The rise of the SNP has not happened overnight. It has been pointed out above that the nationalists were slowly gaining support within the first decade or so of devolution.
Yet few could have predicted the outcome of the 2015 General Election in Scotland.
Successive opinion polls in the period since the September 2014 Independence Referendum pointed to victory for the SNP. On the back of a rising membership, a new leader in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and amidst Labour Party turmoil in Scotland, the way seemed clear for the SNP to emerge as the party with the largest number of seats in Scotland. Denying that the election was a re-run of the 2014 Independence Referendum, nonetheless it was impossible to escape from the shadow of the Referendum. The Referendum campaigns and outcomes had politicised Scotland in ways that had not been seen for many generations and it was evident that many of those voting YES were prepared to switch their party allegiances to the SNP. Once more the Independence Referendum provided plenty of warning signs for Labour. Many of the 45% voting for Independence were Labour voters and supporters – and with the exception of Dundee, all the other areas that voted YES had been thought of as Labour heartlands – the kind of places where in the terms long deployed by political commentators – votes were weighed, not counted. Glasgow voted YES to Independence, the city long a Labour stronghold but what was also clear that the YES vote was highest in the large housing estates where Labour had traditionally achieved its highest votes.
Against these warning signs, Labour appeared impotent or at best ignored that the writing was on the political wall. The party had been attacked from the left, from the SNP and from many of its own voters, for siding with the Tories in the defence of the Union in 2014. The sight of Labour MPs and MSPs sharing platforms with the Tories did not go down well in its heartland areas. That Labour, the Tories and the Liberals all entered the 2015 General Election campaign with a commitment to some degree of ‘austerity’ meant that voters who were opposed to austerity, cuts in public services and welfare reforms, attacks on welfare benefits and who were against the rising inequality that characterises both Scotland and the UK, looked to the SNP as the main party who were campaigning on an anti-austerity message.
As is now well known, the Conservatives emerged victorious from the 2015 General Election campaign. It now forms a majority Government in Westminster, promising more years of cuts in public expenditure and even more austerity. The Tories were elected with 36.8% of the UK vote, eclipsing Labour who fell short with 30.4%. However, in Scotland the picture was very different: the SNP won 56 of the 69 seats with 50% of the vote; Labour came a very poor second and in their worst result since 1931, was left with only one seat and 24.3% of the vote. The Tories also held their one seat, but their overall vote in Scotland declined to 14.9%. The Liberal Democrats appeared to pay the largest price for their time in Coalition with the Conservatives, emerging with 1 seat and only 7.5% of the vote.