Ian Swanson: Could SNP secretly want Tory win?

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NICOLA Sturgeon was angry and unequivocal in her response to the leak of the memo about her conversation with the French ambassador. She emphatically denied saying that she would rather see David Cameron in power after the election or that she did not see Ed Miliband as prime minister material.

Even the Scotland Office civil servant putting the reported comments down in a memo seemed unconvinced the First Minister had expressed such views. “I have to admit that I’m not sure that the FM’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation,” he noted.

Such comments would, of course, fly in the face of Ms Sturgeon’s public comments about the SNP being ready to work with a minority Labour government and provide them with “backbone”. This scenario has become the mainstay of the SNP’s election campaign and the party does not want to see it undermined in any way.

But could it be that the SNP would secretly prefer a Tory win on May 7?

No-one would ever say so. And the Nationalists would certainly not do anything to put the Tories into power.

Apart from the obvious disagreements between the two parties on most major policies, the Tories remain a toxic brand in Scotland. Eighteen years on from their wipe-out north of the border as part of Tony Blair’s 1997 election landslide, there has been little recovery.

But arguably there would be a certain advantage for the SNP in having a Tory or Tory-led regime in charge at Westminster so far as advancing the cause of independence is concerned.

It would highlight once again the fact that Scotland does not get the government it votes for.

And five more years of Tory economic policies – austerity, public spending cuts and potentially more tax cuts for the better-off – would provoke growing anger north of the border and possibly a feeling that Scotland would be better pursuing its own path. The prospect of never again having to have a Tory government was a powerful appeal by the Yes side in last year’s referendum.

On the other hand, if the SNP is more interested in securing some gains for Scotland in the immediate future rather than thinking about the longer-term goal of independence, then it would surely rather see Ed Miliband and his colleagues in power than the Tories. There is far more natural common ground between the SNP and Labour

And the SNP leadership’s stated preference of working with Labour – not in a formal coalition and perhaps not even under a looser “confidence and supply” agreement, but more likely on a vote-by-vote basis – appeals to many on the Left as a way of forcing more radical policies out of a Labour government which might otherwise feel the need to tack to the right.

But if successful it carries the risk, from an SNP point of view, of making the Union seem not so bad after all and making a Yes vote in a future referendum less likely.

If the SNP did not succeed in forcing concessions from Labour, it could revert to the argument that all Westminster parties are the same and not to be trusted. That could confirm diehard independence supporters in their resolve and persuade others to join the cause.

But whatever the private preferences of the SNP – or others – about the outcome, it is the voters who will determine the result – and the politicians will have to make the best of it.