The Big Bang Theory has run more than a few seasons past its peak, but one of its more striking moments was Sheldon’s and Amy’s game Counterfactuals. One player had to build a question on a premise and then other players had to come up with, then defend, their answer. For example: “In a world where rhinoceroses are domesticated pets, who wins the Second World War?”
Such exercises would limber us up for a problem that might well be coming down the track. The SNP are agitating for an independence referendum. In a world where the SNP held the balance of power in Westminster, how might that affect the governance of the United Kingdom?
In particular, how would a Labour minority government cope with a vote for Scottish independence? And how would divorce negotiations be handled if the SNP held the balance of power?
As Mike noted the other day, a Labour minority government in 2024 is a very possible outcome. Following the boundary commission changes, Scotland’s seat count is being reduced (from 59 to 57). Wales sees its share drop from 40 to 32, while England gains 10 seats to 543. Northern Ireland is unchanged on 18.
What are the rough parameters? I suggest the numbers to be thinking about are something like:
Lib Dems: 10
Sinn Fein: 7
That leaves 566 seats to play with. If the Conservatives get fewer than about 310 seats, it’s hard to see how they can stay in power, given how the other Parliamentary parties align. The DUP would probably be more inclined to support the Conservatives, but that would only give at most another 10 seats (and that’s being optimistic). Unless the Lib Dems could be wooed, which seems unlikely, the Conservatives would be out. So the band to consider is something like Labour 256-323 and Conservatives 243-310.
The next thing is to think about how critical Scotland will be to the question. If you take the 57 Scottish seats out of the equation, a party will have an overall majority if it has 296 seats (in practice, 293 if Sinn Fein win seven seats but don’t take them). If we cautiously assume that the Conservatives win four Scottish seats and Labour one, this means that the rUK seat tallies we need to consider are Labour 255-296 and Conservatives 265-306.
If the Conservatives have more seats in rUK than this, they will keep power across the UK as a whole. If Labour have more than 296 seats in rUK then negotiating lines can clearly be drawn without problems for them controlling Parliament without Scottish votes (if Scotland had voted for independence, I’m confident in practice that the SNP would recuse itself from interfering with the drawing-up of rUK negotiating stances).
In fact, given the likely make-up of Parliament, Labour would be able to control Parliament without Scottish votes on a considerably lower seat count. Only if they dropped below 275 would things get really chaotic.
So the band of impending chaos is in reality quite narrow. Outside Scotland, Labour need to get between 255 and 275 seats and the Conservatives would have something like 286 to 306 seats.
That’s a lot of scene-setting. Now, what are the problems? First, imagine Labour come to power with SNP support in a hung Parliament. What happens if Scotland then votes for independence?
In the short term, nothing. Scotland will not leave the UK the next day. So Labour would not immediately leave office, regardless of the composition of Parliament. (There might, of course, be a change of Prime Minister, depending on how closely he or she had tied himself to the referendum result.)
How would the negotiations be handled? Unless Parliament found itself in the band of impending chaos, negotiations should be as orderly as these things can be managed. Labour would be able to control Parliament provided the SNP didn’t seek to play silly buggers. The SNP would have no interest in doing so – at that point in proceedings it would be in Scotland’s interests to make things as smooth as it possibly could. It’s pretty unlikely they’d have a smoother exit with the Conservatives controlling proceedings, given their recent takeover by chippy English nationalism.
And if Parliament is in the band of impending chaos? Then I expect Britain would have another general election – by that point the Fixed Term Parliaments Act will probably have been repealed, so this should not be complicated. If Scotland had just voted for independence, the SNP would probably secure a clean sweep there.
Elsewhere, the public would presumably vote for the party it considered best able to conduct the negotiations to secure a favourable outcome. In the unlikely event that Parliament should twice end up in the band of impending chaos, I expect that Labour would look to continue in government but to conduct Scottish independence negotiations on a cross-party basis. The pressure on all parties to work together in those circumstances would be intense.
All of this means that the problem is more apparent than real. If the SNP signals early and clearly that it will not seek to take part in the rUK debate or votes on how to approach Scottish independence, as it is in their interest to do, any mess will be entirely of rUK’s own making.
The real world consequence of this counterfactual is that it may well be much harder for the Conservatives to scare voters about the dangers of SNP influence at the next election than they presently seem to imagine.
In any case, the general public outside Scotland like Nicola Sturgeon in a way that they never liked Alex Salmond as evidenced by recent polling such as Opinium showing Nicola Sturgeon is the best performing party leader in a UK wide poll and YouGov showing Nicola Sturgeon more popular in England than Boris Johnson, so floating voters may well regard the idea as about as worrisome as the idea of rhinoceroses as domesticated pets. The Conservatives would do much better trying to scare voters about Labour instead.
PS – Many thanks to Richard Tyndall for prompting me to write this piece