By Paul Anderson, PhD Candidate in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University
On Thursday, 5 May 2016, the Scottish electorate went to the polls to elect the fifth Scottish government since the inception of devolution in 1999. The result – the third consecutive victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP), albeit as a minority government – is testament to the transformation of Scottish politics which has taken place in recent years. The SNP has, once again, replaced Scottish Labour as the party of Scotland, with the party’s raison d’être – independence for Scotland – remaining at the forefront of the political agenda.
The Nationalists were, however, not the only party to emerge victorious on election night. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, led by Ruth Davidson, won its best ever result since devolution began, securing enough seats to become the official opposition, and pushing Labour into third place. In addition, the Scottish Green party benefited from the proportional list system, winning 6 seats and replacing the Scottish Liberal Democrats as the fourth largest group in parliament. As aforementioned, the Labour party suffered an electoral drubbing, losing 13 seats, thousands of votes and achieving the worst result in the party’s history since 1910. The LibDems managed to retain its 5 seats, but are now the smallest political party in Holyrood.
Polls predicted early on that the SNP would retain, if not increase, the majority it secured at the 2011 Scottish election. In 2011, the SNP won 69 seats and became the first and only party to ever form a majority government in Scotland. From 1999-2007, a Labour-LibDem coalition governed, and in 2007 the SNP, with 47 MSPs, formed a minority government. Although the SNP were widely expected to obtain a majority, this is an extraordinary difficult tasking owing to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system used in the Scottish Parliament. From the 129 seats in parliament, 73 MSPs are elected on a first-past-the-post system, with the remaining 56 seats coming from the regional lists. The regional vote is the proportional element used to offset the disproportionality of first-past-the-post system and prevent any party, of any colour, from achieving an outright majority. The fact that the SNP failed to do so in 2016 is therefore not unsurprising.
The apparent foregone conclusion of the SNP’s victory, coupled with potential voter fatigue (this was the fourth time the Scottish electorate had gone to the polls since 2014) made for a dull and lacklustre election campaign. The principal issues which dominated debate, including two televised debates with all parliamentary party leaders, were independence and the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT). 2016 will be the first year the Scottish Parliament can alter rates of income tax, a power devolved to the parliament as part of a package of powers in the wake of the independence referendum. Although both Labour and the LibDems proposed raising taxes, primarily to provide extra funds for education, the SNP and Tories campaigned against this. The constitutional issue, despite being less than 18 months since the independence referendum, remained an omnipresent matter – a lucid sign perhaps that the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future is far from settled.
The SNP, despite losing its majority, achieved its highest ever result in the constituency vote (46.5%) and became the first party to ever receive over one million votes in the first-past-the-post system. In addition, the SNP made significant gains in the historic Labour heartlands including Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire (overall winning 11 seats from Labour). Scottish Labour succeeded in getting only 3 MSPs elected in the first vote, but were saved from electoral armageddon by the list vote where they won an additional 21 MSPs. The Conservatives, it would appear, are no longer perceived as the toxic, ‘anti-Scottish’ Tories, winning 31 seats and increasing their share of the vote in both the constituency and regional votes. Much of the Conservative’s success, however, may not be related to the detoxification of the party brand, but a strong electoral campaign which focused on the popular leader, Ruth Davidson, and her ambition not to be first minister, but to lead a strong opposition. The LibDems retained their 5 seats and achieved an almost identical vote share to 2011. The party did however, hold on to its 2 island seats – Orkney and Shetland – with increased, comfortable majorities and gained 2 seats from the SNP. The Greens were the only minor party to achieve an electoral breakthrough, increasing its share of the vote to become the fourth biggest party in the chamber. As for UKIP, despite the party’s promise to ‘shake up Scotland’, the Eurosceptic party received only around 2% of the vote, perhaps a lucid sign of the ‘Europhile’ Scots that many commentators allude to, and a good result for those campaigning for a ‘remain’ vote in the upcoming referendum.
Almost immediately after the election, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ruled out the possibility of a formal coalition with another party. Based on the number of MSPs, she feels it safe to rule as a minority administration, yet seeking consensus and inclusion where possible. This is not the first time the SNP will govern as a minority government. In 2007, the party won 47 MSPs, only one ahead of Labour. In this parliament, the SNP was forced to work closely and make concessions to the Conservatives, LibDems and Greens in order to legislate and pass budgets. This time around the party have 63 MSPs and although it is 2 short of a majority, it will need the assistance of only one opposition party to get its legislation through parliament. The Greens, a similarly pro-independence party, seem the natural ally, although there are significant divisions over issues such as tax and fracking that may affect Green support, or result in SNP policy shifts. How cooperative and inclusive this parliament will be remains to be seen.
Devolution, it is often claimed, is a process not an event, and in the case of Scottish politics it appears to be a process that will continue to evolve in the years to come. The 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections have ushered in a new chapter in Scottish history, yet one in which ‘old’ issues such as independence, will remain important still. As the parliament enters its seventeenth year in operation, the future debates on Scottish politics – policy, style and of course, the constitutional issue – will indisputably make for interesting observation. Devolution has introduced a range of dynamics, puzzles and contradictions into the Scottish political system, and the latest electoral results will ensure, at least for the time being, that Scottish politics will continue to intrigue.