“The SNP has won an historic third term in the Scottish Parliament with 63 MSPs, over a million votes in Scotland’s constituencies – a first – and the highest share of the constituency vote ever achieved” - SNP Press ReleaseOf course there have only ever been five Holyrood elections, so the SNP’s achievement is “historic” and their constituency vote share the highest “ever achieved” only in the context of a rather short period of time, but nevertheless the statement accurately describes how the SNP have cemented their position as the dominant party in Scottish politics. But politics is all about the narrative, all about momentum and the direction of travel and (whisper it) the SNP are moving backwards.
Having 63 MSPs represents a loss of 6 SNP MSPs since 2011 and means they no longer command an overall majority at Holyrood. Coming within just 2 seats of retaining a majority in a voting system which is specifically designed to avoid that outcome is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, but it is also undeniably a step backwards.
Over 1 million constituency votes is a good headline number, but let’s not forget that it would have taken over 1.8 million votes for Yes to have won the independence referendum.
The SNP’s 46.5% constituency vote share was marginally up from the 45.4% they achieved in 2011 and compares extremely favourably with the 36.9% share with which the Conservatives won the UK general election. But you’d need to have been living in an isolation chamber for the last 3 months not to be aware of the “both votes SNP” campaign which focused on ensuring their supporters voted SNP on both constituency and regional ballot papers. Despite this, their share of the regional vote actually declined from 44.0% to 41.7%.
Add together the constituency and regional votes and the SNP’s combined vote share fell from 44.7% to 44.1%.
So the SNP achieved a thumping victory - but compared to 2011 they received a lower vote share, won fewer seats and lost their parliamentary majority. They can spin their “historic” victory as much as they like, but it is an observation of objective fact that the SNP are in a weaker position now than they were in 2011 prior to the independence referendum campaign.
As for the opposition, the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party saw a spectacular surge in their support while Scottish Labour took a pasting. This has gifted the SNP an explicitly unionist opposition who have to defend the current UK government’s record. It will now be easier than ever for the SNP to deflect attention away from their own record in office by rerunning tired independence referendum arguments and training their fire on the Tories.
Among the also-rans, the Greens passed the Lib Dems who effectively stood still. Some Nationalists argue that if you include the 6 Green MSPs you can say that “independence supporting parties” hold a majority at Holyrood. The problem with this argument is that every SNP or Green vote is not a vote for independence and that these parties combined still hold two less seats than they did in 2011 - so even on this measure support for independence has declined below 2011 levels.
So what does this mean for the prospects of a second independence referendum? Scots voted No to independence when presented with a case that assumed we’d benefit from £6.8 - 7.9billion a year of oil revenues. It’s now clear that the true figure is in fact going to be close to zero for the foreseeable future. That’s a difference between what the Yes campaign claimed and the inconvenient reality of around £1,500 per year for every man woman and child in Scotland. This is before we even start considering issues like what currency we’d use, what would happen to our EU membership terms and other costs of separation. The base from which the SNP have to argue we’d build following separation from the rest of the UK is far worse than they previously assumed. The economic case for independence lies in tatters and Nicola Sturgeon knows it.
The problem for the SNP is that they’re a one-trick pony. Their electoral success shows that it’s been a very good trick, but if you try to repeat any trick too often people eventually work out how it’s done and the magic is ruined. This particular trick only works if you have a credible economic case for independence, and that simply doesn’t exist.
In response to this problem Nicola Sturgeon has said the SNP will:
“undertake new work, starting this summer, with the aim of persuading a clear majority of people in Scotland that independence is the best future for our country”.It's a shame that our First Minister isn't able to even consider the possibility that separation from the UK (like separation from the EU) may not in fact represent the best future for Scotland.
We can only live in hope that, despite their obsession with rerunning arguments they’ve already lost, our newly elected Scottish government finds time to use their extensive powers to improve the lot of those for whom they’re meant to be governing.
This article appeared in the Daily Record on May 14, 2016