It’s now beyond doubt that the most influential figure of the 2015 UK General Election is an energetic, articulate woman from Ayrshire who is not even standing for election on Thursday. The surge of the SNP (Scottish National Party) has continued throughout this campaign in which the most striking personality has been Nicola Sturgeon, their new leader and First Minister of Scotland. Who saw that coming? She was on the losing side as recently as last autumn. In modern electoral politics, it is a baleful fact that personalities often seen to count as much as policy; an aspect of the culture’s superficiality. Sturgeon’s is no populist appeal; it mirrors the Nationalists’ remarkable resurgence in the past few months, taking them to a pivotal position in a UK election because their anti-austerity policy, fluently presented by Sturgeon, has won over many and looks like it has assured their ascendancy.
We all thought that the UKIP leader, one Nigel Farage, with his anti-immigration rhetoric might well dominate proceedings and that his party would be kingmakers. Not so. They’ve slumped, and Farage himself might not win the seat he’s contesting.Sturgeon was, at the time of the Scottish referendum barely half a year ago, a leading member of the Edinburgh government’s cabinet, taking over from the then First Minister Alex Salmond after last autumn’s independence referendum had been lost. The “Sturgeon Effect” has become, in the past few days, a standard media trope. She’s not standing for election but can’t be ignored; her party is likely to secure a record number of Westminster seats and thus might enjoy massive influence on whatever new administration is formed next Friday morning.
This Nationalist surge is a UK matter. Labour leader Ed Miliband’s attempt to replace Cameron’s Tories in 10 Downing Street won’t come to anything if, as expected, his party faces an electoral wipe-out in Scotland, where it has held sway for decades. It is entirely possible that he will lose every Westminster seat to the SNP, including that of Jim Murphy, the Labour leader in Scotland. Another senior figure who is vulnerable is Douglas Alexander, the UK party’s election strategist, facing an embarrassing loss to a 20 year-old undergraduate Politics student standing for the SNP. If you pull back, take a longer view and look at this historically, you see the electoral annihilation of the Labour party, born in industrial south-central Scotland and accustomed to running much of the nation at local council level while returning a constant majority of Westminster MPs almost as a matter of entitlement. They have now been outflanked on the left by the resurgent Nationalists who have learned how to articulate progressive policies better; they also oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system, a policy that Labour has clung to and might come to regret.
With three days to go, polls suggest another hung London parliament (that is, one where no party wins a majority of seats) and therefore an unprecedented second consecutive coalition might be the outcome. Cameron, mindful of how successful scare tactics were in the referendum, has tried to assert that any Miliband administration would be held hostage by the SNP. Yet Miliband declared unequivocally over the weekend that he would not do a deal with the Nationalists while Sturgeon has repeatedly offered him cooperation in order to “lock David Cameron out of Downing Street.” Don’t miss the irony of the Nationalists installing in Westminster the party they may well replace at home. Canny commentators refuse to rule out another Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. Churchill once observed that democracy was the worst of all possible systems except for all the others; another attempt to construct a Cameron/Clegg pact, as the least worst option, would not altogether surprise this correspondent.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.