World·Analysis

U.K. votes 2015: Scotland's separatists could be kingmakers

British voters go to the polls Thursday in one of the most unusual elections in years. The fractured political landscape and the surging popularity of Scotland's SNP are raising the possibility a much different kind of government, Nahlah Ayed reports.

Britain's fractured political landscape producing wide range of coalition scenarios

Round and round we go. The Scottish National Party lost its referendum last fall, but under current leader Nicola Sturgeon looks set to storm the gates of Westminster. (Getty Images)

No one saw it coming. Least of all the man driving by, spitting insults out the car window at the Scottish National Party campaigners set up on the sidewalk.

Halfway through his short diatribe, his eyes apparently on them — instead of the road — and BAM, he smashes into the car ahead.

Welcome to Edinburgh, where the SNP's soaring popularity is rousing both supporters and detractors leading up to this week's U.K. election.

It's also raising a host of coalition scenarios for the most unpredictable election in modern British history.

It is near certain that no party will win enough seats on Thursday to form the next government on its own.

That makes smaller parties — like SNP, and maybe also anti-EU UKIP — pivotal in forming a coalition or, at the very least, entering into a vote-by-vote agreement to bring either Labour or the Conservatives to power.

As for the SNP, just months after its devastating loss in an independence referendum, the separatist party has quadrupled its membership, and could, according to one recent poll, win every single one of the 59 Scottish seats available in the national election.

The thought of so many separatists sitting in Westminster — a scenario Canada knows well after years of Bloc Quebecois presence in Ottawa — is alien here and has alarmed many outside Scotland.

It has also made SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon an unlikely election rock star.

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      Her campaign stops, like the one we saw on Edinburgh's Leith Walk this past weekend, attract clearly smitten, selfie-mad supporters, some bearing gifts, others just hoping to brush shoulders with the woman they call "the Sturgeonator."

      Hers is a tough yet approachable persona — at ease with children, on a balance beam, or with a guitar or drumsticks in her hands — set against a background of (mostly) staid, establishment men.

      "I don't think for a minute we're going to win all 59 seats in Scotland," she told a local network on the weekend, "but I tell you this. The more seats we do win the louder Scotland's voice will be and … the more influence we'll have in the Westminster system."

      The sound of balloons popping

      Sturgeon's appeal and influence in this election seems to be reaching well beyond her home turf.

      She's a hit with women, period. And not only did she manage to outshine most of the rest of the candidates in the April 2 leaders' debate, her performance (and comparably left-leaning policies) made "Can I vote for SNP?" one of the top 10 post-debate online searches, according to Google.

      Of course only Scottish residents can vote for the SNP, but if she achieves a clean or near sweep of the seats here, that could give her party kingmaker status in London.

      Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband probably has the most to lose by the SNP surge in Labour's traditional stronghold, and at this point, anyway, is promising no formal coalition. (Getty Images)

      To her critics, Sturgeon thus became "the most dangerous woman in Britain."

      That Scotland could have such an outsize voice at Westminster — at the expense of Labour — raises the ire of many in other parts of the U.K. as well as in Scotland, especially in the constituency of Edinburgh South West, long a Labour stronghold.

      Within minutes of the insult-induced car accident, another grown man walks up to a bunch of yellow SNP balloons and spitefully pops every one of them, before calmly walking on.

      The SNP candidate here, Joanne Cherry, takes that, and the alarm bells in London, in stride.

      "I think the fear is largely manufactured," she told CBC News. People will see "we're not going down there to be disruptive, we're going down there to play a constructive game and try and advance the policies we stand for."

      Rainbow politics

      In these final days of campaigning, British opinion polls have consistently pointed to a fractured outcome; and that it might take weeks of negotiations to produce a government, like it does in Israel or Germany.

      Listen to the main party leaders, though, and they still seem to pretend a coalition scenario is theoretical. As if British politics have not been transformed into what is being called "rainbow politics."

      Conservative Leader David Cameron just concluded five years of coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who are not doing very well this time. (AFP/Getty Images)

      Cameron virtually refuses to talk coalition at all, repeatedly saying he's gunning for a majority government.

      All seem especially loath to acknowledge that the SNP might reset the entire game, and be a potential partner in running the kingdom it would prefer to see break up.

      Though Sturgeon has urged Labour to agree to an anti-Tory alliance, Labour's Ed Miliband has gone to great lengths to deny the possibility of formally joining forces, even though the SNP is as natural an ally as any.

      (One unflatteringly effective "Vote Conservative" campaign poster has a picture of Miliband peeking out of Sturgeon's jacket pocket.)

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      Turning up the heat, Sturgeon suggested Monday any government without Scottish representation would not be legitimate.

      Naturally, the SNP's chief of staff, who has spent a lot of time in London during the campaign instead of Edinburgh, says there is nothing wrong with a separatist party having that kind of clout in Westminster, noting that Sturgeon has promised the independence project is shelved for now (though certainly not dead). Scotland, he says, is still part of the U.K.

      "They're rattled at the prospect of people from one part of the United Kingdom controlling the balance power," Luke Skipper, who is also Canadian, said in an interview. "That's simply democracy."

      The other main wildcard: UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage, shown earlier this week celebrating the arrival of the new royal baby in a pub in Ramsgate. (Getty Images)

      But if the polls are correct, it's a version of democracy the U.K. has yet to come to terms with.

      All the party leaders will be in London Friday — the day after the election — to attend the VE-Day ceremony. And despite what's being said now, you can expect them to be talking to each other about possible deals to form the next government.

      They're likely already talking. Because any ambiguity about the legitimacy of the next government would be an accident waiting to happen. 

      About the Author

      Nahlah Ayed

      Host of CBC Ideas

      Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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