Alex Massie

The Scottish Question

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The other day a wise friend, lamenting the "madness" of the people carried away with Cleggmania, fretted that it all amounts to the beginning of the end. For the Union, I mean. These days, you see, it's Unionists who are forever whistling an old song and always wondering if it's for the last time.

I didn't, I admit, quite follow his argument but it had something to do with the Liberals in power, the advent of proportional representation leading eventually and inexorably to an English parliament and thus loosening the ties that bind to the point that they may be severed with a single blow of a Damoclean sword. Or something like that anyway.

Conventional wisdom in Nationalist circles has always been that the independence cause is best advanced by a Conservative victory. Now that a hung - sorry, balanced - parliament seems to be in the offing the Nats are shifting their position. It is far from inconceivable that, in return for the usual concessions, the SNP might support a Conservative budget (this would, after all, be a quid pro quo given that the Tories have supported John Swinney's budgets at Holyrood). This is a risky manoevre for the Nationalists, not least because it will allow Labour to resurrect the old "Tartan Tory" gibe at nest year's Holyrood elections. Nevertheless it is not inconceivable.

Those elections are going to be tricky for the SNP anyway and it's certainly possible that Labour will once again be the largest party at Holyrood come the summer of 2011.

But the SNP aren't the only ones who might face some awkward moments. Suppose, for a moment, that the Lib Dems do end up backing a Cameron-led government and that, despite the difficulties, there's a formal coalition. If that happens it would be sensible for the position of Secretary of State for Scotland to be filled by a Liberal Democrat. This would go some way towards answering the (phoney) "legitimacy" question and it might also calm (absurd) fears that a Tory government wants to pillage Scotland. (In fact Cameron's Unionism seems to me to be both sincere and mature.)

Still, this would raise an interesting dilemma for the Lib Dems. If they shared power with the Conservatives at Westminster would they then find it easy to enter into an agreement with Labour at Holyrood should the parliamentary numbers make a renewal of their partnership feasible? Theoretically there's no constitutional or even necessarily logical imepediment to them doing so but it might strike voters as being somewhat odd nonetheless.

At the risk of over-egging the pudding entirely, this could leave one in a position in which a number of previously unlikely permutations become at least theoretically possible - especially if the new Westminster parliament eventually moves on the Calman Commission. If that happens then all bets are off and one could, in theory anyway, even see a Grand Unionist Alliance formed from a Labour-Tory-Liberal coalition in Edinburgh that would introduce its own referendum on independence...

Granted this piles one hypothetical upon another and adds some more speculation just for fun. But the point is this: next week's election looks as though it may change British politics in any number of ways, not just at Westminster but across the kingdoms and this, while not necessarily threatening the Union, will leave little being the same ever again. Perhaps...