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Society, Politics & Law

The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum - Consequences for the main Scottish political parties

Updated Monday 2nd March 2015

Here we consider the consequences of the Independence Referendum for the four main political parties.

Vote no politicians standing outside Big Ben Creative commons image Icon DUP photos under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license under Creative-Commons license DUP MPs are joined by Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Independent MPs outside Parliament.
 
One doesn’t have to look far in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum to find claims that Labour won the Referendum battle – but lost the war. Rarely have the fortunes of the winners and losers been turned on their heads so much as in the period following the Scottish Independence Referendum. The losers – not least the SNP – appear to have been the victors – and at times act as such – while the main winners, the Scottish Labour Party – seem to be in disarray. 
 
Here we consider the consequences of the Independence Referendum for the four main political parties – SNP, Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Note by main political parties were include the SNP – Scotland’s governing party, once again highlighting that the political landscape of Scotland is very different from other parts of the UK, and in particular when contrasted with England. We also focus on what has happened to the large non-SNP or Scottish nationalist segments of the YES campaign. 
 

The Independence Referendum Result: Consequences for the SNP

Where does the SNP stand in the aftermath of its Referendum defeat? It would have been reasonable to assume that the Party would have been broken by the outcome of the Referendum, its historic goal seemingly put off - for at least a generation! SNP leader and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, announced his resignation from both positions in the days that followed September 18 – and he also announced plans to stand for the SNP in the 2014 UK General Elections.  A new leader in the shape of then Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was duly elected with overwhelming support from SNP politicians and members.
 
Far from being defeated, in the weeks and months that followed the Referendum, the SNP increasingly took on the mantle of a party that has just won a great victory.
 
Within three weeks of the Referendum Poll, the SNP had attracted over 45,000 new members, more than doubling in size and bringing the membership up to over 70,000, making it the third largest political party in the entire UK, eclipsing the Liberal Democrats. By early November, SNP membership had risen to over 85,000, reaching 90,000 members by the close of 2014.
 
Arguably its standing has never been higher. An opinion poll at the end of October by Ipsos MORI on 2015 UK General Election voting intentions had the SNP on 52%, with a 29% gap over Labour on 23%, Conservatives on 10% and Greens and Liberal Democrats on 6% each.
 
Further polls at the end of 2014 continue to show that the SNPs support has continued to consolidate. 60% of Scottish voters believe that the higher the number of SNP MPs, the better the deal for Scotland, including additional powers that go beyond the Smith Commission recommendations for additional devolved powers for Scotland
 
SNP support in December 2014 was at 43% (more than double what it got in the 2010 General Election), while Labour sits on 26%. The 2010 UK Government parties, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats score just 13% and 6% respectively.
 
A spate of other polls in the first two to three months of 2015 confirmed that the SNP surge was  appearing to stabilise. See links below: 
 
 
The SNP are riding high then opinion polls and it is a strong possibility that not only will they emerge post 2015 General Election as the party with most Scottish MPs, but will possibly be in a position to hold the balance of power in what is shaping up to be a hung UK Parliament.
 
However, there were a number of issues for the SNP to contend with in the aftermath of September 18. Initial demands after the Referendum for it to enter into a ‘Pan-YES Alliance’ were subsequently rejected but there is still some talk, though not from the SNP, an informal alliance between the SNP and other pro-Independence supporters for the 2015 General Election, with the Labour Party in particular being targeted. 
 
However, the Scottish Referendum results also provided some important wake-up calls for the SNP leadership. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend that 14% of the core SNP opted to support the NO to Independence position and to reject the historic goal of the Party, Scottish Independence. These voters had voted SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliament Elections. So how is this shift to be explained? 
 
Once more there are a mix of factors are at play here. Perhaps some Labour supporters who voted SNP in the 2011 Scottish Elections were now returning to a Labour/NO stance and saw the possible break-up of the UK as being too radical. Religion may have played a factor in places such as the Western Isles, which historically had been pro-SNP. In North-East Scotland, in Moray and in rural Aberdeenshire, often termed Alex Salmond’s ‘backyard’, there was a NO vote. Much of the SNP vote here in what are generally rural constituencies is centred upon conservative (with a small ‘c’) farming and fishing communities (and the Tories have historically fared well in some of these areas, at least by comparison with their own poor Scottish performances, prior that is to the rise of the SNP).
 
The message of social justice, equality, fighting cuts and against privatisation and so on perhaps did not play as well here as well as in other parts of Scotland, such as the West of Scotland. It also seems that while people were prepared to vote for the SNP to defend Scotland’s interests within a UK context, breaking with that Union was seen by some as a step to far. Further, in Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire, there is considerable employment in oil and gas industries and the threat of the oil companies relocating was a major factor in persuading people to vote NO (and the collapse in the price of oil in the first half of 2015 has been used by the Labour Party and other NO campaigners to suggest that Scotland was right to vote NO given the volatility of the oil industry).
 
Moray and rural Aberdeenshire have also seen considerable in-migration of people from England in recent times, buying up relatively cheap farmland and housing in small communities. Overwhelmingly and perhaps not surprisingly English incomers voted NO – though groups such as English Scots For Yes were instrumental in drumming up support among English voters for Independence and showing that among this group yet again voting was far from homogenous.
 

Scottish nationalism: Unified or divided? 

We are reminded by this that the SNP has always been a very different party in different places across Scotland. In areas such as largely rural North East Scotland, for instance, a more conservative message has been successful in securing support. However, in Glasgow and West Central Scotland – where it has long struggled against Labour’s dominance – there is a need to outflank Labour on the left and to appear much more radical. The influx of new members has largely come from parts of Scotland where the SNP has traditionally struggled or had only partial and temporary gains. That the membership has quadrupled means that many of these new members may be coming from political traditions that are much more radical and to the far left – beyond the historically rather conservative and bland nationalism of the SNP. This may see it diluting some of its long held and cherished standpoints and being shifted much further to the left than perhaps some of its more traditional voting base would be comfortable with. The majority of these new members joined in the aftermath of the Referendum – which was characterised by a volatile air of political debate and discussion. Whether it can hold onto this increased membership in the more mundane periods of council politics remains to be seen.
 
That the SNP in Government has been introducing cuts to services and otherwise implementing austerity measures, despite rhetoric to the contrary or amidst claims that the UK Government is to blame. That it is committed to economic growth and to a competitive and efficient Scotland that is 'open for business' signals that the Party has been comfortable with neoliberal policy making with vague notions of social justice and fairness tagged onto what is little other than a market-driven vision of Scotland's economic future.
 
However, the SNP vote in the West of Scotland – in Labour heartlands - is now also consolidating. There have been some claims that the vision of independence on offer from the SNP leadership in particular was not radical enough – given its commitment to maintaining the pound sterling, keeping the monarchy as head of state, remaining within NATO and so on. Republican elements among the SNPs wider support may have been disaffected by such. But the SNP leadership’s aim was to make Independence palatable to as large a section of the Scottish population as possible, hoping to minimise the fears of massive change bringing widespread uncertainty, even if considerable uncertainty is now what shapes the post-Referendum political climate.
 
It has a new leadership with Nicola Sturgeon now First Minister and Party leader. She is from Glasgow and is an MSP in a Glasgow constituency and is considered to be further to the left than her predecessor Alex Salmond.  On assuming leadership she embarked on a tour of Scotland closing with a rally of some 12,000 SNP members in Glasgow on November 22. Once more we need to be reminded that the SNP did not emerge from the Scottish Independence Referendum victorious when its post-Referendum activities and pronouncements seemed to reflect that it had been successful.
 

The Independence Referendum Result: Consequences for the Labour Party

For the two main Scottish Political Parties, Labour and SNP, there appear to be sharply contrasting political fortunes from the Independence Referendum. Labour appear victorious, but is it a pyrrhic victory? Around 35% of Labour voters voted YES and it clear that it has lost a lot of support in the poorer areas, mainly in its West of Scotland heathlands. Labour has traditionally relied heavily on Scotland to help it to become the party of government in Westminster.
 
While it could manage this without Scotland, it would be a much more difficult undertaking. At the 2010 General Election, in marked contrast to the rest of the UK, it increased its share of the vote in Scotland and returned 41 MPs from the 59 elected from Scotland. By contrast the SNP performed poorly with only 6 seats, behind the Liberal Democrats on 11 but well ahead of the Conservatives who managed to hold on to their one Scottish seat.
 
Since the Scottish Referendum, Labour has lost members to the SNP and there is huge irony in that in saving the Union, and therefore enhancing its chances of winning the 2015 General Election by keeping Scotland in the UK, at the same time it might have irrevocably damaged its position in those very heartlands, in turn eroding its chances in 2015. So the Independence Referendum outcome can be seen as having sharply contradicting longer term implications for the Labour Party. 
 
The sight of Labour Party politicians sharing platforms with Conservatives and celebrating victory along with Conservatives will not be forgotten by many traditional Labour Party supporters or in the wider labour movement in Scotland. The damage that this will have caused will be long lasting. The general view is that Labour is in real trouble in Scotland, facing a crisis it has not experienced since the 1950s, a crisis now also acknowledged by the new Scottish Labour leadership of Jum Murphy MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP. 
 
It is now widely comented that Labour in Scotland won the Referendum but has ended-up on the losing side. Its Scottish leadership resigned in October 2014 amidst claims that the Scottish Party was simply a 'junior branch' of the London-based organisation and that it was controlled too much by London. The contest for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party could hardly have taken place in more difficult circumstances, and circumstances that would be far from Labour’s celebrations on the victory of the NO campaign on the morning of Friday, September 19.
 
The two main leadership contenders represented different wings in the Labour Party; one from a largely Blairite perspective and the other representing a more left-wing tradition within Labour. Both have argued that Scottish Labour has been too complacent and needs to be rebuilt. For the former and eventual successor, Jim Murphy, however, the devolution proposals of the Smith Commission represent the fulfilment of the vow made in the days before the Referendum. 

The Independence Referendum Result: Consequences for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

 
For the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the 2014 Referendum Result was of course exactly what they had campaigned for – albeit that they both played a rather marginal role in an alliance in Better Together with the Labour Party taking the lead. Of course this reflected the relative standing of each of the parties in Scotland with the Conservatives increasingly confined to the margins of Scottish politics, and the Liberal Democrats performing poorly too in recent times.
 
Many in the NO campaign believed that had the Tories played a more prominent role, then a YES vote may have ensued (and David Cameron was to keep his visits to Scotland to a minimum, with Alex Salmond only half-jokingly claiming that he was the best advert for the pro-independence campaign!). 
 
This would seem to have been confirmed by the various opinion polls that have emerged since the September 18 Referendum showing that both the Conservatives and LibDems have had no ‘bounce’ on the back of the NO vote. For the Tories in particular, with only one Westminster seat, there is little to lose politically in Scotland anyway. However, the promise of additional powers for Scotland and the subsequent linking of this to the question of devolution for England, and the prospects of English votes for English laws, the more strategic and politically important picture is now arguably at the UK level.
 
For the 2015 General Election in Scotland, both Tories and Liberal Democrats are likely to come a rather poor third and fourth behind the SNP and Labour Party, as confirmed by all the opinion polls that have been published since the September 2014 Referendum.
 
This article is part of a series of articles on the 2014 Scottish Referendum.

 

 

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