Scotland: Separatists Stall While Unionists Shift to the Right

While nationalists registered a slight decline in votes, the Conservatives achieved a historical breakthrough and the Labour Party suffered a humiliating defeat in a country that has long been its stronghold.

It was Scotland that provided the biggest plot twist of the ‘Super Thursday’ elections held on 5th May 2016, when the British public went to the polls to elect their regional assemblies and a third of their local councils. As expected, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) swept the competition aside, but their victory was less resounding than they had hoped, winning 63 seats out of 129. The party, which had seemed unstoppable since gaining power in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, saw its momentum come to a juddering halt, losing six seats. This drop in votes worked in the favour of another pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens (a party further to the left of the SNP) who, with six elected members (+4), have now overtaken the Liberal Democrats, who won five seats (=).
However, the biggest surprise of the night was the Scottish Conservatives. Traditionally widely rejected in this former working-class stronghold scarred by Thatcherism, the Tories achieved an extraordinary breakthrough, winning 31 seats (+16) – an achievement not seen since a devolved Scotland held its first autonomous elections in 1999. This highly symbolic result relegated the Scottish Labour Party to third place with 24 seats (-13 seats) and, with less than 19.1% of the regional vote1, delivered its worst electoral defeat since 1910.

The Labour Party: caught in a bind

The Labour Party’s dismal results can be seen as surprising given their good performance in other elections held on the same day. In fact, it provides us with further evidence that Scotland plays its own political game and follows its own rules. In this particular case, these results mark the end of a long downward spiral for the Labour Party. Previously uncontested north of Hadrian’s Wall, it has progressively alienated an electorate that never accepted the neoliberal shift the party took as instigated by Tony Blair. This mostly benefited the SNP which, armed with a left-wing narrative, was already trying to turn people’s socioeconomic frustrations into support for its vision for independence. 
This disenchantment reached its peak during the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum campaign. Leading the pro-UK movement, and joining forces with Mr Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition for the campaign, the Labour Party’s ties with the Westminster establishment seemed to be more apparent than ever. The people’s verdict was clear during the Labour Party’s collapse in the 2015 British general elections, where it lost 40 of the 41 seats it held in Scotland, again to the SNP.
Although the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in September 2015 signalled a departure from New Labour, the change came too late to reverse the downward trend in Scotland: left-wing voters had already shifted to the pro-independence party. Moreover, the rewriting alone of a genuine left-wing policy statement would not be enough to reverse the trend in a political context which is now strongly polarised around Scotland’s national identity. This explains, in particular, the defeat suffered by local Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, whose anti-austerity message cannot conceal the fact that she has trouble explaining why the Labour Party wants to remain within the United Kingdom.
By contrast, this new central stance with regard to institutional powers was seamlessly adopted by the Tory party leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson. By holding out a hand to unionists of all persuasions, this charismatic politician was able to benefit from constituents voting tactically. She also managed to coalesce voters who identify as British around a centre-right set of policies, relentlessly tightening the stranglehold which the SNP already had over Scottish Labour.
The Conservatives’ results in rural constituencies without a strong historical labour tradition also demonstrate their capacity to appeal to those unimpressed by the SNP. In addition, the increase in voter turnout from 50.4% to 55.6% implies that Davidson managed to mobilise those conservative voters who, until that point, had refrained from voting.

A pro-independence status quo

Although the unionist camp has, until now, been embodied by the Labour party, it is now shifting to the right. During the 2014 referendum there were already signs of an institutional divide and a growing animosity between the left and the right, which has only intensified since. Moreover, the balance of power between those for and against remaining within the UK has hardly changed. Of course, the secessionists (Scottish Greens and the SNP) hold a slight majority in the Scottish parliament, but if they combined their seats with those held by smaller extra-parliamentary left-wing radical pro-independence groups Solidarity and RISE, their overall share would still only amount to 49.4% of regional votes, compared with 49.2% won by the main pro-union parties.
Faced with such divided public opinion, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s medium-term plan to consult the public once more on the country’s future institutional framework seems to be in jeopardy. At present, only the proposition of Scotland, a traditionally Europhile nation, being forced to leave the union should Britain vote to leave the EU in the referendum being held on 23 June would allow the nationalists to follow through on their plans. Even if this does occur, a favourable outcome for those hoping for a revival of the independence process cannot be guaranteed: indeed, the argument that the extraction of North Sea oil would ensure the new state’s financial viability unravelled when the price of oil plummeted, denting the credibility of the independence movement.

The limits of the SNP strategy

These elections have revealed certain limits to the strategy the SNP has spent years developing. With their brand of inclusive civic nationalism, the party has, until now, benefited from focusing on the bitterness felt towards the Conservative party and the neoliberal options being offered by Westminster, which are perceived as an obstacle to the Scottish nation’s right to self-governance. Indeed, the SNP has never been in a stronger position than it has since the Tories regained power in the UK national parliament in 2010.
As well-established as this dynamic may be, it is starting to show signs of breaking down. The ‘politics of grievance’, which consist of criticising the central powers for every problem encountered by the regional government, are becoming less and less effective when you consider the fact that key additional powers were devolved to the Scottish parliament in 2014. The discrepancy between a left-wing message and political practices that are distinctly more centrist is now much more visible. Thus, Nicola Sturgeon’s refusal to introduce a new 50p rate of income tax starting next year was strongly criticised, not just by Labour and the Green Party, but also by the Liberal Democrats.
Although they now have the Tories snapping at their heels to their right, the nationalist party would be foolish to take its progressive electorate for granted. In this respect, the Green Party’s results should serve as a wake-up call to the SNP: every attempt to overlook social issues in favour of engaging in an institutional power struggle could, at the party’s expense, potentially open a window of opportunity for voices to their left.

  1. The mixed electoral system for these parliamentary elections gives two votes to each voter. 73 constituency MPs are elected on the basis of a simple majority vote (‘constituency vote’) and the 56 other MPs are appointed based on a proportional representation ballot list (‘regional vote’). While the first election demonstrates each party’s foothold in the region, the second is more representative of the balance of political powers in the country.