So the SNP have failed in their bid to secure fair representation (or indeed any representation) in tomorrow's final leaders' debate, but if anyone had lingering concerns that the decision to take legal action was a tactical error, I'd suggest the considerable publicity generated over the last thirty-six hours or so ought to dispel them. In a sense what this has all been about is simply reminding people that the SNP do actually exist and are an option in this election - that may sound a silly point, but given the obscene disparity of coverage fuelled by the rigged debates, there are a lot of people for whom the SNP haven't registered on the radar yet. I'm not necessarily suggesting that what has happened will be sufficient to help the Nationalists close the gap that appears to have opened up in the polls with the Liberal Democrats, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's been worth an extra 1% or so in the popular vote. If so, it's been well worthwhile - as the Tesco evil empire would have it, every little helps.
The main reason I always thought it was so important that this matter be tested in court is that the format of the leaders' debates isn't just a one-off issue for this election alone - it sets a precedent for all future Westminster elections. Tragically (and it genuinely is tragic for the democratic process, not just for the SNP and Plaid) that precedent will now stand. Crucially, however, the spurious rationale the broadcasters and London parties have put forward for the debates as constituted will also now stand, and I'd suggest - ironically - that provides the nationalist parties with a considerable opportunity for the next general election, assuming plans are put in place well in advance. Alex Salmond has mused a number of times over the last few weeks that perhaps the SNP and Plaid should put up candidates in England to gain access to the debates - he seemed to be saying it facetiously, but if that really is all that's required, and there are now four or five years to organise things, why not? The main obstacle would of course be financial, but the events of the last few days have shown how generous small donors to the SNP can be when there's the clear incentive of righting the wrong of this democratic outrage.
So how much would it cost to stand in all 632 seats across Great Britain? (Note - it's not necessary to stand in Northern Ireland, as the broadcasters bizarrely seem to regard that as a complete irrelevance to the issue of who qualifies as a 'national UK' party.) Well, the SNP of course already routinely stand in all 59 Scottish constituencies, and Plaid Cymru in the 40 Welsh constituencies. The Cornish party Mebyon Kernow, allied to the SNP and Plaid at European level, would hopefully be keen to join the alliance. That brings us to 104 seats already, leaving 527 to be filled (according to convention the Speaker's constituency can be ignored). It would be ideal if there was a pre-existing English party, however small, to fill the breach, but as far as I can see there isn't one that fits the bill - the English Democrats have sometimes claimed to be an English equivalent to the SNP, but their right-wing chauvinism suggests otherwise. The stunt of standing candidates in Monmouthshire in the Welsh Assembly election (on the pledge to take the county back into England) said it all - can you imagine the reaction if the SNP made an explicit territorial claim on Berwick-upon-Tweed? The EDs are essentially just UKIP draped in a St George's Cross rather than the Union Jack.
So unfortunately it'll be probably be necessary to bite the bullet and put up the remaining candidates independently. To fund the deposits for that would cost £263,500. But if it was possible to raise £50,000 over a day or two, surely it would be eminently achievable to raise five times as much over a four or five-year parliament, especially if donors knew how immense the potential reward was?
Once established as a Great Britain-wide force, this new alliance could then appoint a nominal 'Prime Minister-designate', just as the SDP-Liberal Alliance did in 1983. Realistically this would be either Angus Robertson or Elfyn Llwyd, assuming they were still the Westminster group leaders of their respective parties. At that point, it really becomes very difficult to see how the broadcasters could continue to justify the alliance's exclusion from election debates. They would be standing in as many seats as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and they would have an identifiable leader who would not only have the theoretical capacity to become Prime Minister, but who would also be - in the convenient new jargon - "trying" to do so. Crucially, this alliance would be in a different category to the likes of the Greens and UKIP (although quite honestly I see no reason why those parties shouldn't be involved in the debates either) because, like the Lib Dems, it would have a long, settled history of continuous parliamentary representation. If you look at the SNP and Plaid Cymru in combination, they've had an unbroken presence in the Commons since Gwynfor Evans won the Carmarthen by-election in 1966.
So all that's left is the tricky question of what this new political force should call itself. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have of course been referring to themselves collectively as the 'Celtic Bloc' (perhaps inspired by the Bloc Québécois) but that wouldn't seem quite appropriate for an alliance spanning the whole of Britain. My next thought was 'Nationalist Alliance', which has the beauty of doing exactly what it says on the tin, but of course the word 'nationalist' means different things to different people, and can be easily misconstrued. So perhaps the simplest thing to do is look to the name of the European political family the SNP, Plaid and Mebyon Kernow are already part of. Time for a UK 'Free Alliance' to step forward?