The Telegraph reports that Nicola Sturgeon has 'secretly backed' David Cameron for Prime Minister. The story has already been repudiated by the diplomat who supposedly heard these remarks, and Sturgeon has described it as categorically false - meaning that both sides of the alleged conversation deny it happened - yet it continues to circulate.
We can digest what this means in a moment, but it is worth reflecting on at least one aspect of the story: an FCO memo had to be faked for this to be a story at all. As Craig Murray points out, there is no protocol according to which diplomats are obliged to supply the Foreign Office with details of meetings held with British officials. He concludes that the story is most likely an intelligence smear, which - given that the Telegraph is the leaking post of our security services - is very plausible.
So, what is the logic of this smear? It would have been just as conceivable for intelligence, or the civil service, or anyone else, to leak false claims suggesting that Sturgeon thought Miliband would be an obedient little puppy, in her pocket and so on. But this would only have worked to shore up the Tory vote in southern England. The smear seeks, instead, to maximise the Labour vote in Scotland by representing the SNP as an ally of the hated Tories. This makes sense. Right-wing pundits have repeatedly claimed that if Labour doesn't hold onto Scotland, then the Union is doomed. There is seemingly nothing that frightens them more than Labour having to negotiate a government with the SNP. The enormous pressure placed on Ed Miliband to rule out such a coalition, which he has duly acceded to, is indicative of how seriously they take this problem.
Nor is the civil service neutral in this: as Craig Murray also points out, the civil service conspicuously abandoned its doctrine of impartiality in the independence campaign on the grounds that such guidelines didn't apply to such circumstances as the threatened break-up of the Union. And this impartiality has always been shaky at best. It is no secret that, during the coalition negotiations in 2010, the civil service under Gus O'Donnell applied strong pressure to the Tories and Liberals to form a stable coalition government in order to implement austerity.
The apparatuses of Project Fear were never really put on ice. They couldn't be. The referendum campaign proved itself to be a punctuating moment in a process of realignment and the likely decomposition of the British state, not an end. The break-up of the British state and the repudiation of Trident would leave the rump UK seriously weakened as an imperialist power and pose serious logistical difficulties for the military. That the position of the City of London, and British capital as a whole, would also be weakened was confirmed by the shellshocked response of banks, investors and business owners to the late surge for independence during the campaign. That the EU business elites would also find it inconvenient to be deprived of a powerful British capitalist sector was indicated by Barroso's intervention in the referendum campaign.
In the immediate term, however, the future of the Union is not at stake. What is at stake right now is the parliamentary pro-austerity consensus, reflecting the dominant strategy of British capital for resolving its dysfunctions. The SNP is, for better or worse, the major party arguing against austerity in this election, at at a time when the strategy of the dominant Westminster parties for the last five years has been to pretend there is no real debate about the fundamentals.
Of course, the SNP is a pro-business party and progressive rather than 'left', but it has a record of delivering modest yet decent reforms in office, and is by no means as socially grounded in the dominant sectors of British capital as the Westminster big hitters. The parties of the bourgeois centre in Westminster have coalesced around the essential lineaments of austerity logic, in which the state is like a corner shop which can't afford to spend more than it takes in; in which growth must be trusted to a thriving private sector; in which unemployment is essentially a form of welfare dependency wherein the 'unproductive' layers leech of the 'productive, and must therefore be disciplined back to market dependency; in which the unions are a privileged layer within the workforce whose 'gold-plated pensions' and conditions must be rolled back in the name of fairness. And so on. This has been more or less abutted by the dominant media, for whom the boundaries of legitimate political debate tend to be set by the big parties. Any crack in the parliamentary-media consensus is thus rare, and potentially one through which more radical forces can push.