Abstract. The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 produced two surprising results: it represents a reversal of SNP/ Labour party fortunes so complete that we now take it for granted, but the SNP did not achieve a widely-expected majority; and, the huge surge of support for the Scottish Conservatives was enough to make it (easily) the second largest party. A mistaken sense of inevitability of the result – another SNP majority – helped produce a dull campaign and keep alive the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. This article has four main sections: putting the 2016 election in recent historical context; considering the implications of consistently high SNP support on the constitution; highlighting key issues in the election campaign; and, examining the SNP’s policy agenda from 2016.
The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 was momentous, but not entirely for the reasons we expected. The main outcome is the SNP’s third victory in a row since 2007, which is likely to keep it in office until at least 2021. The results eclipse the former record by Scottish Labour, which governed Scotland in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats from 1999-2007. The SNP also improved its constituency votes and seats, but lost enough ground in the regional list to deprive it of a second outright majority in a row. Consequently, given such high expectations for the SNP – on the back of its ‘landslide’ victory in 2011 and thumping win in the UK General Election in 2015 – its third Holyrood election victory in a row can be interpreted as a further indicator of its success but also a sign that its dominance should not be taken for granted. Its circa-45% share of the vote was enough to produce a majority in 2011 but not 2016.
Further, while the now-predictable decline of Scottish Labour seems almost complete, this time the main beneficiary was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party which became the main opposition in Holyrood for the first time. The Liberal Democrats have also seen their fall from grace confirmed by a second poor showing which relegates them to the fifth and smallest party in Holyrood.
The historical significance of these trends is difficult to overstate. In the first Holyrood election in 1999 it seemed inevitable that Scottish Labour would be the largest party, with the SNP likely to represent an opposition party well off the pace. The early years were premised on the idea that, with devolution secure, the biggest party could focus on the political reforms associated with ‘new politics’, combining key measures associated with symbolic politics (including the greater representation of women and participation in politics beyond the ‘usual suspects’) and substantive policy change.
This expectation continued in 2003 but ended in 2007 when the SNP became the largest party by one seat. In 2011, its ‘landslide’ victory to secure a majority of seats – and trigger a process which led to a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 – seemed extraordinary (particularly since Holyrood uses a mixed-member-proportional, not plurality, system).
Now, in 2016, the SNP has become so dominant of Scottish politics that its majority seemed inevitable. This sense of inevitability was bolstered by its showing in the UK General election 2015, when the party that always previously secured a small minority of seats – its highest ever number of seats was 11 (of 71, from 30% of the vote in October 1974) – won 56 of 59 (aided by a plurality system which exaggerated the effect of its 50% share of the vote). By 2016, on the back of several opinion polls, many expected its electoral dominance to be complete (although compare Philip, 2016 with Carrell and Brooks, 2016a).
Consequently, although the change over 17 years is phenomenal, this recent sense of inevitability helped produce a dull campaign. In all other Holyrood elections there was either the promise of novelty (from 1999) or high competition between the two main parties (from 2007), to produce a sense of the high stakes involved. So, we saw meaningful competition to accentuate important differences between parties on key policy issues or portray a party’s better vision and image of governing competence. This time, we knew that, for the most part, one manifesto counted far more than the rest.
It is also difficult to find evidence of success when the other parties have tried to interrogate the SNP’s record in government on issues such as health, education, and policing (Cairney, 2016b). This limitation helped produce, in early post-election commentary, a feeling (albeit with limited evidence) that the SNP didn’t need to rely as much on this image of governing competence, since so many of its new members and high number of voters seem to remain enthused more by the implications of SNP electoral success (more constitutional change) than its record in office. SNP spokespeople countered with the argument that the election represents a public vindication of its record.
So, we need to wait for detailed analysis on the role of valence politics and, in particular the parties’ images of governing competence, which was so central to SNP success in 2007 and 2011 (‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’ – Johns et al, 2013: 158).
Still, this legacy of the 2014 referendum can be found in the election debates in 2016. While the SNP has been looking for ways to keep alive, but postpone, a second referendum, the three main opposition parties continue to describe the SNP as a one issue party or extol the possibilities for policy change already afforded by further devolution in 2015. Of the few substantive issues to be discussed without a referendum frame, perhaps only educational attainment stands out because it is the issue on which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked to be judged (while ‘fracking’ remains the issue that many in the SNP leadership would like to ignore).
Overall, this election comes with a strong sense of unfinished business elsewhere. In the short term, it has been overshadowed either by UK party politics (in the run up to local and mayoral elections) or the ‘Brexit’ referendum (June 2016) on the UK’s future in or out of the European Union. In the longer term, the SNP’s continued dominance keeps the issue of Scottish independence high on the agenda.
This has been the introduction to an article that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here: Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16