On April 15th, I wrote a piece here on the Slacktiverse entitled Devolved Theocracy which previewed the Scottish Elections on May 5th. The election is finally over, and the final results are astonishing. I remember thinking at the start of the campaign that maybe the Scottish National Party could get a majority, but when I looked into the number of seats required to achieve that, I dismissed it as fanciful. Yet here we are, with Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond looking forward to a second term as First Minister, this time with just such a majority.
Before we get too far into this piece, here are the final results:
SNP: 69 seats (a gain of 23) - 53 from constituency seats, with a further 16 from the regional lists.
Labour: 37 seats (a loss of 7) - 15 constituency; 22 regional
Conservatives: 15 seats (a loss of 5) - 3 constituency; 12 regional
Liberal Democrats: 5 seats (a loss of 12) - 2 constituency; 3 regional
Greens: 2 regional (a gain of 1)
Independent candidate Margo McDonald won a regional list seat in Lothian, as she did in the previous Parliament. Finally, the Scottish Christian Party crashed, dropping from 31,161 in 2007 to 17,659 today, a fall of nearly 50%. While this will not be the end of the party, I think will be the start of a downward trend for them. Scotland has made a very clear move to the left in this election, and the SCP's Randian economic nonsense and religious hypocrisy have no place here any more.
So, what does this mean for the parties in Scotland?
First and foremost, the Scottish National Party may appear to be in their strongest position in a long time - and to some extent they are. They are the first party to hold an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament (something the voting system was designed to actually prevent) and the number of votes they received gives them a clear mandate to enact their policy platform. However, they could find themselves on a tightrope. Now that they have a majority, the SNP will have no choice but to move forward with their plans for a referendum on independence which they talked about for the length of their first term of government but never actually presented to Parliament.
This will be a problem with the SNP for the simple reason that if they do get to hold a referendum, they will lose it. Many of the votes they gained in this election are not from people seeking independence but rather from people who understood the limitations of the Scottish Parliament and believe that the SNP are the best party to guide Scotland through the next five years, acting as a bulwark against the cuts and other right wing policies of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in Westminster. I believe the SNP's leadership are aware of this, but abandoning such a key policy commitment isn't an option for them either, as their core membership does passionately believe in independence for Scotland. This is what the title of this piece refers to. The Scottish National Party's success was built on a promise that they cannot fulfil without losing the support that brought them this success.
The SNP's best hope is to go ahead with the referendum, lose graciously and hope they can rebuild themselves as a party fighting for Scottish interests within the Union. I think they have realised this, however, as senior party figures (including Deputy Leader Nicola Sturgeon) have been at pains not to name a time for the referendum and even the usually outspoken Alex Salmon has stated that it is up to the Scottish people to decide when we should become independent.
Personally, my answer to the question of "when should Scotland become independent?" is "never". While I would hardly call myself a passionate Unionist, and I do believe that an independent Scotland would survive and perhaps even thrive, I do not see any great benefit to breaking up the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the costs of separating the UK and dividing up its assets would be a long and costly process. Arguments and negotiations would also rage over legal questions regarding the status of people and business currently residing in Scotland, taking up more time and costing more money. It has been reported that Salmond is currently pressing the UK government for more powers to be devolved to Scotland, specifically economic and taxation powers. While I cannot personally support independence, I do believe that a more federal system between the Home Nations would be of great benefit to the whole of Britain. The different parts of the UK have different political traditions - most notably Northern Ireland where none of the major political parties hold any seats, either at Westminster or in their devolved Assembly. Letting issues of local importance be decided locally is a better system, more flexible and more readily adaptable to changing circumstances. Decentralising more power may indeed strengthen the Union when it comes to those issues which do need to be decided on a national level. This is perhaps particularly true in England, which is alone in still having complete control reside in Westminster.
Labour have not only lost a number of seats, but they also lost a number of high profile MSPs, many from their front bench and their leader Iain Gray has announced that he will step down in the autumn. They found themselves profoundly out of step with the mood of the Scottish people, even in their heartland of Glasgow and central Scotland. The main reason for this? Essentially, it comes down to Labour not taking the election seriously enough. To quote BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor
Folk in Scotland understand devolution. They get the concept. But they believed that they were voting in a parliamentary election - a Scottish Parliamentary election. Not a rehearsal, not a dry run.And that is what Labour seemed to treat it as - mere preparation for the next Westminster election, one that we will possibly not even see until 2015. Their national leader Ed Miliband even said as much at the Scottish Party Conference. Further exacerbating their problems, Labour made two serious strategic errors. First, just as the campaign began, they chose to replace a number of their policies with others which closely mirrored what the SNP had promised - most notably on student fees for higher education and council tax. This was widely interpreted as stealing policies from the Nationalists, which obviously did not go over well. Secondly, Labour's campaign was entirely negative, primarily focussing on the 'twin dangers' of cuts by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government in Westminster and the damage done to Scotland by independence if the SNP won a second term.
While these fears are significant for many people in Scotland (particularly regarding cuts in government spending from the UK government, which brings back painful memories of Thatcher for many), the campaign made little effort to explain how voting for Labour would do anything about them, instead relying on Labour's traditional position as the largest party in Scotland to do the work for them. However, the national party's ineffective opposition at Westminster combined with the SNP's promise of a referendum before independence looks to have allayed those fears for many people and may well have even driven many traditional Labour voters to the Nationalists, in the hopes that they would be a more effective bulwark against the Coalition. While the SNP's campaigning has set themselves up to fail in the future, here Labour were undermined in this election by their tactics. Dredging up Thatcher's (metaphorical) ghost certainly scared Scots into voting - but they voted for the SNP, not Labour.
It is hard to see where the Scottish Labour Party goes from here. While leader Iain Gray has announced that he will stand down in the autumn, there are no clear candidates to replace him, as those perceived as being likely replacements prior to the election lost their seats. Much like the Tories at Westminster between their General Election defeat in 1997 and the election of David Cameron in 2005, the Labour Party may have long struggle ahead to regain credibility.
While much has been made of Labour's losses in their traditional Glasgow heartland, it is arguable that the Liberal Democrats who suffered the most damage in the election. They lost almost three-quarters of their seats, and even lost their deposit in a number of constituencies. For those unfamiliar with British politics, it is hard to understate how huge a defeat this is for the Lib Dems. In order to stand for election in the UK, one must put up a deposit of £500, which is returned if the candidate wins over 5% of the vote. For a governing party to fail to do this is simply unheard of. In the Linlithgow constituency, they came ahead of the fascist National Front by only 457 votes. In other constituencies, they polled under 1,000 votes. These kind of numbers are expected of fringe Hard Left groups, not major political parties.
Their leader Tavish Scott has also announced his resignation, but with only four other MSPs to choose from, they too could be struggling to fill this vacancy. Personally, I agree with the assessment of former Liberal Leader Lord David Steel that the massive fall in support is mainly due a the negative reaction to the Westminster Coalition (especially in the left-leaning Scottish Lib Dem base). This will undoubtedly put further strain on the Coalition government, but it is unclear what kind of long term effect this will have on the Liberal Democrats. Much has been made of the SNP capturing constituency seats in the Highlands and Islands, where the Westminster equivalent is held by a senior Liberal Democrat. However, as noted earlier, the Scottish electorate is sophisticated and understands the different roles of the Scottish and National parliaments. The Lib Dems' role in the Coalition may have cost them in this election, but the voters may still prefer to have the Lib Dems acting as some form of brake on the Tories in Westminster, rather than elect the SNP to a Parliament where they will be a small and rather impotent force.
Finally, the Conservative Party also lost some seats and their leader Annabel Goldie has also announced that she will leave the post in the autumn, despite being regarded as having run a good campaign (even with a manifesto that set out plans for cutting spending and re-introducing charges, running counter to every other party in the election and the public mood in Scotland). This has lead to claims that her departure was ordered by Conservative Leader (and Prime Minister) David Cameron, which have been denied by the party. However, the Conservatives find themselves in largely the same position they did in the last Parliament. While they still face a massive uphill battle to return to being a major force in Scottish politics, this election has not really done much to the party either for good or ill.
Overall, this election has been a major shake-up for Scottish politics. Three of the four major parties have seen their leader either quit or announce the time of their resignation. Independence has jumped up the political agenda, and the SNP have already been pushing the UK government to devolve further fiscal powers to Holyrood. However, as noted earlier, there are still many challenges facing the new government, especially with regard to funding their campaign promises and how the SNP administration will react to a likely loss in a referendum on independence. The Nationalists may be popular today, but if they are seen to renege on their major promises (something that they managed to avoid - for the most part - during their first term in office) or descend into in-fighting over the referendum result, their dramatic rise could be followed by an equally dramatic fall. I do not think this is likely though. The SNP government has many talented politicians at its core, and if they can keep their promises as a minority government, surely they can do the same with the majority. I do believe that this will be looked back on in years to come as a major turning point in British as well as Scottish politics, where left wing policies began to seem viable as a strategy for government again and where the decentralisation of power from Westminster again began to pick up steam. However, this may rest on how well the SNP deal with the referendum. Next election, they may well be a lot more careful what they wish for - and indeed, what they campaign on.
BBC News Scotland: 2011 Election Results
Blether with Brian: Shout of joy for the SNP
BBC News Scotland: Scottish Election: As it happened
Scots Tory leader Annabel Goldie not 'forced' to quit
SNP press Cameron on Scotland Bill
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