SNP's Nicola Sturgeon steals the show.

Source: Handout/Getty Images

The Future of British Politics Is Scottish

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Last night's televised parliamentary election debate was a taste of British politics to come. Seven parties, no less, were in contention: the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the U.K. Independence Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) and the Greens. It sounds like a mess, and it was.

The complicated fast-paced format allowed no real engagement and shed no light on the parties' respective policy positions. Then again, those positions won't matter all that much if no party succeeds in winning a majority of the 650 seats up for grabs on May 7. And, at the moment, that's the most likely outcome. After the elections, deals of one kind or another will have to be cut, and the outcome for policy is anybody's guess.

Britain's Multiparty Politics 

One thing did emerge more clearly than before: The Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who is Scotland's first minister and isn't even running for a Westminster seat, has a future in English politics. She was impressive -- open, relaxed, refreshingly straightforward. You almost wondered whether her party should be fielding candidates down south.

On the face of it, a platform based on denouncing English perfidy and calling for the break-up of the U.K. might struggle to gather support outside Scotland. But you never know. Sturgeon said she comes in friendship, won't pretend that her goal isn't Scottish independence, and in the meantime would support the kind of tax-and-spend policies that Labour used to stand for but no longer does. The Scots lap this up and a lot of other Brits listen wistfully.  

Her appeal was captured by one of the instant post-debate polls. According to YouGov, 28 percent said Sturgeon had won. Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigrant UKIP, came second with 20 percent, Prime Minister David Cameron was third with 18 percent and Labour leader Ed Miliband followed with 15 percent. Another poll said the four were more or less in a tie, and yet another put Miliband and Cameron on top. But  I'm with YouGov. If you ask me, it was Sturgeon followed by Farage.

Granted, the seven-way format gave outliers an edge by putting them on equal terms with leaders of the two main parties. Yet that didn't help the leaders of the Greens or Plaid Cymru -- or poor Nick Clegg, for that matter, the exhaustingly emphatic leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Sturgeon and Farage, whose policies collapse under semi-serious scrutiny, had the further advantage of being nobody's chief target. Miliband and Cameron were mostly interested in attacking each other, with only the occasional swipe at the SNP and UKIP. Sturgeon and Farage impressed mainly because they're offering something simple (better and cheaper public services at somebody else's expense; turning back the immigrant invasion) and because they are good at popular politics. Miliband and Cameron are offering something complicated and are dull.

The SNP, despite its defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence last year, stands poised to destroy Labour's traditional dominance of Scottish politics. It expects to send a lot of MPs to Westminster, and Sturgeon will be a powerful voice. Labour may need her support to form a government. UKIP's electoral impact will be smaller because its vote is more dispersed. Its role, as Cameron said twice last night, could be to draw support from Tory candidates and put Labour backed by the SNP in power.

Up to now, Cameron has been able to scare English voters with the prospect of the SNP sharing power. The better Sturgeon looks, the less effective that line becomes. Intent as she may be on destroying Labour in Scotland, last night she did Labour in England quite a favor. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net