Of course there could be a Tory/SNP coalition #thinkitthrough
— Lord Ashcroft (@LordAshcroft) February 4, 2015
I tend to focus on economic facts in this blog but I also like a challenge so - having discussed this with a few people who know a lot more about the realities of political deal making than I do - here's my attempt to think it through;
What would the SNP do if they were offered Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA) in return for supporting a Tory government in Westminster?
Why would the Tories offer that deal? If it comes with a commitment from the SNP on English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) and keeps the Tories in power why not? It's economically beneficial to the rest of the UK (to the tune of £7-8bn on current figures) and the hardship that would result in Scotland isn't going to affect any Tory seats. From Cameron's perspective - a man surely now starting to consider how history will remember him - he can claim saving the Union as his legacy.
Why would the SNP accept such a deal? It's true that Nicola Sturgeon has stated unequivocally that the SNP wouldn't support a Tory government but she has also made clear the SNP's desire for FFA. Remember that with Full Fiscal Autonomy we get to keep "our oil" and have total control over tax and spend (with only defence and foreign affairs remaining reserved). It's not a massive leap to see Sturgeon arguing that saving Scotland from the Tories and achieving FFA in return for supporting a Tory Westminster government is an acceptable political compromise.
Surely though the SNP know that FFA would cause economic hardship for the Scottish people? Here we have to remember that the SNP's raison d'etre is not improving the lot of the Scottish people. It is - as defined in the SNP's constitution - independence for Scotland. They don't actually say "at any cost" in their constitution but it's implicit; no caveats are given.
So how does FFA serve that over-riding objective? Again let's think it through.
With FFA the Barnett Formula is scrapped. Scotland no longer experiences the benefit of economic shocks being smoothed out across the UK. We get to keep "our oil" (which may or may not prove to be a massive economic boon again some day) but in return we accept we will not benefit from any similar geographic windfalls that may lie elsewhere in the UK. If - for example - the Home Counties turns out to be the source of a shale gas boom, under FFA Scotland would not share in any of the spoils.
The GERS numbers show us that in the short term Scotland would certainly be worse off under FFA. Indeed unless there's another oil boom it's hard to see why we wouldn't continue to be worse off for at least many decades to come. Most of the benefits of Union would have been discarded but we would still be under some fiscal constraints (due to our shared currency) and decisions around defence spending and international affairs would still give the SNP plenty of reason to still complain about those bastards at Westminster. We would have many of the downsides of independence without the full freedom that independence would offer. Under that scenario it's fairly easy to see how the SNP could still argue for independence. By then - frankly - what would we have left to lose? All the SNP would need to do is succeed in continuing to blame Westminster for our woes (anybody who has watched how the SNP operate knows that even with FFA that wouldn't be beyond them) and come up with a credible currency solution.
It seems to me that if - as Lord Ashcroft advises - you think it through, the SNP might be delighted to support the Tories at Westminster if FFA is the "prize". Not because they believe this in itself would benefit the Scottish people - you would need to be an economic illiterate or a border-line certifiable optimist to believe that - but because they would see this as a step on the road to full independence.
Many believe independence for Scotland is the right answer no matter what the short, medium or long-term economic cost and they should of course be voting for the SNP. But anybody thinking of voting for the SNP believing they are voting for an SNP influenced Labour government might be taking a bigger gamble than they realise.
24/03/2015: Addendum (for the doubters)
For those who (perhaps understandably) scoff at my hypothesising: since I wrote this post there have been a few mainstream commentators taking a similar line
- Alex Massie in the Spectator: Could the Tories do a deal with the SNP? (Yes they could)
- Torcuil Crichton (Westminster Editor of the Scottish Daily Record): Is this Cameron's real coalition deal?
- Paul Goodman (MP and Editor of Conservative Home): Cameron should be ready to negotiate with Salmond
Iain Martin (political journalist with the Telegraph) seemed to like this logic
@kevverage Can't see why Tories wouldn't offer it. Popular in England. And in Scotland until it happens + people catch up with your analysis— Iain Martin (@iainmartin1) March 23, 2015
Even Guido Fawkes seemed to think I was on to something