Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Time to call the London establishment's bluff with a UK 'Free Alliance'?

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?


  1. Wouldn't matter even if they did form such an alliance James. There is no clear rule for inclusion in the whatever-we-need-them-to-be-called debates. In reality the rule is whatever criteria give us Labour, Tory and Lib Dem and noone else. Sadly the SNP and PC are in a Graeme Obree type situation: no matter what they do they will fall foul of rules that will be amended to thwart them.

  2. The text of the court judgment is here.

    I'll have to read throught it more carefully but there are some points which stand out.

    The judge thinks the BBC coverage has been and will be impartial [37]

    The fact the SNP delayed their court action counts against them and they should have started court action as soon as possible after 21 Dec. when the decision to go ahead with the debates was made. [39]

    It would be bad form to stop the third debate when everyone is waiting to see it [40]

    The SNP weren't precise enough about what they wanted in the third debate. They didn't specify if they wanted a Westminster MP or someone else or whether they wanted someone on the platform or a spot after the debate or even what they meant by, "equal terms". It would confuse the BBC if an interdict was granted. [43]

    I said before in a comment on this blog that the the SNP made a strategic mistake with the debates by not going to court at the start to try and stop them. I hope they don't make the same mistake again.

  3. Yes, Doug, with the benefit of hindsight you were clearly right. It's striking that three out of four of those points can be regarded as technicalities, ie. they refer to deficiencies in the way the legal action was brought, rather than to the central issue.

  4. James:
    You're right. Para [37] is the only one that really counts. The rest is all legal wafflese to fill the judgment.

    Para. [37] is the killer. The SNP's case is that the BBC is not impartial so there should be a judicial review of their decision to exclude the SNP but since the judge thinks that the BBC are impartial the whole case stops there. That's the paragraph that stopped the SNP case in its tracks.

    It's worth having a look at the rest though.

    Para [39] is a strange one. I always thought that judges didn't like being used as a first resort and anyone should try to negotiate a settlement outside court before going legal. Not in the opinion of this judge and she also also regards the debates as a package not as a single case against the BBC after weeks of negotiation.
    "There is no satisfactory explanation advanced as to why the petitioners did not take action prior to the first debate".
    The first debate was by ITV not the BBC. What this says is that the fact the SNP tried to negotiate with the BBC rather than going to court in December counts against them.

    She also seems to regard the fact that the first two debates have already damaged the SNP as a reason not to stop the third because interdicts are to stop damage occurring. That bit's not very clear to me. Again she seems to be taking the debates as a package not on an individual basis as the SNP case is that the BBC debate will cause further damage.

    para [40] again regards the debates as a package. The worry is not that the SNP are being unfairly treated, because she's already decided they're not in para [37], but that the rest of the UK will not get their third debate.

    She's got a bio on Wikipedia.

  5. In other European states there is a precedent of what you describe.

    Take for example the federation Regions et Peuples Solidaires in France:

    Even if not successful in gaining more airtime I still think the SNP, Plaid and Mebyon Kernow plus progressive Eng Nats (or regionslists?) should work far more closely together, but being on the slowest boat in the convoy Cornish nationalism, as once described by a Scot Nat, I would say that.