The result of the 2014 Independence Referendum, a NO vote by 55% to 45%, can obscure that other major shifts were taking place in Scottish politics. That there was a Referendum in itself reflects these longer shifts – and in particular a demand, demand that was growing during the years preceding the Referendum vote, for ‘more’ devolution for Scotland. However,here are other longer term shifts that have been taking place. On hindsight these shifts have become more apparent, but the evidence for them has been growing since around 2007. The introduction of devolution for Scotland in 1999 saw the reconvened Scottish Parliament host two Labour Liberal Democrat coalition governments between 1999 and 2007. The introduction of proportional representation was designed to ensure that no one party gained an overall majority in the Parliament.
In May 2007 a minority Scottish Government was formed, with no one party having an overall majority. However, the significance of the May 2007 Scottish Elections was that the SNP emerged as the largest party, albeit by one seat. This was the first time that the SNP had ever occupied such office. The defeat for Labour in Scotland, albeit a marginal defeat, was a real indication of shifts taking place in the political landscape of Scotland. This was the first major election in Scotland in 50 years that Labour did not win.
The results of the 2010 UK General Election in Scotland appeared at face value to return to normality with Labour emerging with 42 of the 59 seats and 42% of the vote. The SNP won 19.9% but emerged with only 6 seats. The two parties that formed the UK Government, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, received 16.7% and 1 seat, and 18.9% and 11 seats respectively. In May 2011 however, the fourth Scottish Parliament elections in the devolution era marked a watershed in Scottish politics with the SNP emerging with 69 seats
and almost 54% of the vote; Labour won 37 seats 28.6% of the vote; The Tories emerged with 15 seats on 11.63% and the Liberal Democrats won 5 seats on 3.88% of the vote.
The 2011 Scottish elections represented Labour worst result in a Scottish election since 1931, worst that was until the 2015 UK General Election. What factors contributed to this outcome?
As has been stated already, the framework for Scottish devolution and the introduction of proportional representation was designed to ensure that no one party gained an overall victory and that smaller parties would be rewarded with seats. The May 2011 results blew that framework apart. It was the Labour Party that introduced the devolution legislation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At one level for Scotland and Wales, this was reward for generations of Labour voting in those two countries. But in 1995, as Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, George Robertson MP, in a quote that has been oft repeated since, claimed that ‘devolution would kill nationalism stone dead’.
If this was a key motivation behind the devolution legislation for Scotland, then the results of the 2011 General Election in Scotland and the 2015 Scottish election have shown it to be a palpable failure. Taken together these two elections point to the growing popularity of the SNP. While it emerged with a disappointing 6 seats in 2010, it was the second party with almost 20% of the vote. The signs were already evident of a growing level of support for the SNP.
One of the key drivers of the SNPs success in 2011 – and also in 2015 – echoed the 1980s and early 1990s when claims of a democratic deficit for Scotland was loudly and repeatedly voiced. In the between 1979 and 1997, the Conservatives won 4 General Elections in a row, but the party faired badly in Scotland with a declining share of the vote over the period. Labour was without doubt the largest, and by some considerable distance, the most popular political party in Scotland during this period.
That ‘Scotland’ voted in a different way to the rest of the UK and yet ended up with successive Conservative Governments was one of the drivers for devolution itself. In 2011 the SNP were likewise able to capitalise on the fact that the then UK Coalition Government partners had come third and fourth in Scotland in 2010. This issue has now re-emerged in the context of the outcomes of the 2015 General Election.