Mark Stuart: Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP surge puts UK in danger zone

THE Daily Mail has dubbed her “The most dangerous woman in Britain”, while opinion polls show her basking in the highest approval rating of any of Britain’s party leaders.

I refer, of course, to the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon whose public profile has soared following the seven-way TV election debate earlier this month – and Thursday night’s exchanges between the main opposition leaders.But is the Daily Mail right? Is Sturgeon dangerous, and if so to whom?

Projected to gain anything from 35 to 55 seats in Scotland, it looks mathematically possible that the SNP could end up holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament at Westminster. There is every possibility that they will have more MPs than Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems.

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However, there will be no formal coalition between the SNP and Labour. Although close together in terms of their beliefs, they hate one another. Instead, they would co-operate on a vote-by-vote basis in order to stop the Conservatives forming a Government.

The idea of the second largest party – Labour – forming a Government might appear to some as dangerous in terms of legitimacy, but such a scenario has happened once before.

After the inconclusive 1924 election, the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, tried to put forward a King’s Speech but was voted down. Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald then formed a minority government, seeking support from Lloyd George’s Liberals on a case-by-case basis.

The Conservatives claim that because he would be unable to command a majority, Ed Miliband would have to “dance to the SNP’s jig.”

If that meant finding common cause 
on a living wage, protecting the NHS and tackling inequality, then Miliband and Sturgeon would be perfectly happy.

But what about the potential danger to the defence of the realm?

Sturgeon’s party is firmly anti-nuclear, but post-election, well over 500 MPs (principally Conservative and Labour) would support the like-for-like replacement of Trident if it came to a vote in the House of Commons. The SNP would join a ragbag of Labour pacifists, Welsh nationalists and Greens in the “no” camp. The vote in favour of Trident would therefore be carried by a massive margin.

Another danger for English voters might be the perception that two high-spending parties are on the verge of getting into bed together, wrecking the economic recovery that is taking place.

Worse still might be the prospect of large quantities of extra public spending going North of the Border, while the North of England is starved of funding.

But if we take Sturgeon at her word, she wishes to abandon the costly Barnett Formula which featherbeds the Scots, preferring full control over tax and spending, known as fiscal autonomy. My view is let her have it.

If anything, the greatest danger for Sturgeon lies in her own backyard. She is a self-confessed radical left-winger, once describing herself as a “child of the Thatcher years”, and her political views were forged in the deindustrialisation of 1980s Scotland.

Her support base is in radical Glasgow, which voted “Yes” in last September’s referendum. Yet her predecessor, Alex Salmond, was far more pragmatic, taking the New Labour approach of courting business interests through cuts in corporation tax. His support base was in the North-East of Scotland, full of so-called “Tartan Tories”, former Conservatives who now support the SNP.

Is Sturgeon in danger of taking such a left-wing stance that SNP supporters further north might desert her party? If so, it opens up the possibility in the future of tactical voting by Conservatives to keep the SNP out.

A further danger may lie in their long-term goal of independence.

Here we need to understand what makes the new SNP leader tick. She is by nature cautious and calculating. Knowing that Scotland would vote “no” once again if a referendum was held next month, her strategy is to wait until 2017, hoping for an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in which England votes to come out, but Scotland votes to stay in. If that were to happen, calls for another Scottish referendum would be unstoppable. That is why in her heart of hearts she would prefer David Cameron to win again in 2015.

But the greatest danger presented by the SNP is to our representative system of democracy. The 2012-2014 Scottish referendum campaign had the unintended effect of politicising 45 per cent of Scots. Having lost, they want payback by voting SNP.

Imagine if we agreed to a two-year in-out EU referendum campaign. We would be giving the English nationalists represented by Nigel Farage’s Ukip a cause to believe in. And even after a likely no vote in which Britain opted narrowly to remain in the European Union, we would be left with a large minority of politicised English nationalists. The Balkanisation of British politics would be complete.

Mark Stuart is a political academic from York who has written biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.