6 months ago - almost to the day - armies of confused, frustrated, kilted scots stood suicidal, wavering precariously on the edge of a cliff. They stared united into the dark, Salmond-shaped abyss of national independence. Mesmerised, the English, the Welsh, and even the Irish observed the sea of Saltires flooding through Glasgow, Edinburgh, and even the Highlands. As the chilling waters of defeat slowly dampened the spirits of the Westminster hierarchy, the most unlikely of alliances was formed to beat back the nationalist offensive. The Three Amigos - Cameron, Clegg and Miliband - were united at last, and the going looked tough for Salmond's weary one-man band.
If the Westminster spin doctors didn't spot the irony of sending Eton Mess, broken promises, and a strange, bacon-munching cartoon character to pacify this raging, anti-elitist political time bomb, they probably should have. Initially, the more Westminster tried to coax Scots back from the dark side of independent rule, the further they slipped into the grubby palms of Alex Salmond. Suddenly, all seemed hopeless again. The polls began to converge, shameless scaremongering was failing miserably, and Alistair Darling found Salmond's unwavering charisma impossible to stomach in the debates. It was make or break time for the No Campaign, and already the cracks were beginning to surface.
Everyone now knows that Scotland bottled it: whether it was Gordon Brown's rhetorical wizardry, a sentimental attachment to their favourable financial arrangements, or the levelled glare of common sense staring them in the face, it was a no for the Yes Camp. Salmond, gracious in defeat, skulked back to his office in Holyrood to prepare his heartfelt resignation - which lasted all of about 2 months - and the political buzz, which had clung to 85% of voting age Scots, slowly began to fade into the past. But it's election time for the rest of us now, and as polling day begins to loom menacingly in the distance, minds are being cast back woefully to the Scottish referendum: when Scotland began to complain about the living arrangements, perhaps we should have shown them the door.
If, which seems likely, a majority is not achieved by either Labour or the Tories, the vultures will come circling: UKIP, currently polling in the region of 15%, the Libdems, lagging behind on 9%, and even the Greens, in the capable hands of the forgetful Nathalie Bennett, all want a slice of the pie. But none of these parties can compete with the SNP: despite flatlining well below 5% in the polls - well behind 5 other parties nationally- they are polled to achieve 50 more seats than UKIP and the Greens combined. Nicola Sturgeon could soon be the king maker.
Members of the SNP are often asked what influence they might have with a strangle hold in the heart of government. 'Holding Labour and Westminster to ransom' is common terminology for what we can expect of them, but it's no wonder. Showing Alex Salmond the way to Westminster is about as constructive as sending UKIP to run the EU. 'Upsetting the apple cart' is how Salmond plans to put the brakes on the evils of Tory austerity, and bring power back to the people of Scotland, but as Britain emerges from a period of economic slump, the 'apple cart' does not need upsetting. Admittedly, the SNP have little reason to play a constructive role in any UK government: successful cooperation within the union is a sure fire way of undermining their entire independence objective. But that is precisely the reason why they should be kept out of Parliament at all costs.
What the Scottish Nationalists could actually achieve is a very grey area: no one is certain what hand they might play in negotiations with the Labour Party, and rhetoric from Nicola Sturgeon in response to questions on the issue suggests she probably isn't sure either. But the British parliamentary system is bound to suffer integrity at the hands of the ruthless SNP. As the First Minister has indicated - though, granted, without a great deal of decision- the nationalists will likely steer clear of any formal coalition. The role of little brother, played by Clegg in this government, has proved disastrous, and is not worth repeating for a cozy office in London as far as Nicola Sturgeon is concerned.
But what coalition has provided us with is stability. It's been a long time in British politics since one of these arrangements; the last was during the heat of WWII: but as far as the nation is concerned, it's been far from a disaster. An 'issue by issue' agreement, however, - one the SNP are hoping to engage in- could be just that. Without a stable government, the leading party has no guaranteed power at all: all legislation relies on the lobbying of external support, and policies are left exposed to damaging, cross-party compromise. As is the case with much of what the SNP espouses to its cheerfully sanguine supporters, there is nothing concrete about an 'issue by issue agreement'. To predict the lifespan span of such an arrangement to be any longer than 2 years would be wilfully optimistic. If 2 years being guided by the SNP hadn't done enough to ruin Britain's economy, the uncertainty surrounding the second general election in as many years would finish the job Salmond and Sturgeon had gleefully started.
There is, however, significant political capital at stake for the SNP. As a Scottish minister recently expressed on the BBC's Question Time, 'the people have not abandoned Labour; Labour have abandoned the people.' Predictably, such shameless political stone throwing was greeted with rapturous applause by the even-handed, objectively minded audience - but there is a serious point too. Sturgeon and Salmond cannot stalk around outside the gates of Westminster, heckling the Labour Party for cozying up to the Tories, and then, having stolen the key to the bedroom, jump in the bed for a three way: to maintain current levels of support, the nationalists will be forced to differentiate themselves from Labour wherever they see fit. But it's worth bearing in mind that the last time the Scottish Nationalists had enough MPs to make a difference - during the Labour government of Jim Callaghan - they did nothing to help Scotland: instead they dug Labour's grave and opened the gates for the Tories' most ruthless Prime Minister . Without the SNP's abandonment of the Labour leadership in a vote of confidence, Margaret Thatcher, nemesis of the Left, would have remained safely in opposition.
If the SNP decide to engage in dodgy dealings with the "Milibandwagon" after the election in May, defence is an inevitable talking point, and, Trident being one of the few policies on which the two parties are categorically opposed, it could prove a painful negotiation. Nicola Sturgeon, who opposes nuclear weapons as a matter of principle, is unlikely to support the immoral stance of the Labour Party, who, being strangely and unreasonably concerned with our national security, are fighting for the renewal of British Trident Missiles. But is the Labour Party really being unreasonable, or might it be the SNP?
We owe the First Minister a degree of sympathy: without the benefit of foresight, she argued passionately on national television, deploring the government's stringent attitude towards the future of our nuclear defence system, but was shot down by the Economist just two weeks later. The front page of this global magazine read plainly: 'The new nuclear age'. Less sympathy is deserved in light of their own military spending agenda. As part of their grand plan for independence, the SNP announced £2.5bn worth of cuts to what would be their defence budget. Given the fact the UK is also reducing its budget for military spending - in real terms at least - this might not sound catastrophic, but as a proportion of GDP, it certainly could be. The Scots, scarcely spending in excess of 1.5% GDP on defence, would risk being shown the door by NATO. A record like that is worth considering when analysing the potential impact of the SNP on our government.
The economy is another inevitable point of debate between the two parties, and once again, perfect alignment is not an option: compromises will be made on both sides of the negotiating table. In the run up to the general election, the SNP have ditched the sound bites of the Yes Campaign in favour of a more universal anti-austerity message. While it's understandable that Salmond and Sturgeon have have done their utmost to replicate the hype of Syriza's anti-austerity movement here in the UK, the future looks ominous for a UK economy in the scheming hands of Alex Salmond.
If, for a moment, we forget what they say, and judge what they do, here is what the SNP have done. Having relentlessly plugged the anti-austerity message in Scotland, forcing the evils of Westminster down the throats of an impressionable electorate, it transpired that actually, the Scots were getting a rather good deal. Every Englishman and Englishwoman received an average of just over £8000 of public money every year, while the average Scot reaped benefits exceeding that about by over £1500 pounds. Strangely, Mr Salmond never mentioned it.
There's also a strong sense of hypocrisy surrounding the accusations that the SNP have continuously levelled at the Tories. In the same year Salmond had continuously lamented the extent to which Cameron and his public school comrades had squeezed the life out of the Scottish budget, the Scottish Parliament themselves achieved the largest underspend on record. Holyrood - and it beggars belief, given the full fiscal autonomy the SNP now demand - failed to allocate over 5% of the education budget, and left almost half a billion pounds (money handed to Holyrood for the operation of Scottish public services) sitting in the bank. Swathes of Scots have flocked into the open arms of the SNP in recent months, disgusted by the grey-suited, budget-slashing busybodies of Westminster. But demands for devolution are tarnished by political insincerity given the SNP have neglected to use their existing powers for tax variation, failed to fully fund their public services, and screwed Labour led councils out of millions, while bank rolling their own.
A final piece of SNP literature that casts ungainly aspersions on their credence as economic policy makers was their white paper - a guide to independence. In it, the SNP recognised significant levels of dependence on oil were a fundamental part of the Scottish economy, but their projections with regard to revenues from oil have been the subject of much scrutiny in the wake of the referendum. £20 bn was forecast in revenues from oil over a 3 year period leading up to 2018, assuming a stable oil price of $110 per barrel. But much to Salmond's dismay, within 6 months of this projection, the oil price have plummeted to below $50 per barrel, and the minds behind the white paper had scurried off with their tails between their legs. The revised projections, with oil prices laying stable at $50 per barrel, predict revenues to fall below £2bn over the same period - less than 10% of the SNP's initial 'hit and hope' figure. It's no wonder that SNP economic policy makes even the big borrowers in the Labour Party look fiscally responsible.
Ultimately, recent Tory propaganda has summarised the reality of the situation. If the tide doesn't turn against the SNP soon, Westminster runs the risk of becoming a puppeteering parliament, with Alex Salmond pulling all the strings. Whether or not the former First Minister has pocketed Ed Miliband is yet to be seen, but if an army of Scottish Nationalists marches down to Westminster on May 7, they might well pocket the United Kingdom.