such a gulf. In the high-school playground of Scottish politics, the SNP are the exciting new kid in town, arriving with a style, self-confidence and controversial past that catches everyone’s eye, allowing them to usurp the established authority that Labour’s long-serving head prefect has begun to take for granted. No wonder they’re upset.
To the SNP, Labour’s dogged loyalty to the union and all its perceived inequities is a betrayal of the Scottish people, abandoning us to distant Tory governments in exchange for a few jobs for life on the green benches in London.
Since Willie Wolfe pulled the SNP over to the left, both parties have been competing for dominance of a similar ideological territory, but their inability to separate on policy leads them both down a spiral of personality politics and cheap sniping.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
It’s precisely that ideological similarity that makes the animosity so frustrating. It turns it into an almost fraternal conflict, a tragic spectacle where we’re all secretly rooting for them to put their differences aside and remember their love for each other. Jimmy Reid, Alex Neil and Jim Sillars all started out in Labour and ended up with the SNP, and the transition for them was not about some tectonic shift in values – merely a realisation that the kind of society they hoped for could best be achieved outside of the United Kingdom.
Of course, nobody really expects Labour and the SNP in Holyrood to put that single, profound difference aside and join forces for social justice. The constitution is far too important an issue in this country to be sidelined.
But what about local government? There’s no doubt that the parties instinctively dislike each other just as much at a local level as they do nationally, but there’s not really much sense to that. After all, SNP councillors can’t legislate for a referendum. Nor can Labour councillors vote against one. That central issue that pushes the two parties apart is completely irrelevant at a council level.
That’s why it makes a great deal of sense for the SNP to consider the Labour Party as coalition partners. The voting system means it’s going to be hard for either to get many majorities without coalition, but if they refuse to try working together that will be a struggle. In many local authorities it’s unlikely that the Liberal Democrats or the Greens will manage to get enough of the vote to top up either Labour or the SNP and take them past the halfway mark, while both will be deeply reluctant to join an unholy union with the Tories while that party leads such an unpopular administration in Westminster.
Edinburgh is a prime example of where this can happen. The capital’s Lib Dems will suffer heavily from the compounding effects of leading an unpopular local administration and joining an even more unpopular UK one, and may well be unable to take Labour or the SNP up to the 29 seats needed to form an administration. The Greens won’t win enough either. There could be an SNP minority with a Conservative confidence and supply deal, but that’s a huge political risk considering the Tories’ unpopularity.
If the SNP become the largest party, Tom Buchanan’s recovery from surgery places Steve Cardownie as the obvious choice for the city’s next leader. He defected from Labour to the SNP in 2005, claiming conversion to independence and stressing his frustration with New Labour. I suspect that’s a frustration shared by many of his former colleagues across Scotland, who might just take a certain subversive glee in pairing up with the Nats.
It was, after all, a makeshift coalition of SNP, Labour and Greens that brought down the Lib Dem/Tory proposals for ‘Alternative Business Models’. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to work together on centre-left goals, and coalition would be an opportunity to demonstrate that they can both put their shared social-democratic vision for Scotland ahead of the cheap party politics that demeans public debate in this country. The symbolism of such unprecedented co-operation taking place in Scotland’s capital would be a breath of fresh air in a city that sorely needs it.