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Democracy in the UK #2: Who's afraid of the SNP?

Tony Crook was an MP for three years. He didn't do much in that time, and is mostly significant for what happened immediately after he was elected in 2010, during negotiations over who would form government in a hung parliament. Crook was a member of the Western Australian National Party - their only MP - and he became notable for insisting that, although he had been elected on an ideological platform basically the same as the Nationals in the rest of the country, as a West Australian National he wouldn't be joining the Nationals partyroom nor, necessarily, supporting the Liberal-National coalition to form a government.

Crook became pretty insignificant pretty quickly. But in the upcoming UK election, the odd spectacle of a previously unimportant regional difference driving a wedge between two ideologically very closely related parliamentary blocs is rearing its hard in a much bigger form: the Scottish National Party.

The SNP is perhaps slightly further left than the Labour Party, but you could argue about that. The main difference is that the SNP wants Scotland to be an independent country and in the meantime to get as close to full autonomy from the national Parliament as possible. They form the devolved government in the Scottish Parliament, but haven't won much representation in the national Parliament at Westminster. But after losing the independence referendum last year, the SNP has had a huge surge in support, and it's making British politics go haywire.

Here's the history. Starting in the late 1960s, the Scottish Conservative Party entered a more or less terminal decline, sinking to 10 (of then 72) Scottish seats in 1987, being wiped out altogether in 1997, and holding one of 59 in the current Parliament. The flipside of that is that the Labour Party has been able to rely on a bloc of at least 40-50 Scottish MPs (depending on the fortunes of the third party, the Liberal Democrats) for nearly three decades.

That didn't always matter - the Conservatives held government until 1997 anyway, and for a while after that the Labour landslides were overwhelming across the country. But from 2005 to 2010, Labour's 40 Scottish MPs contributed handily to a majority of 66. (I can't find a source for this right now, but vaguely recall that the Scottish members swung the result of some foreign policy votes in this period.)

That gets us back to today. The SNP, despite a clear No vote in the independence referendum it forced last year, has been growing incredibly: its party membership has quadrupled and, more importantly, polling suggests that they're going to sweep more than 50 of Scotland's 59 seats. That heist of the traditional Labour bloc, along with other, not well understood factors, means that there's no way Labour will win a majority in the May election.

So, naturally enough, there's been some discussion of whether a Labour/SNP alliance or coalition might form the government. To me, that seems obvious. The parties are ideologically extremely similar; the SNP's support is coming from voters who have voted solidly Labour for forty years; the Tories are toxic, and a non-entity, in Scotland. Any suggestion that it would make political sense, let alone be the right or appropriate thing to do, for the SNP to refuse to back Labour and allow a Conservative government to form, seems absurd.

But British politics doesn't really do coalitions - the current one government is the first one for a long time, and neither of the parties in it are especially happy with how it's played out. Add in that the SNP's distinctive commitment is to secession of part of the country, and the country is losing the plot over the prospect of them holding the balance of power. This week, for instance, it's been branded "sinister" for the ex-leader of the SNP to declare that his party wouldn't support a Conservative minority government in a confidence vote. Just what's so sinister about a left-wing party voting against the establishment of a right-wing government is left unsaid. Ads like this are being run, and David Cameron seems to answer every parliamentary question from the Labour Party by accusing their leader, Ed Miliband, of being a lapdog of the SNP. And it's working - Labour have repeatedly ruled out forming a coalition or giving any ministerial roles to the nationalists, and are fighting hard to demonise them and stem the flow of votes in Scotland. (It's still a strong possibility that Labour will form a minority government with SNP support on confidence and supply votes.)

It's all very confusing, especially given that the SNP's popularity explosion came after losing the independence referendum - so many of its new voters aren't interested in independence. That minimises the one potentially good reason for Labour to avoid allying with an ideological stablemate - that they're set on breaking up the country. But Britain still doesn't see it that way. And in an election campaign where it's still exceedingly unlikely that either Labour or the Tories will be able to govern in their own right, that - mildly perplexing as it is - matters.