There's an indisputable fact of political arithmetic that our broadcasters need to be urgently reacquainted with. The SNP are not only the third largest party in the elected chamber of the UK Parliament, they're also an unusually strong third party by historical standards. They have 35 seats at present. Compare that to the Liberal Party, which was of course the third party for almost all of the period from the end of the Second World War until they were merged out of existence in March 1988. During those four-and-a-bit decades, the Liberals never won more than 17 seats in a general election - less than half of the SNP's current tally. Things didn't improve much for the new Liberal Democrat party in the immediate period after the merger with the SDP - they started with 19 seats, and only won 20 in the 1992 general election. They didn't make a significant breakthrough until 1997, when with the help of massive anti-Tory tactical voting they won 46 seats - although even that wasn't dramatically better than what the SNP currently have.
It's true that there was a very brief spell between 1981 and 1983, when - simply because of defections from Labour to the SDP - it can be argued that the third force in British politics was slightly stronger in parliamentary terms than the SNP are now. But in the 1983 election, the vast majority of the defectors lost their seats, and the Liberal-SDP Alliance fell back to a combined total of just 23. That means for fifty of the fifty-two years between 1945 and 1997, the third-largest force in the Commons had fewer seats than the 35 held by the SNP at the moment.
The BBC's Question Time programme has been running since 1979, so it covered the last eighteen of those fifty-two years. Here's the obvious question: how did the show treat the Liberals, the Liberal-SDP Alliance and the Liberal Democrats during the period between 1979 and 1997? Answer: much, much, much, much more favourably than it currently treats the SNP. It's true that there wasn't a Liberal representative on the panel every single week, but there was certainly one on the majority of occasions, and there were long spells where the absence of a Liberal was an exception rather than the norm. To take a random example, let's look at the spring of 1994 - a time when the Liberal Democrats had just 22 seats in the Commons. On 24th March, Liz Lynne was on Question Time. In the next edition on 14th April, Shirley Williams was on. The following week on 21st April, David Alton was on. The week after that on 28th April, Charles Kennedy was on. The next edition was on 12th May, and Menzies Campbell was on the panel. And on and on it went.
By contrast, and despite their 35 seats, the SNP have been included in just TWO of the last TWENTY-TWO editions of the programme. This is in spite of the fact that there are now five spots on the panel every week, rather than the old standard of four. There's actually space for more plurality than there was in the 1980s and 1990s, and yet somehow we end up with less because there simply must be a comedian, journalist or "broadcaster" on the panel, instead of the UK's third-largest political party.
What the BBC are doing is so blatant, it's almost getting to the point of being funny. Almost. How can they possibly justify such an extreme disparity between their current treatment of the SNP, and their treatment of former third parties? They would probably pray in aid the fact that the SNP has a smaller share of the UK popular vote than the Lib Dems did in the early-to-mid 90s. But nevertheless we have the electoral system we do, and you can't just pick and choose when it suits you to acknowledge the result that the system has actually produced. Broadcasters are expected to have regard for both the popular vote and a party's strength in terms of elected representatives. That being the case, if the Lib Dems were on Question Time almost every week when they had 20-odd seats, the most natural compromise would now see the SNP appearing in roughly half of all episodes. Not one episode in every eleven.