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It is hard to believe that only a few months after a referendum that almost created Scottish independence, the break-up of the United Kingdom is back on the political agenda. And all because of the charisma and drive of a young woman from a Scottish council estate in who got into politics on the back of an intense dislike of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But that is the scenario being offered by one of the closest and most interesting UK general elections that we have seen in decades.

After the vote on Scottish self-rule last September, which was defeated by a margin of only 10%, Nicola Sturgeon, the 44 year old woman who is now leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), said that the narrow result had defined the issue ‘for a generation.’ But now Sturgeon herself, pumped up by the rise in support for her party, is calling for the issue to be reopened. And another vote on Scotland will almost certainly be the price she will extract for supporting a Labour party in a new UK government.

Naturally, this is fuelling resentment in the rest of the UK, a resentment that is itself alienating Scottish voters, so next time out we can really expect to see the blue saltire flying over an independent Scotland!

Even as it is, Sturgeon can act as king-maker after the UK elections, with the SNP expected to gain up to 50 seats. By teaming up with Ed Miliband, she can give the UK a Labour-led Government even if the rest of Britain votes overwhelmingly to continue with the current Conservative-led Government, which has rescued the UK’s finances and given it an economic recovery. An untested, old style Labour party could endanger all of that. Meanwhile, Sturgeon is demanding more powers for Scotland, especially over taxes and finance.

Naturally, increasing numbers of English voters are now thinking ‘to hell with this, we want to govern ourselves’. And once the English turn against Scotland, the next Scottish referendum will be a walkover. By which stage, we are looking at the end Great Britain, as we know it, which will of course have major and unsettling implications for Northern Ireland, where the political culture is divided and the peace settlement is always fragile.

There is a glaring paradox here. Scottish nationalists always claimed that it was unfair that people in England could make decisions concerning their welfare, without their consent (the Conservatives has minimal seats in Scotland) but now the Scottish nationalists will make decisions which will affect the rest of Britain – where they have no seats !. But that is the reality of democracy and of the Union, even though a lot of Conservatives do not see it that way. And their blindness plays into the SNPs hands – that the political culture in Britain is dominated by a London metropolitan elite and by an English view of the UK, and of the world.

So let’s break way, argues Sturgeon, and run our affairs ourselves. But in the meantime, let’s prop up a Labour Government, many of whose economic policies we share – even though our electoral success has been completely at labour’s expense.

This is the irony of what has become one of the most unpredictable and fascinating of UK elections. The other irony is that the SNP is boosting its own power and its cause, but actually going into a UK Government. This must be a tempting example for the likes of Sinn Fein which has the very opposite policy, of abstaining from Westminster.

But it is all about the balance of power and in a very likely ‘hung parliament’ where just a few seats are crucial. If Labour and the SNP needed a few more to form a UK coalition, would Sinn Fein not be remiss in not signing up, especially given that such a Government would be a left-leaning one and given that they are already working in a UK Government in the North and accept the Good Friday Agreement? It is a debate which is already happening at the margins of the party.

An absent Sinn Fein will look at the influence that Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will secure if they agree to share up a prospective Conservative government. The DUP could gain measures that would boost their Unionist cause and undo much of what Sinn Fein has gained at Stormont.

As it is, the Tories best chance of retaining power is to get the support of the UK Independence party (UKIP), even though UKIP has stolen its voters, just as the SNP has done with Labour. But UKIP in Government would also have major implications for us here in Ireland, and in Europe. UKIP would make the British Government more Eurosceptic and would increase the actual possible exit of the UK from the European Union altogether. This would create chaos and leave us with a part of the island not in the EU: a disunited Europe instead as well as a disunited UK!

So on one side, you could have the instability of Labour and the SNP (and maybe even Sinn Fein) in Government, while on the other you could have the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP. Never has an election been quite so unpredictable, or indeed so personal, and this has been the key to NicolaSturgeon’s success.

Once the contest became no longer the usual two horse race between two posh men spouting slogans and House of Commons put-downs, it was suddenly opened up to other fresher faces and new voices. By now, the public has somewhat tired of the ordinary bloke image of UKIP leader Nigel Farage with his yellow slacks and his pint of beer, but in the case of Sturgeon, the public saw a smart, sharp, attractive, ‘local girl done good’, and a committed public representative with clarity about her cause and policies.

In the predictable knockabout of the first leaders debate on TV, Sturgeon emerged as a clear winner, along with the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, who also impressed the public.

It was a breakthrough moment for female politicians, although Sturgeon’s popularity began last autumn almost as soon as she took over from the rather dour and aggressive Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP.

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Clearly, the public has wearied of the overly adversarial nature of the existing political debate, with its shrill exchanges, personal attacks and school yard bullying. They also see through the clear attempt at a ‘personality makeovers’ by both Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Despite his fighting talk, Ed Miliband remains nerdish and uninspiring and is a poor imitation of his more charismatic brother David, whom he surprisingly beat in the Labour leadership contest and who has left for New York.

Meanwhile, the ‘big sell’ on ‘Dave’ Cameron is that he is an ordinary middle class guy.  But although he has brought the Tories into the centre ground from its days as the ‘nasty party’ of the Eurosceptic right, Cameron remains hopelessly posh and exuding privilege, as do many of his party including fellow Etonians. The result is that we have two main party leaders that nobody really likes.

By contrast, Sturgeon is a breath of fresh air, an ordinary, spirited outsider and an example to political women everywhere – even if she was inspired to enter politics by the spectre of another great woman, Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, Sturgeon has her inconsistencies. Her family happily bought their council home under the Thatcher’s famous house purchasing scheme – which the SNP subsequently denounced. And although deemed an outsider, she is in fact the ultimate insider: a machine politician who has devoted her adult life to the Scottish Nationalists. So total is Sturgeon’s commitment to the SNP that she quite literally married the party: her 50-year-old husband Peter Murrell is its chief executive (They have no children).

‘Nicola Sturgeon is so trusted and liked at the moment and that she can almost say anything, and people will just nod in agreement,’ according to her biographer, David Torrance ‘People want to believe there’s someone around who is decent, genuine, doesn’t lie, and can lead them out of this awful place of status quo. Because she seems to offer that, people will overlook almost anything.’

Sturgeon is now the most popular party leader in Britain, but her success is not just personal: under her leadership the membership of the SNP has swelled and Scottish independence now looks unassailable. She is the personification of ‘plucky little Scotland’ fighting its corner. Partly it is a matter of style: at 5ft 4in tall, she has, unlike Ed Miliband, succeeded in turning her unconventional appearance into an attribute and even her haircut, compared to ‘early career Rod Stewart’, has become something of a trademark.

And unlike Alex Salmond, she tries to avoid using ministerial limousines and refuses to live in Bute House, the First Minister’s magisterial Georgian residence in Edinburgh. Instead, she travels to the modest suburban house in Glasgow that she and her husband bought for £228,000 in 2006. In the same way that another famous ‘ordinary politician’, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, likes to be photographed shopping in Lidl and Aldi, Nicola Sturgeon makes sure to eat in the Scottish parliament canteen, instead of its posh dining club.

However, over the years, Sturgeon too has had a ‘personality makeover’ to make her more endearing to the voters. Once seen as a bruiser, overly loyal to the party, but chilly, antagonistic, and lacking popular appeal, she now projects a sunny even statesmanlike quality, and her popularity has continued to soar. If opinion polls prove correct, the SNP will become the deal maker in the next British parliament, and their price of shoring up a Labour government will be more powers for Scotland and another referendum on Scottish independence.

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That would, of course, represent a huge political coup – but it would also mean that like her hated Thatcher, who Sturgeon said ‘no one’ in Scotland had voted for, Sturgeon herself (who no one in England will have voted for) would be able to determine the fate of almost 60 million people in the rest of the United Kingdom. It could be the start of the very undoing of that Kingdom, with stunning implications for Ireland and for Europe. But such are the unpredictable effects of democracy and of the passion of a single-minded political career.