Red lines are a recipe for chaos

Earlier this week SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said that:

The SNP have made it very clear that Trident is a fundamental issue for the SNP so we would never be in any formal deal with a Labour government that is going to renew Trident and we would never vote for the renewal of Trident or for anything that facilitated the renewal of Trident.

This is a statement that alarms me. This is not because I’m especially attached to Trident: I’m pretty agnostic on Britain’s nuclear deterrent. But I worry that these kind of supposedly unbreakable commitments are about to collide with the brute fact that the country needs a government and that that government needs to be able to survive a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

As the video below pretty clearly demonstrates this is going to be no easy task. It will almost certainly require some kind of arrangement between at least three parties.

This means that the number of viable coalitions is likely to be very limited. If Labour emerges as the largest party then it will be nigh on impossible to form a government without some kind of arrangement between it and the SNP. And in this kind of situation if red lines constrain options further then that’s quite a problem.

Let us dive further into this scenario and consider how it plays out if Labour and the SNP refuse to go beyond their mutually contradictory red lines. As I see it there are the following options:

1) Labour tries to get a majority in the Commons by working with parties other than the SNP. In practice that either means a grand coalition or Labour allying with every party in the commons that isn’t the Tories or SNP. The first would require a massive change in our political culture and the second would be an unwieldy involving lots of parties with very different objectives. And other parties also have red lines that such deals would probably require them to go beyond;

2) The SNP allies itself with the Tories. This would itself breach another SNP promise and would be as unwieldy as the second arrangement in point 1);

3) Call a new election. As we now have fixed-term parliaments this would be hard to achieve. This has lead some to advocate going back to a system where elections could be called at a whim. That doesn’t seem desirable: if we are going to have multi-party arrangements then it makes sense to push the parties to make them work rather than seek the most advantageous moment to exit. Even if we did have another election there’s no guarantee that it would not land us back in an equally intractable situation. And in any event it’s not going to be possible to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act without first forming a government!

4) An impasse. Belgium once went 589 days without an elected government because the parties represented in its parliament could not agree on forming a coalition. It probably goes without saying that imitating this would be a bad idea.

More likely than any of these are that someones supposed red line proves to be malleable after all. In the short-term that would be good for the ability to govern Britain. However, in the long term parties’ saying they will definitely stick to a position and then not doing so is going to be corrosive to public trust in politics. As is of course demonstrated by this:

It would be better if parties just avoided setting out anything beyond the bare minimum of red lines.