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The 2011 Scottish elections

Updated Tuesday, 30th April 2013

Article eight of ten: Why did these mark a watershed in Scottish politics?

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If the 2007 election result produced a totally unexpected outcome in the shape of an Scottish National Party (SNP) government, albeit a minority government, the May 2011 elections were widely represented as marking a watershed in Scottish politics. The Scottish elections were to have dramatic outcomes for all the main political parties.

Scottish voters could not punish the Conservatives at the Holyrood elections in May 2011 as they were already a spent force relying on a dwindling 'core' of Conservative voters. However, the LibDems had been part of Holyrood governments (between 1999 and 2007) and had done well in Scotland at the Westminster polls. They were now held to be culpable for the Conservatives return to power, and could be punished for this. Support for the Scottish LibDems crumbled in May 2011, the party losing all its seats on the Scottish mainland.

Given how they fared in Scotland in the 2010 UK elections, Labour should have done well in Scotland in 2011. But while voters had recently sent 41 Labour MPs to Westminster, these returns were only partly based on historic allegiance to the party. One clear outcome of the 2011 Holyrood elections was that the Scottish electorate had learned to vote tactically. They did not simply turn away from the LibDems but actively switched from Labour to the SNP to make a political statement. The election was not about party loyalties nor even policy differences, especially as Labour and the SNP shared the same centre-left territory, but about how the Scottish public could best protect themselves from the ravages of an unpopular Conservative-led coalition government south of the border. Voting Labour at the 2010 UK general election had failed to keep the Conservatives out of power, and voting Labour again might actually endorse Westminster and the status quo.

This situation left the SNP as clear electoral beneficiaries and they subsequently romped home, gaining 69 seats and producing the Scottish Parliament's first ever single-party majority government. For the designers of the Scottish Parliament this was a complete reversal of fortunes – the Scottish Government now had a strong mandate to pursue an independence agenda while Westminster had a tentative coalition based on manifesto compromises. Whereas the LibDems were forced to abandon their promise to remove tuition fees for higher education in England and Wales, the SNP would be able to deliver on this promise in Scotland. Interestingly, as Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond stated, the victory was not simply one of 'a nation' but of 'a society'. What was at stake was not so much a narrow cultural identity (Scottish nationalism) but a broader concept about the way people wanted their society to be structured.

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Watch a video of Alex Salmond's victory speech after the 2011 Scottish elections.

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