Nationalists' challenge to the BBC is anything but debatable

AT A PURELY Scottish level, it is hard to quibble with the assertion made in the Court of Sessionyesterday on behalf of the Scottish National Party that their exclusion from the final prime ministerial TV debate tomorrow was inherently unfair.

The debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have broken the election mould in a way few predicted, in that they have transformed the leader of the Liberal Democrats from also-ran to potential kingmaker in a matter of two weeks.

Yet the attention afforded to these television exchanges has resulted in other parties being marginalised and, if the polls which this newspaper commissioned are right, the SNP has been badly squeezed north of the Border.

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It is therefore understandable, indeed commendable, that the Nationalists should raise the sum of 50,000 to go to the courts to test the intention of the BBC, the UK's state broadcaster, to press ahead with the final, and crucial, pre-election debate.

As a matter of pride, principle and pragmatism, the SNP was honourbound to make the challenge, first to show Scotland that it is still a political force to be reckoned with; second, to seek to establish the position in law; and, third, though it might not admit this, to maintain its profile amid a focus on UK political events.

We will know today how the judge, Lady Smith, views this case, but there are few legal experts who expect her to rule in favour of the Nationalists and, in his heart of hearts, the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, must know this.

For however much he rails against a the British state which he is, of course, committed to breaking up, Mr Salmond must accept that this is a UK election, called to elect a UK government, and that his party, whilst pursuing the perfectly legitimate aim of independence, is not seeking to become the government at Westminster.

Beyond that, there is a further problem, as the SNP is not putting up as many candidates for Westminster as parties such as the Greens, UKIP or even the BNP. Were the Nationalists to win a place at the rostrum, others would have cause to seek to participate.

The three leaders who feature in the debates have more than a theoretical chance of becoming the prime minister of the UK. Not only does Mr Salmond not aspire to such an office, he is not even standing as a candidate for Westminster.

If, as expected, the court does not find in the SNP's favour, the Nationalists' political opponents would be wise not to crow as the SNP's right to be heard in a UK election is a significant issue which will not go away.

But it is just one symptom of a fundamental problem, one highlighted in this space last week. TV has turned what was still technically an election for representatives in a parliament into an outright presidential campaign. Until that colossal constitutional anomaly is rectified, or presidential TV debates are outlawed, the wrangling will go on.